Hear Them Roar: The Iowa Women's Music Festival

MP3 download Zoe Lewis – Never Too Old (mp3)

Feminists burning their bras in protest, women such as Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt on stage, and the Equal Rights Amendment finally up for ratification—this was the1960s and 1970s, an era of women’s liberation, and, one could easily assume, a heyday for women’s music.


From 1960 to 1969, 71 women and 221 men made the Top 20, giving men a 76 percent to 24 percent edge, according to James L. Dickerson, author of Go, Girl, Go! The Women’s Revolution in Music (2005). Similarly, from 1970 to 1979, 62 women and 208 men made the Top 20, giving men 77 percent of the total. Oh, and the Equal Rights Amendment never did pass.

Even the successful women artists of the protest-generation faced trials. Janis Joplin was victimized by many of the men around her. Linda Ronstadt’s fame is often surmounted by male groups in the country/rock genre, such as The Eagles, with whom she often collaborated. And one thing unites nearly all of the women musicians of this era: They sang. They didn’t play.

The first women’s music festival was founded on the campus of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1974 in response to these issues in women’s music. Since then, women’s music festivals have sprung up across the country and include such success stories as Lilith Fair, the all-female festival organized by Sarah McLaughlin that ran from 1997-1999. Lilith Fair garnered a $16 million gross in 1997, making it the top-grossing of any touring festival for that year.

Iowa’s own Women’s Music Festival (IWMF) will celebrate its 15th anniversary this year on Saturday, September 20. The event, which will be held at Upper City Park in Iowa City, has a very direct connection to the first women’s music festival held in Champaign—IWMF founder Laurie Haag was an undergrad at the university in 1974 and actually met and played music with the festival’s founder, Kristin Lems.

Haag said that the original festival was created partially in response to another festival in Champaign, the Red Herring Folk Festival. Famous for jumpstarting the career of Dan Fogelberg in the early ’70s, Red Herring had never featured women performers. When Lems approached them about this discrepancy, the festival’s organizers said they hadn’t found any women good enough. Lems’ response? You’re wrong, and we’ll prove it.

“This was a proactive way to address a shortcoming in the festival scene, which was great, because my experience as a woman playing up until then had been that I was the only woman playing,” Haag said.

“It was clear that if we were going to have a real opportunity, we were going to have to create it ourselves.”

When Haag started working at The University of Iowa Women’s Resource and Action Center in the early ’90s, she knew she wanted to create a similar opportunity for women in Iowa. More than 30 enthusiastic people showed up at the first organizational meeting for the group in 1992, a clear signal of interest.

“Most bars were not friendly to women at that time,” Haag said, adding that while women could have played the Open Mic nights, they often felt like they weren’t encouraged to do so; the lack of female musician role models left women feeling like they didn’t fit in.

“As a young musician, all I saw was women singing in the bands, not women playing in them,” said Haag, a drummer who also plays bass and guitar. “The more you can picture yourself in the spot of playing, the more likely you will be to try yourself.”

After 15 years, Haag and others say the women’s music scene in Iowa City and nationally has improved. Dickerson argues that 1996 was the breakthrough year for women’s music: 14 of 23 solo artists in Top 20 this year were women, a 61 to 39 percent margin over males. Leading female artists this year included Tori Amos, Toni Braxton, Maraiah Carey, Alanis Morisette, Leann Rimes, and Shania Twain.

But even with today’s more female-friendly environment, Haag and Lisa Schreihart, another of the festival’s organizers, believe there is still a need to create a specific space for women to come together and share their stories.

In honor of the 15-year anniversary of the festival, this year’s lineup focuses especially on foundational women’s music performers, including festival-headliner Ferron, a Canadian folk singer/songwriter whose music influenced later musicians such as Ani DiFranco and the Indigo Girls. Also on the bill are Patrice Pike from Texas, Zoë Lewis, originally from England, Ubaka Hill of New York, and Iowa-based performers Diva Kai and BeJae Fleming, among others. In addition, Kim-Char Meredith, a Chicago artist originally from Hawaii, will transition between acts as the guest emcee.

