Gay Traditions: Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer Bring Music and Family Together
On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that same-sex marriage was protected by the US Constitution. It’s a landmark ruling and a very clear indication that public opinion (and judicial opinion) has shifted far away from the conservative battle to keep gay couples from the marriage table. That doesn’t mean the struggle is over, of course, and it doesn’t mean we should forget the huge amount of work and pain that went into getting us to this point. I think at this point the Gay Traditions series is less about a kind of activism, and more about understanding how gay artists have been directly contributing to the evolution of these traditions for centuries without credit. And for understanding how tradition can be a powerful force in forming someone’s identity.
Folk song legends Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer recently released their new family album, Dancin’ in the Kitchen, and it’s been spinning in my family for a while and greatly entertaining my kids (their favorites are “Twins” and “I’m My Own Grandpa”). Neither of my kids, two girls ages 6 and 9, batted an eye at any part of this album, even when the opening song talked about dancing in the kitchen with mama and mommy or dancing with daddy and papa. Both of my kids believe that everyone has a right to be with whomever they wish to be with, a simple idea that only seems so simple today. Back in the 1990s, when gay civil rights was an even fiercer battle, it wasn’t so easy to talk to your kids about gay rights. In fact, when Cathy and Marcy tried to record their key song “Everything is Possible” with a children’s choir in the 90s, two parents threatened to walk off the project unless the song was struck from the record. I wanted to know more about how different it was to produce a family album as a gay couple in the 90s versus doing so in 2015, so I called up Cathy Fink at her and Marcy’s home to talk more about the new album.
Hearth Music Interview with Cathy Fink
Tell me about your new album, Dancing in the Kitchen. Can you tell me a little bit about how it came about?
Cathy Fink: Sure. That album has been on our to-do list for a long time. We do both folk and country and old-time music as well as have a parallel career playing music for kids and families. Early on, when we started playing music for kids and families, together we were very focused on playing traditional, old-time and folk music, introducing kids to stuff that they’re not going to hear on the radio. Every thing we do is very participatory. Then, we moved into creating themed projects. Those themes would vary from things for preschoolers on self-esteem and safety to we did one on respecting diversity in 1992. We did one called, Scat Like That, which is a musical word odyssey connecting music and literacy. Our first Grammy win was called Bon Appetit! Musical Food Fun,and it was about health and nutrition.
It’s been on our minds, for a very long time, to create an album for families that celebrated diverse families. Knowing that the only major thing that has happened around that in the music world for a long time, has been Marlo Thomas’ Free to Be a Family. We went back and listened to that and we still love it but it’s a little dated. We also read through the book that accompanied it. The book is beautiful. One of my favorite parts about the book is her introduction, where she talks about a family being a feeling of belonging. Every 6 months, we would pull out our idea folder on this project, and we’d do that for 4 or 5 years. The ideas got longer and bigger. Then, I went back to that book and afterwards, wrote what became the first song written for our project called, “I Belong to a Family,” which just won won finalist in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. The song, “Twins,” won the gold in the Mid-Atlantic Song Contest. [That song] became the heart center of the project. We’re at a time now where we feel like it should be easier for everybody to feel comfortable in their families, and feel comfortable with who they are. Truth be told, when you said the word “family” 20 years ago, people still had the Cleaver family in their heads, even though that’s not what families looked like. When you say the word “family” in 2015, you see every configuration that you could possibly come up with. We felt like it was overdue time to sing about it, to celebrate it, to create opportunities for conversation.
So, the song, “Dancing in the Kitchen,” really came from the fact that in our household it doesn’t matter what’s going on where, the kitchen’s where everybody lands. The kitchen’s where everybody sings and dances and cooks. If you think of community, that’s where they gather. People gather around food; they gather around cooking, that’s where the conversation happens. That’s where the song, “Dancing in the Kitchen,” popped out. From the very beginning, our goal was not only to create songs about diverse families; we’ve always enjoyed very, very diverse musical backgrounds and often have partnered with people whose music we love and that we can play with. It made perfect sense to get one of the best Cajun bands in the world, The Savoy Family Cajun Band, to play on that song with us and they turned it into the danceable music party it’s meant to be. That felt like a great way to open the album.
