Back in the Day is a column that looks back at key moments in the history of lesbians and bisexual women in entertainment.
In 1975, Bruce Springsteen released his breakthrough album, Born to Run. Donna Summer went to the top of her charts with the steamy disco classic “Love to Love You Baby.” David Bowie’s funky meditation on “Fame” went to number one.
And the fledgling Olivia Records released their second full-length album, Cris Williamson’s The Changer and the Changed.
Thirty years after its release, The Changer and the Changed remains one of the best-selling independent records ever produced; over 500,000 copies have been sold since 1975. It was also one of the first albums to be produced in the growing “women’s music” genre, helping to pave the way for hundreds of lesbian singers and musicians to follow.
The album contained ten songs sung in Williamson’s clear voice; Bonnie Raitt later compared Williamson’s sound to “honey dripped on a cello.”
Stylistically, the album hewed closely to the sound that Carole King popularized with her chart-topping album Tapestry, but unlike King’s songs, Williamson’s were not played on the radio — no doubt because Williamson was always, from beginning of her career, openly gay.
Among the ten songs, at least one (“Sweet Woman”) was clearly directed to a female lover — something that was clearly revolutionary in 1975 and remains so even today. Other songs addressed love, nature, spirituality, and feminist sisterhood. “Wild Things” evoked a back-to-nature ethos with a haunting melody, and “Song of the Soul,” a bright, straightforward tune about spirituality, has long since been a fixture of campfire gatherings.
The Changer and the Changed was also produced entirely by women, from co-producers Margie Adam and Meg Christian (famous for her song “Ode to a Gym Teacher”) to assistant engineer Judy Dlugacz, now president of Olivia Travel, Inc.
A 1975 review of the album in the feminist magazine Off Our Backs praised the album’s all-woman production, stating, “More than 40 women (and furred and feathered friends) are credited with assistance; the faces of those pictured on the inside jacket are a welcome sight when so many other women musicians are parading their stuff before all-male bands.”
But Off Our Backs was critical of Williamson’s focus on spirituality and emotion rather than overt feminist politics: “The problem that I have with Cris Williamson’s embracing of spirituality on this album is the same one I have with any feminist who makes this personal quest a priority and excludes politics from her vision.” But it may well have been Williamson’s prioritizing of personal songwriting over political anthems that led to the album’s overwhelming success, selling reportedly 100,000 copies in its first year alone.
After all, as the women’s movement has successfully taught us, the personal is political.
Nevertheless, Williamson has long been a leader in the feminist movement, particularly through her involvement with Olivia Records, the first record label to be completely created and owned by women, many of them lesbians.
An out musician during her entire career, Williamson conceived of the idea of a women’s record label during a Washington, D.C. radio interview in 1973 while commenting on how difficult it was for women to succeed in the music industry. Although she wasn’t one of the founders of Olivia Records — that label was founded by Meg Christian, Judy Dlugacz, Ginny Berson, and Jennifer Woodul — she was a key contributor to its initial success.
Olivia’s first release was a single of Cris Williamson’s “If It Wasn’t for the Music” paired with Meg Christian’s Lady.” That was followed by Christian’s full-length album I Know You Know, and in 1975, The Changer and the Changed.
Although Olivia has since transitioned into a travel company best known for its lesbian cruises, the record label was a major force in women’s music for decades, leading in part to the establishment of record distributors such as Lady Slipper and Goldenrod, as well as providing music for the dozens of women’s music festivals that continue to feature lesbian artists every year.
Olivia was also one of the first independent record labels, setting the standard for future indie labels such as Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records, founded in 1990, and Mr. Lady Records, founded in 1996 by Kaia Wilson of The Butchies.
Since the release of The Changer and the Changed, which helped to create an audience hungry for more music by openly lesbian musicians, lesbian performers such as Tracy Chapman and Melissa Etheridge have successfully crossed over into the mainstream.
“Women’s music” as a genre has also evolved from a predominantly folk/acoustic sound to include more diverse sounds including the early 1990s Riot Grrl movement and queercore, which have clear roots in the feminist movement.
Since recording The Changer and the Changed, Williamson has gone on to release 18 additional albums, toured around the world, and reportedly sold a million records. She has been an activist for Native American issues and continues to perform year-round at women’s music festivals and fundraisers.
After Olivia Records transitioned into a travel business, Williamson founded her own record label, Wolf Moon Records, which reissued The Changer and the Changed in 2004.
In our overproduced, over-hyped music scene today, the album remains one of the purest testimonials to the feminist movement ever made.
Visit CrisWilliamson.com for more on the singer