Kristin Lems wrote her first song, "Hula Hoop With Your Honey," at age 11. She didn't have a honey or know how to hula hoop, but she says the words "had a catching rhythm."
For the past two decades Lems has continued to write songs whose words, rhythms, and tunes are all "catching." And it didn't take her long to find themes more relevant than the hula hoop. In a more recent composition called "Trivial Pursuit" she derides preoccupation with the insignificant: "What's the middle name of Paul Revere? / How many bubbles in a glass of beer? / If you know, it's clear you'll master Trivial Pursuit . . . / But don't ask how much money from our taxes goes to war / The answer isn't funny and it makes the game a bore."
Feminism, human rights, and the environment have informed the native Evanstonian's four folk albums and one tape of music for children. Her work for the women's movement earned her the president's award at the Illinois conference of the National Organization for Women last weekend.
Lems's early musical training was supervised by her mother, a concert pianist, but, she says, "when you grow up in a classical-music environment, you don't learn improvisation or self-accompaniment." Improv is an important part of any Lems performance, whether at a local club, a children's birthday party, or a rally for the ERA, the farm workers, or Earth Day.
Lems got her start folksinging as a student at the University of Michigan. But her career took off when she took a job teaching English as a second language in Iran. Three weeks into her first term, some of her students asked her to be the female vocalist in their rock band. The clear-voiced, tall, blond, "all-American" Lems made quite a sensation, especially when she sang in Farsi. At first she memorized the phonetics without knowing the words. She later mastered the language and has since sung in 14 languages on four continents.
She returned to the United States profoundly affected by her experience in Iran and with a growing awareness of women's issues in both countries. "I was very involved in the folk movement and at the same time getting interested in the women's movement. I scrounged around for songs that expressed my condition and discovered that some of them hadn't been written--songs by women singing honestly about their lives."
Lems plunged into the women's movement in Champaign-Urbana while working on master's degrees in West Asian studies and TESL (teaching English as a second language). Academically, Lems has "dabbled in four areas, none of them music. I think about songwriting the way I do about poetry. If you listen to others too much, it's very tempting to get imitative, but if you don't listen enough, you tend to repeat the same song that's in your head, over and over, just rewriting it.
"I started reflecting on women everywhere. Are there universals in our experiences? In every society women are in the rear, although in different cultural forms." Lems also wondered, "Where are all the women in music? Why is it that the women take all of the music lessons and yet men become the performers?"
The result of her musings was the National Women's Music Festival. With a group of students at U. of I., Lems sent a flier to every address in the New Woman's Survival Manual (a catalog of women-oriented services and products) inviting women musicians from around the country to meet in Champaign-Urbana in the spring of 1974, inviting some to perform and hold workshops. No performers were paid anything except expense money and all were required to give a workshop. The first festival drew 350 women, the third 2,000. Now in its 18th year and operated out of Bloomington, Indiana, it has an annual attendance of around 5,000. "A lot of women discovered that they weren't the only female French horn player or whatever in the country," says Lems.
For the next five years she continued to organize the music festival while traveling and performing her blend of eco-feminist folk music, singing on college campuses, at conventions, at ERA rallies (including a May 10, 1980, Grant Park performance for a crowd of 90,000), and for women's professional organizations.
When she won a Fulbright lectureship to train English teachers around Algeria, she took her music to North Africa, performing in Algeria and Morocco and adding French and Arabic to her musical-linguistic repertoire and North African women to her political agenda.
Lems returned to Chicago in 1985 and became a mother in 1987, which inspired her to focus her creative energy on children's music. She often pairs with Chicago artist Peggy Lipschutz, who "choreographs her drawings" to the music. Lems jokes that she's gone from "singing mostly for men in the early 70s to singing mostly for women in the 80s and mostly for children in the 90s."
Adult women and men can still hear the messages and music of Kristin Lems at various clubs and rallies throughout the year, including upcoming performances at No Exit, 6970 N. Glenwood, tonight and tomorrow from 9:30 to close ($4 cover plus a two-drink minimum; 743-3355) and at the day of performances marking the Prism Gallery closing, 620 Davis in Evanston, next Saturday, September 28, from 7 to 8 (475-7500). Lems and Lipschutz will perform their children's work at the Children's Peace Fair, Saturday, November 2, at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, 1330 Ridge in Evanston, at 3 (the fair runs all day; 708-864-1330). Lems will release a 30-minute music video in early 1992 and plans to start recording two new albums this fall, one for children and one for adults.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.