Marcy and I make a lot of lists about things that we want to talk about in these songs, we don’t feel obligated to only sing our own songs. We write a lot of songs and we incorporate them. Sometimes, there are other gems hanging out there that we feel deserve another listen or maybe even another listen to a new generation. John McCutcheon recorded “Happy Adoption Day” probably 15 years ago. It’s a new audience out there and this is a great opportunity plus we feel that we have a very unique take on how we produce kids’ albums in that we do like to involve kids’ choruses to make kids at home want to sing along and feel like they hear themselves in the project. That made “Happy Adoption Day” really come alive for us in a beautiful way. We talked about serious stuff and we talked about not so serious stuff. The song, “I’m my own Grandpa,” that we did with Riders in the Sky, that’s been a country comedy hit for years and years. It’s been done by lots of people but, the fun thing about that song, besides the fact that it’s totally crazy, is, you have an activity that can happen where kids or parents or kids and parents can sit down and try and make the crazy family tree that comes from this, actually possible, song. That makes them think about their own family tree or their own family circle or whatever you want to call it. Where did they come from and how are they connected to all the people that they know? That’s pretty fun.
I wonder if you can talk about your song, “Everything Possible.” I think there’s a key story there in the sense that it took a certain amount of time for that song to become accepted.
CF: That’s really remarkable to me. That was a very important song on this project for us. In 1992, we recorded it on the album called, Nobody else like Me, talking about diverse kids. At that time, if there was a song about diversity, it was always about racial diversity. We felt like, “Let’s address a kid’s first pair of glasses which makes them feel different. Let’s address not just issues of race, but different languages, different counties, all different kinds of things.” The song, “Everything Possible, is a gorgeous song of a parent’s unconditional love for their child. It never occurred to us in 1992, that there would be some parents that would take exception to a song where the centerpiece of the lyrics are: “You can be anybody that you want to be, you can love whomever you will, you can travel any country where your heart leads and know I will love you still.” It goes on and on, proclaiming unconditional love. Then, it gets to the line, “Some women love women, some men love men, some have children, some never do…” and it goes on…. “You can dream of the day, never reaching the end, of everything possible for you.” There’s nothing more beautiful for a child to feel from a parent than this unconditional love. Fred Small did such a beautiful job of writing that song.
Our original dream, in 1992, was to have some kids sing on it with us, beautiful voices, harmonies, the whole thing. It turned out to be a huge controversy. We took it to a couple of choral directors. They said, “Our parents think this ought to be an anthem in every elementary school in the country but they’re not brave enough to let their kids sing it.” This went on through a couple of opportunities and then, a woman by the name of Betty Scott, who was conducting the kids’ chorus on a lot of the other songs, said, “I really want to do this with my kids.” The only reason we hadn’t chosen them first was that they already had so many songs and this one was going to have a complex arrangement and we didn’t want to put more stress on the same group of kids. This song was equal to 3 or 4 in terms of what we had in mind and they had a full plate. But, we were out of options, so we went back to Betty and we said, “How about it?” and she said, “Great!” I said, “I think you need to send a separate note home to the parents, just so everybody’s on the same page.” She did that and when she got home, she had messages from 2 parents who said, “Not only can my child not sing on this song, but if the song is on the album, they can’t sing on the album.” We were accused of trying to pull something over on them. I said, “I don’t think so, since we insisted that Betty send the lyrics home with you.” The good thing is that a lot of discussion happened, a lot of interesting discussion happened, a lot of learning happened. At the end of the day, Betty said to us, “What do you want to do?” and we decided that we would not use her kids’ chorus on this song but we weren’t going to tell the parents whether or not the song was going to be on the album. There were a couple of sets of parents who said, “If the song is actually on the album at all, my child can’t sing on this album.”
