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Holly Gwinn Graham –1946-2024, A Retrospective

Since 1990, Holly Gwinn Graham has been a treasure of Olympia’s music and activist communities.  In September 2023, she released her 10th album, Hopeful Traveler, at Traditions Cafe, the site of many of her concerts over the years, to a crowd of friends and fans.  Sadly, she passed in February, leaving her wonderful songs to enlighten our hearts and minds for years to come.  A memorial to honor her is being planned for July 21 from 2-5 PM at the Evergreen State College Longhouse.

Hopeful Traveler’s eight songs, recorded between 2002 and 2016, represent the best of Holly, who writes and performs original songs to support activists and movements for peace and the planet.   For decades, her ringing bel canto voice has protested nuclear proliferation and uranium mining, advocated for alternative energy and recycling, and pointed the “fickle finger of doom” at factory farms, the military use of space, forest clearcutting and greedy corporations.

But her best songs do more than protest.  They express our deepest yearnings for friendship, and peace  and poetically describe the beauty and sacredness of this earth we all inhabit and the lessons we can learn from it.

It’s very nice to meet you

Give yourself  a hug

Cause we’re all charter members of the Bellybutton Club

Holly’s 1986 album, The Bellybutton Club, was made for kids, but its songs express profound truths that will enrich the kids who sing them all their lives.  Holly was already singing with her grandmother in church as a kid.  She studied theater at the University of South Florida and used a lot of folk and musical theatre in her repertoire.  She taught for 25 years as an Artist in Residence  for the State Arts Commissions of Florida and Washington, and did 90 artist residencies in schools, group homes and prisons.  Before moving to Olympia, she lived in Florida where she was contracted by water agencies to educate school kids about water issues, and then did the same for Olympia’s Water Resource Agency.  Holly created 6 original musicals that toured over 78 schools in Florida and Washington.  She has taught hundreds of kids the value of friendship and caring for the planet through music and theater, creating characters like Nona, the Non Biodegradable Woman who dresses in plastic and is draped with plastic bottles.

Everybody needs friendship, everybody needs friends

From the time that we’re born on this beautiful Earth till the time life ends

Everything is connected, this I’m certain of

Everybody needs friendship, everybody needs love

 Holly expresses much gratitude for the artists she has worked with.  When she lived in England from 1968-1973,  she met and married Davey Graham, the legendary guitarist who changed the course of British folk music, producing 2 albums with him in 1970 and 1971.

She was also friends with Sister Jackie Hudson, the Dominican nun and Ploughshares activist who ran the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action in Bremerton, organizing resistance at the Trident nuclear submarine base at Bangor.  Outsource This, her 2004 album,  includes Sisters of Sacred Earth and Space commemorating  Sister Jackie and her 2 comrades who served time in federal prison for their symbolic act of resistance against nuclear weapons in 2002.

We will beat our swords into ploughshares

and our spears into pruning hooks

And our hearts will rejoice as we sing in one voice

as it’s promised in the holy books

 

Sacred the land – Sacred the water

Sacred the sky, holy and true

Sacred all lives – Sacred each other

All reflects God who is Good

 

Stop the Bomb Where it Starts! was written and sung for the August 3, 2002 rally and march to Livermore Nuclear Weapons Laboratory in California to protest 50 years of nuclear proliferation at Livermore.

Another world is possible when we turn our minds to peace

Thou shall not kill

This simple prime directive hasn’t changed and never will

Thou shall not kill

Her song, Planning a War in Space, was featured in a video by the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space

 Earth’s  population is getting out of hand

so we’re planning a war in space

We’ve got to keep them in control and under our command

So we’re planning a war in space

Ever since we learned the atom can be split and used to kill

We know that if we don’t build the bomb some other bastards will

Planning a war in space

We can spend 6 billion dollars in the blinking of an eye

We’ll never see the children as they drop and die

We’ll really pulverize them from our blackboard in the sky

We’re planning a war in space 

But as Holly says, sometimes the songs are funny.

In They Say the Cows are Mad, Dear,  she sings

They say the cows are mad, dear

Well you’d be angry too

If some corporate farms

fed your friends to you

The Earth Anthem album released in 1980 has a song, Alternate Energy Plan (Let’s Poop our Way to Peace and Prosperity) that got the notice of Pete Seeger and Country Joe MacDonald.

In it,  Holly dreams of testifying before a Senate committee to propose a unique alternate energy plan.