“There’s a lot of great talent out there, and we just try to showcase it all,” said Schreihart. “We change it up and touch it up every year, and people aren’t ever sure what to expect. I’ve already heard a lot of people say that this year’s lineup is probably the best we’ve ever had.”

From Zoë Lewis’s world-beat-influenced tunes to bluesy grooves from BeJae Fleming, each of the artists in the lineup is distinct, yet they all share the festival’s goal.

“This is a place for women and everyone to go and hear women’s voices and experiences,” Haag said. “It’s a place where women’s stories are told. It’s a place where women can hear someone they can relate to.”


What: Iowa Women’s Music Festival

When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, September 20

Where: Upper City Park, Iowa City

Cost: Free

For more information and the full festival schedule, visit

Artist spotlights:

Zoë Lewis

Zoë Lewis wants to cure your hiccups.

“Life is often full of hiccups. There are many ways to cure them, but I find a spoonful of song always helps. Please enjoy this dose.”

This prescription, from the inside jacket of Lewis’s new album, A Cure for the Hiccups, exemplifies the attitude of the Provincetown, Mass.-based artist.

“If you can turn a few people’s evenings or days around, it’s all worth it,” Lewis said. “I feel like that’s my mission in life.”

Lewis, originally from England, has lived, traveled, and made music all over the world, from Guatemala to Thailand.

“Sometimes people say my music is like a map,” Lewis said. “I don’t take photographs while I’m traveling, I just try to write it town. My music is very visual.”

For Lewis, traveling is a way to open her eyes—and discover new stories.

“I love to go far away from your comfortable box, because then you see everything anew, like a child,” she says. “It’s like you’re standing on your head being amazed every single moment.”

Lewis is remembered in Iowa for her 2003 performance at the Iowa Women’s Music Festival, which received a standing ovation; she will return this year to play the September fest.

BeJae Fleming

A North Carolina-native, BeJae Fleming had been writing and performing bluegrass and blues music professionally in the South since 1977. But in 1993, her partner was finishing her Ph.D., and Iowa State University made the best job offer—so they moved.

“I didn’t especially want to move to Iowa,” Fleming said. “I had played here as a touring musician one time and didn’t really connect.”

Despite her initial reluctance, Fleming said she now can’t imagine her musical life without the influence of Iowans.

“Being an Iowa musician and being influenced by Iowa musicians changed me dramatically for the good,” she said.

Fleming cites Iowa performers such as Burlington-native Bo Ramsey and Gayla Drake Paul, of Cedar Rapids, as influences in her shift toward groove and tone from blues and bluegrass. In addition, Dave Zollo’s record label, Trailer Records, puts out her records.

Fleming has played the Iowa Women’s Music Festival a few times. To her, festivals like this are one way women can help restore balance to the music industry that is too-often dominated by men.

“It’s wonderful that they continue to make a situation that focuses on women musicians,” she said. “It is a way for us to do music in a way that we want to do music.”

Kim-Char Meredith

Kim-Char Meredith used to make Christian music. Then she came out—and got kicked out.

“It was devastating to me at the time,” the Hawaii-native said. “But I said, ‘You know what? I love music, and I’m going to play music.’”

So even though her heart was still in Christian music, Meredith, who now lives in Chicago with her partner, turned to pop/rock and became quite successful. She received several awards and opened for Melissa Etheridge in Honolulu.

“Everything happens for a reason,” she said. “This just allowed me to go in a different direction and strum my guitar hard for a while.”

Now Meredith has returned to faith-based music.

“There are a lot of people of faith who have just been burned,”” she said. But our faith in the divine is still strong, and I still love doing music that celebrates that.”

Meredith, who will be the guest emcee for the Iowa Women’s Music Festival in September, said her introduction to Iowa a number of years ago was very encouraging.

“This woman showed up with 25 other women,” she said. “It was this amazing support for women’s music in Iowa.”

The women was Lisa Schreihart, one of the organizers of the IWMF, and this show in Ames marked the beginning of a professional relationship that has brought Meredith to IWMF this year.

“What I appreciate about independent women’s music and the festivals that kind of support,” Meredith said. “We’re not being pushed into a cookie cutter model or role. You can be true to your own voice and appreciate your own voice…it’s not so much about how much we can package and market this product but how can we support and nurture the creativity of these women.”

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