I sent a 2 page letter to the parents and I said, “We were just accused of trying to pull something over on you when we did just the opposite. 1. We insisted on sending the lyrics to you. 2. You had the option of opting out. It’s completely your job to communicate with your kids about these kinds of issues. But, we’re not going to be censored by you. We’re not going to use this chorus on this song but, we’re also not going to tell you if this song is going to be on the album. We leave it to you to discuss with your kids to make decisions for your kids about whether or not they can participate. We’ll see you later.” [laughing] That was sort of what happened. Of course, the majority of the parents were very disappointed because they loved what the song had to say. We got some parents saying, “These are the best lyrics and I’ve put them up in my office. What a drag that some parents nixed this opportunity for my kids.” It was in 1992. People were terrified of AIDs. People still thought of AIDs as a gay disease. It was, if nothing else, a great education, learning opportunity for everybody. It was a good opportunity for people to be reminded that we don’t do censorship here. In the end, we put the song on the album and got great reviews for it.
This time [in 2015], we’ve got an album that opens with a song singing “Dancing in the kitchen with Mama and Mommy, dancing in the kitchen with Daddy and Papa. We’ve got a song about adoption, we’ve got a song about a kid from a recently separated parental unit, we’ve got songs about all different kinds of things, a great story by our friend, Andy Offutt Irwin on a multi-racial family. The lyrics all got sent home to parents of 35 kids who wanted to audition to sing on the project. The amazing thing is that everybody showed up because of the songs. I think what that shows is that within 22 years, we’ve seen some progress. Is it as much progress as we want to see? NO. But, is it good? Absolutely. We had 35 enthusiastic families, 35 out of 35 that wanted these songs to include their kids. I call that a happy ending. Is it over? Never. Every group that is struggling for equality and civil rights will continue that as long as humanity goes on. When we can see and measure progress, that’s a great thing.
That’s wonderful. I have a question about the original issue in 1992. The parents knew that you both were gay, isn’t that right?
CF: Probably not. They really didn’t know us at all. I think they just, for religious and personal reasons, didn’t want to support that lyric.
Do you think it was dicier at that time to bring that into families? You may have a gay relative or know someone who’s gay, but when you start bringing this topic over to families, well….
CF: I think these are people who either, in 1992, would have not spoken to that relative or acted like it didn’t happen.
It’s interesting that there’s been so much change between then and now. What were the key artistic moments that helped to make this cultural change?
CF: I think it’s a combination of all of these incredible organizations, from the Human Rights Campaign to organizations with similar things. I think it has to do with the brave people who are willing to take lawsuits all the way to the Supreme Court over these kinds of things. I think there’s an incredible cultural aspect. Holly Near sang through the entire 1980s about gay rights and continues to do so. She’s not the only artist; she’s just a great example. I think, throughout history, we see that time changes things. Certainly the movement in favor of gay marriage which has been building over so many years but finally hit critical mass in the last couple of years, that’s made it better. From my point of view, we have everyone to thank who has stood up for what’s right here. We have every organization to thank who has embraced the beauty in diversity. As long as we’re peaceful, let it be. Let everybody live their lives the way they want to and have a good life. We’re not all made the same and we know that.
It is interesting because we’ve made so many strides in gay rights in the past decade. On the other hand, we’ve made huge steps backward for women’s rights and for racial relations in the United States. Do you feel like we’re in a conservative era, despite all the changes in the perception of gay couples in America?
