Holly Near in 2006
|Born||June 6, 1949|
Ukiah, California, U.S.
|Genres||Social change music, folk, cabaret|
|Occupation(s)||Musician, songwriter, actress, producer, motivational instructor|
|Years active||1963 – present|
|Labels||Calico Tracks Music, Redwood Records, Appleseed Recordings|
|Associated acts||Inti Illimani, Ronnie Gilbert, Klezmatics, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, Pete Seeger, Cris Williamson, Carrie Newcomer, Emma's Revolution|
Holly Near was born in Ukiah, California, in 1949 and was raised on a ranch in Potter Valley, California. She was eight years old when she first performed publicly, and she auditioned for Columbia Records when she was ten. She sang in all the high school musicals, talent shows and often was invited by local service groups to sing at their gatherings. Groups like the Soroptimist Club, Lions Club, and Garden Club. Her senior year she played Eliza Doolittle in Ukiah High School production of My Fair Lady. In the summer Holly attended performing arts camps such as Perry-Mansfield in Colorado and Ramblerny Performing Arts where she studied with jazz musicians Phil and Chan Woods and modern dancer/choreographer Joyce Trisler.
After starting high school in 1963, Holly Near began singing with three boys who called themselves the Freedom Singers, a folk group modeled after the Kingston Trio. When Holly joined, they began to sound more like The Weavers, three male voices and one female. Near learned later of the original Freedom Singers who sang as part of the Civil Rights Movement. Unbeknownst to her, Holly would soon meet one of the founding members of that group, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, an artist who would be a great influence for the next 40 + years. She would also meet and work with the female singer in The Weavers, Ronnie Gilbert.
After high school, Near enrolled in the Theatre Arts program at UCLA; her freshman year she got the lead in the UCLA production of Guys and Dolls playing soprano Sarah Brown. Because Near was trained in a lower range she got nodules on her vocal chords and had to leave the show. She entered in to a long period of silence until her voice healed. After one year, she left UCLA and began to work in film and television as well as with anti war groups such as Another Mother for Peace.
Holly Near's professional career began in 1969 with a part on the television show The Mod Squad, which was followed by appearances in other shows, such as Room 222, All in the Family, and The Partridge Family. She also appeared in films such as Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, and Minnie and Moskowitz, and had a prominent role in the 1991 film Dogfight.
She was briefly a member of the musical comedy troupe, "First National Nothing", and appeared on the troupe's only album, If You Sit Real Still and Hold My Hand, You Will Hear Absolutely Nothing (Columbia Records – LP C 30006).
In 1970, Near was a cast member of the Broadway musical Hair. Following the Kent State shootings in May of that year, the entire cast staged a silent vigil in protest. The song, "It Could Have Been Me" (which was released on A Live Album, 1974), was her heartfelt response to the shootings. In 1971, she joined the FTA (Free The Army) Tour, an anti-Vietnam War road show of music, comedy, and plays that performed for soldiers, many of whom were resisting war and racism from within the military. The tour was organized by antiwar activist Fred Gardner and actors Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. Near was only 21 and the youngest member of the troupe.
In 1972, Near founded an independent record label called Redwood Records to produce and promote music by "politically conscious artists from around the world". She was one of the first women to found an independent record company. Near's record company went out of business in the mid-1990s due to financial difficulties.
During her long career in folk and protest music, Holly Near has worked with a wide array of musicians, including Ronnie Gilbert, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Mercedes Sosa, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Meg (Shambhavi) Christian, Cris Williamson, Linda Tillery, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Harry Belafonte, and many others, as well as the Chilean exile group Inti-Illimani. Holly Near has been recognized many times for her work for social change, including honors from the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, the National Organization for Women, NARAS, Ms. Magazine (Woman of the Year), and the Legends of Women's Music Award. In 1989 Holly Near received a Dr of Humane Letters at World College West in California.