CF: I don’t know. If you talk to a Republican you can say, “Yes,” or if you talk to a Democrat or somebody who’s unaligned, you can say, “No.” But, what I do think we see a little differently now, is that everyone you meet knows someone who is gay, knows someone who is trans-gender, or knows someone who is different than them, and that we have more acceptance now than we had before. Is it enough? Heck, no! The civil rights movement has made huge strides. Are they enough? Of course not. I feel that the GLBT rights movement have paralleled and benefited from the civil rights movement and from the places where they merge and converge and can help each other. I think in 1992, a lot of people had gay folks in their families and didn’t even know it. I think, culturally, I want to give some credit to here is the AIDs memorial quilt, the names quilt. That was a huge artistic, cultural, and political and social media endeavor, in its own way. The names quilt was a piece of social media before we had Twitter and Facebook. It organically spread in a beautiful way. When you went to look at the quilt–and I wrote 5 songs for the quilt–when you went to look at the quilt, you couldn’t help but see that there were babies, there were children, there were women, there were men. The quilt was so beautifully personalized, each section of the quilt had things sewn on it that were special to that person and to their life and their loved ones. It’s a very personal issue. In 1992, when we did “Everything Possible,” one of the parents of a 6th grade boy on the project, one couple, said that they argued quite a bit about the song. The father was in the military, the wife was in the studio with us, and she was talking with us about how much she and her husband argued about it, about whether or not their kid could sing on the song. They ultimately agreed to let him make the decision, which I thought was just great. She told us that her final argument with her husband about this was, “We have a boy in college. Are you trying to tell me that, if he comes home from college and tells us he’s gay, that you’re not going to love him anymore?” And the father said, “Of course, I’m not saying that.” She said, “That’s all this song says.”
It’s a teeny piece of making that progress, having a song like this bring that discussion into families. The good news is that most families will play that song without any of that history and #2, love its message. The fact that we have this special relationship with the song, they won’t necessarily know, unless they read your article or something that I’ve written. That’s okay because it’s part of the vibe that went into making this project. For me, I almost cried at the performance where we sang this at the school with the chorus that sang with us, in front of their parents and families. It gave me chills and everybody else just liked it like another song, but our relationship to this song is a very, very deep one. The good news is that, for this generation of kids, the message in this song is a no-brainer. What we know is that there’s a generation coming up who’s going to raise their own kids in this way.
That’s powerful to be part of.
CF: It is, and I think it’s one of the things that I appreciate about what we do. Because, as kids’ musicians and family musicians, first and foremost, we are able to be entertainers. But, we also try to stretch that into being able to entertain and feed at the same time. Lots of people can entertain. Do you want to make a bunch of kids laugh? Say the word “underpants.” [Devon starts laughing] There you go. But can you make them laugh at the same time as they learn something incredibly cool?
I’m curious, because, in my experience, reaching across different cultures, family is an immediate way to connect with someone. Just talk about your kids! In any culture, there’s a universal connection to families. Do you feel that this might be applicable to moving gay couples and gay families forward into a mainstream view? That this is really a place that people can understand, really break down these divisions?
CF: I would like to think that we’re a small part of what’s going to help that happen. Clearly, one of the things that helps that happen the most is when celebrities in gay families come forward because, for other reasons, they’re famous. People follow them and respect them and love their work. Then, “What do you know, look at that, they’re gay and they have kids and they’re normal. How cool is that?” Unfortunately, our society is a little too influenced by what somebody very famous does. But, luckily, there’s a lot of famous people with tremendous social responsibility. Some of it isn’t social responsibility, some of it is just the self-confidence to be who they are the way they want to be. But, even in Hollywood, it’s only the last 10 years that a lot of people have felt comfortable being out in public with their gay families. There is no sector of entertainment or business where this was easy for people 20 years ago. Our goal with this music is number one to maintain the high quality of music that we’ve been delivering to families for over 30 years. While we’re doing that, to make it fun for them to embrace themselves, whoever they are.
I’m curious. You’ve done a lot of work in traditional music. You’ve worked with artists that are well-known in the traditional field… Has being gay ever been an issue? Sometimes, you’re going into pretty conservative areas: Ola Belle Reed or Lily Mae Ledford are from pretty far in the South. Have you ever felt attention over it or is it just something you don’t bring up?
CF: First of all, we haven’t lived our lives waving the flag that says we’re gay. We just are who we are. But Ola Belle Reed is a great example. For your readers who don’t know who Ola Belle Reed was: she was a fabulous traditional musician from Lansing, North Carolina who migrated north, as people were looking for better jobs, more work, etc., and landed in Rising Sun, Maryland, with her family. She ran 2 different country music parks that hosted the cream of the crop of country music in the 60s, the 70s, the 80s. She also, very early in life, decided that she not only loved the traditional music that her family passed down, but she had her own things to say and she started writing songs, long before the words “singer/songwriter” came around. We became good friends with Ola Belle and her family. Humorously enough, I helped them 10 years ago in Lansing, start The Ola Belle Reed Homecoming Festival, to honor her music and her hometown. We just recently built a house in Lansing because we’ve made so many trips down there and fell in love with the people in the community, etc. It’s a community that’s pretty accepting of the gay neighbors of which, there’s a large handful.
Ola Belle was one of the strongest supporters of all civil rights. I have to give you this great example. About 20 years ago, there used to be a women’s music festival in Maryland called, “Sister Fire.” It was run by Roadwork which is the organization that managed and booked Sweet Honey in the Rock at the time. They wanted to get Ola Belle Reed. They called me and they said, “Will you call Ola Belle for us?” I said, “Sure.” I called Ola Belle, and I said, “Ola Belle, there’s this nice festival near us focused on women’s music and they’d really like to have you come be a featured performer.” She was very excited and I said, “Now, just so you understand, a large portion of the audience is going to be gay.” She said, “Well, they’re people aren’t they?” [laughing]
She’s been writing songs about loving who you are and loving who you’re with without having a gay overtone but including everyone. So, to her, it was like, “Yeah, why wouldn’t I do that?” She felt great there and people just loved her. Why did they love her? First of all, she was a very powerful woman. When I say power, power from the heart, not political power. Strong-willed, beautiful, and when she felt strongly about something, she wasn’t just going to sing about it, she was going to go ahead and start talking about it. The crowd loved her! An older, hillbilly woman preaching to the choir, but she was the person they weren’t expecting. Preaching to the choir, if you know what I mean. Her husband, Bud, was there. He was a bit of a fish out of water. He was happy to be there but he looked at Marcy and he said, “I want to get something to eat. Could you go with me?” It was just because he hadn’t been in a crowd of 3,000 women. He didn’t care if they were gay or not. Ola Belle totally loved us. They were dear people. She’s got a gorgeous song called, “Tear Down the Fences.” “If we could just tear down the fences that fence us all in, Fences created by such evil men…” It’s really a song about peace but, when you think about it, “tear down these fences,” that applies to everything and everyone and that was the beauty of her songwriting. Ols Belle did not see race. She did not see gender identity. She saw people.
That’s powerful, wow! I don’t want to take up too much more of your time, but maybe you could talk about your personal life a little bit.
CF: Marcy and I, we don’t have any kids of our own. We have some very dear godchildren that we have helped raise and who we are crazy about. About 20 years ago, we discussed whether or not we wanted to adopt. We thought a lot about it but, at the time, one of our godchildren who is still alive, a young man named Maddy… Actually, he now is 27 but he has Down’s Syndrome and a lot of health issues that come along with Down’s Syndrome. A lot of those kids have heart issues and other things. We were very dear to him and vice versa, as well as 2 girls whose mom had passed away of cancer when they were very, very young. From time to time, there are other kids who pop into the sphere. We really were very dedicated to these kids and we felt like, if we had our own child, we wouldn’t have the kind of time for the god kids that we wanted to have and it would also clearly change our lives because, at the time, we were travelling almost non-stop and we still do a lot of travelling. So, at that point, you’re either dealing with a nanny, babysitters, an au pair or home school and help on the road. We felt like that wasn’t how we wanted to raise a kid. We didn’t really want to go from being a 2 person family to being a 4 person family. We just decided to not adopt our own kid and, instead continue to stay very, very close and involved with those 3 god kids and a few others. It had given us the time to also participate in some things that we think are important organizations that we think help out kids a lot. For about 7 years, I helped run, as a volunteer, a child assault prevention program. That was a hard, but well-thought out decision on our part.
I wonder if I can go back for a minute… You talked that you haven’t really brought your sexual identity into your music and it’s true. I hadn’t realized that you guys were together myself. I just hadn’t thought about that. Did you do that on purpose? Was that your idea? What caused you to be more vocal now?