Near wrote an autobiography in the early nineties called Fire in the Rain, Singer in the Storm. Later, with her sister Timothy, Near co-wrote a one-woman show based on the stories in the book. The show was presented at The San Jose Rep and in Los Angeles at The Mark Taper Forum, as well as productions in San Francisco and off Broadway in NYC. In April 2004, Holly performed at the March for Women's Lives in Washington, DC where she sang "We Are Gentle Angry People" and "Fired Up" a capella. The following year, Near was named among the "1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize". Near continues an active tour schedule and as of 2012 had a discography of 29 albums. She is still active as a performer and composer, and she has begun issuing CDs available through her website that include tracks from her out-of-print albums. Her song "Singing For Our Lives" appears in Singing the Living Tradition, the official hymnal of the Unitarian Universalist Association, under the title "We Are A Gentle, Angry People" (Hymn #170). The hymn was also performed by Quaker Friends in an episode of the TV series Six Feet Under. In 2015, the same song, credited as "Singing For Our Lives" appeared in the Australian independent film The Lives We Lead, alongside its theme song "I Am Willing", another rousing Near-penned protest song.
Holly Near was named as an Honoree for National Women's History Month for 2015. She continues to perform concerts as well as music festivals and rallies. Near hosted many of the tributes to both Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert, two members of the seminal folk group The Weavers.
Holly has been an honored guest at several of the GALA Gatherings, a conference of GLBTQ choirs and choruses. In her work with the choruses she focuses on diction, drama, and understanding the intention of the lyric. She also appears as a soloist with several of the choruses and many of her songs have been arranged for choral singing.
In 2018, Near released a new recording titled 2018, reflecting on issues including the environment, aging, domestic violence and the unresolved storm damage in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria. In October 2018, a documentary film titled Holly Near: Singing For Our Lives made by award-winning director Jim Brown premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival, detailing Near's life and work.
As a result of her travels in the Pacific with the FTA show, Near became a feminist, linking international feminism and anti-war activism. In 1976, Near came out as a lesbian and began a three-year relationship with musician Meg Christian. Near was probably the first out lesbian to be interviewed in People Magazine. She added LGBT issues to her international peace work as she continued to present social change music around the world and at home. Although Holly was one of the most visible artists in the lesbian community, she was also becoming aware that "monogamous" defined her sexuality more than any other title.
Near has been in a relationship with a man since 1994. However, she does not identify as bisexual. When asked why in a 2010 interview by JD Doyle for Queer Music Heritage, she replied,
I don't know why. Just isn't a handle I relate to. I include human and civil rights in all that I do. I am monogamous. I relate to that term. I am a feminist. If I am with a woman I am a feminist. If I am alone I am a feminist. If I am with a man I am a feminist. And until the one I am with and I part ways, then I am just what I am in that relationship and I don't much think about what I will do next. I focus more on what I bring to that relationship. It is a full-time job being honest one moment at a time, remembering to love, to honor, to respect. It is a practice, a discipline, worthy of every moment. I think my feminism and my ability to love has been highly informed by having had lesbian relationships. The quality of my life has, without question, been elevated.
For a brief moment in time I struggled with sexual identity, somewhere in the mid-'80s. Then I realized it was the wrong question for me. That is not to say it is the wrong question for others. It just wasn't important to me. So I haven't really thought much about it since. I am going to sing lesbian love songs and support gay rights no matter what. The rest is public relations.
That said, Near is dedicated to the rights of LGBTQ+ communities and continues to work to create a cultural forum for diversity. Near writes, "For many, sexual identity and/or gender identity is the primary door through which they walk. It is what politicized them. It is what feeds their emotional and spiritual perspectives. I totally honor this. Even though sexual preference is maybe 5th or 10th on my personal list of priorities now, I will always work for all of us to have self determination over our bodies, our identities, our relationship choices."
In 2014, Near was diagnosed with breast cancer. With early detection, she had successful surgery and radiation but did not need to do chemotherapy.
Near spent one year traveling across the US camping out of her car and staying with friends. She then went to Argentina and Chile to study and write. She currently rents a one bedroom apartment in Sonoma County, Ca. and she spends a lot of time in NYC. She drives a 2003 VW. Near is "auntie" and "grandma" to several young people even though she never had children.