CF: That’s a complex question… I think, in the beginning… We’ve been together over 30 years at this point. I think, in the beginning, we felt like keeping our private lives private. Most people do that. Most folk singers on the road, most old-time musicians on the road, if you’re not super famous, and you’re what our friend, Utah Phillips, would have called a “trade player,” you like to have some privacy. I still love to have lots of privacy. People who spend a whole lot of time around us, if they can’t figure out we’re a couple, they don’t deserve to know. [both laughing] That’s sort of a joke. On the other hand, I also felt that, until this album, our music isn’t about being different or about being gay or about being whatever. Our music is our music. I felt like, when we put an album out like Bon Appetit! Musical Food Fun, the fact that we’re a couple is the most irrelevant thing in the world. When we put out a tribute to Ella Jenkins, again, our work partnership is powerful but it’s not about our relationship. What I would say is that this is the first album that we have done that includes a lot of material that is not only specific to our relationship but lots of relationships. That would be the reason why that’s part of the story now in terms of this project. It’s not about hiding; it’s more about privacy. When we did our album, Scat Like That, a Musical Word Odyssey, that has nothing to do with our personal relationship. But, we have also been a couple that lots of people have looked to for many years to help them in their family relationships. This is the album that does that. Obviously, we’re quite comfortable with our relationship, you don’t hang in there for 30 some years. It’s intense; this is our 44th album.
Wow! That’s amazing.
CF: When we did our 3, all-original lullaby albums, they were about our godchildren. They were about these incredible, fabulous kids and parents that we’ve met along the way but, again, they’re not about our relationship. Now we are involved in an album where our relationship is one of the many relationships that’s part of this album. To me, it’s more of a matter of relevance than anything else. Otherwise, the music is the music. In fact, for many years, the women’s music scene didn’t embrace us at all, even when we did amazing projects on the history of women in country music which you would think, the women’s music scene would find of interest. But, because we weren’t standing on stage, singing the L word, we just did not fit into their vision of feminists or lesbians or musicians who were singing what they wanted to hear.
Interesting. So, the traditional roots music that you were doing didn’t fit into what they were looking for and you weren’t being very vocal about identity in that sense.
CF: Because, again, that roots music, the history of women in country music, singing songs by Ola Belle Reed and Patsy Montana, the first woman in country music. We produced Pasty’s last album; we toured with her for 10 years. Interviewing Lily Mae Ledford, digging deep into the historical roots of women in country music, that doesn’t have to do with my sexual identity. That has to do with my love of making sure that women get the recognition that they deserve. What we found was that the women’s music scene was less interested in that than people who were going to stand on stage and sing about being lesbians. There wasn’t much synergy there for being female musicians who are accomplished at multiple instruments, singing and who have done tons of research and groundwork in recordings of women in country music. To each his own or to each her own.
Has that changed now? Do you think the women’s music movement, that GLBT organizations are more interested in the roots or is it still focused on the singer-songwriter, identity-heavy kind of songs?
CF: We’ve not been invited into that scene, so I don’t really know. The women’s music scene of the 80s through the mid-90s, doesn’t exist in the same way that it once did. Sure, it still exists but it’s not quite as big a scene in terms of concert producing. I think it’s been assimilated a lot more into general music scenes. For us, we’re going to play the music that we’re in love with and we write songs as well. I think we’re good songwriters but, that history of women in country music is something that we’ve loved for 35 years and that we know a lot about. To me, a good feminist would care about who the first woman in country music was and what it is that she did that made a dent. That’s my perspective but I’m not going to get there by saying that I’m gay or I’m straight or I’m this or I’m that. I’m going to get there by being as good a musician as I can be and hopefully, people will like the music.
You can purchase Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer’s new album, Dancin’ In The Kitchen, HERE. I can personally say that it’s perfect for kids and families!
Many thanks to Cathy Fink for being so open in this interview, and thank you to my mother Barbara Richert for doing transcriptions on all Gay Traditions series so far. Stay tuned for more Gay Traditions articles coming soon! And if you would like to be part of this series, please drop me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org