Senators our greatest source of health  and one way to secure our planet’s wealth

is something each person makes him or herself and produces fresh each day

It begins with the food going into your mouth, yup into the north end and out of the south

Out of the south end and into the trough where we flush it all away

I said look at the stuff that goes through the sewer

You see now it’s waste but if that manure

If collected and heated in tanks would sure produce wonderful methane gas

And what vast potential we’d realize turning poop to fuel. How bold and wise,

And we could make a sludge to fertilize all the gardens of the land

And there’s Holly’s beloved song Flying Bras at Sunset, a song about “aerodynamic underwear” that she performed with props – bras that the audience would fling around the room while she sang

Flying bras at sunset, circling over the trees

Happy bosoms heading to my knees

Flying bras at sunset, at the close of day

Perky bosoms pointing every which way

Holly is at her best when singing about our relations with Mother Earth and her creatures.

In a sweet and somber tune, Earth Anthem (1982) reveals how we are one with our only home, Earth.

Changing seasons, sprouting seeds,  Nature providing us with all our needs

While every creature upon the earth sings praise in some way for the miracle of birth

Tell me where… Tell me where  would we be without the Mother?

Could we be without the Mother?

Every gardener can relate to her sweet and simple song Go Ask the Garden for expressing the joy of connecting to the cycles of life through working with the earth.

Go ask the Garden (Bellybutton Club)

 Life can be so simple in the garden

You’re  moving with the seasons

Learning all the reasons while the rising of the sun

Go ask the garden

If your heart is hurting it helps you to be working

When the day has just begun

Go ask the garden, I’m telling you true 

Little Miracles (Bellybutton Club) reveals the grand universe we are part of if we only stop to notice.

The sunrise in the morning

The eagle’s flight at noon

The happiness of hearing an old familiar tune

The way the clouds rise sleepy in a sky of deepest blue

The joy you feel in knowing someone’s sweet in love with you

Little miracles are happening every day, miracles are happening every day 

Nature is not just appreciated in Holly’s songs, but is also the master teacher.  The Hopeful Traveler album contains some of her best songs about nature and our yearnings for peace.

In Bristlecone Pine (1998), we learn about the oldest trees on earth and what they have to teach us.

And that’s the secret of their lives, so ancient on this earth

Their growth so slow and steady, in quiet, strong rebirth

For five thousand years and  more, they’ve taught us how to grow

Give juice to the parts that are living, and let all the dead stuff go!

 The Wolves of London Zoo  (1998) describes Holly’s experience watching the wolves perform a sunset ritual, each taking their place to welcome the night.

 The air grew hushed and silent, all the creatures stopped their din;

And across the zoo, an air of peace blessed everybody within.

Then the mother wolf raised up her head to face the setting sun

And the sunset song of London Zoo!  At last, it had begun!

Those wolves gave me a lesson, and it’s a precious. wondrous thing.

They taught me – even if you’re in a cage, you can lift your voice, and SING

 Ghostly Forest (1989) was written after a trip to Roslyn WA where Holly saw a clearcut up close.  With our legacy forests being cut here in Thurston County, her lyrics are ever more relevant and true.

 The forest floor breathes out a silent, ancient litany;

Wind and snow, sacred air, and healing botany.

There are those who love it not, who leave it shaved and bare,

The money’s what they’re after and for little else they care.

And the forest trembles with the coming of the roads,

The chainsaw screaming, cutting out load after load

It’s a ghostly forest.  It was a fir and cedar stand.

But it’s going quickly.  See it while you can.  They’re raping the land.

 Peaceful Revolution, the final song on Hopeful Traveler is dedicated “to those who know a better world is possible and work to make it so.”  Inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016, Holly beautifully expresses our deepest yearnings for a peaceful world.

Can we all come together at this time in evolution?

Can we lift our hearts together in peaceful revolution?

Can we bravely sing out for what is true?

And are we strong enough to live it, once we do?

That is a question we should all ask ourselves as our Earth becomes more unliveable, degraded by human conflict, greed and hubris.

Holly passed peacefully from the Earth she so loved on February 5 after a battle with brain cancer, leaving her beloved partner, daughter and granddaughter and many friends.  She chose to have her body composted to return to the embrace of our Mother.

Holly has some final advice for us as we face our own mortality.

Love will lead me over as I step across the line

Peace will be my cover as I step across the line

Love is all around me as I step across the line.

Blessings on you Holly!  While you have surely joined the angels in heavenly chorus, we are thankful you left us sweet melodies of friendship and hope for a world grounded in love for each other and our Earth Mother.

Hopeful Traveler is available at Traditions Cafe.  Holly’s earlier albums are available on her website hollygwinngraham.com

Esther Kronenberg, one of many of Holly’s friends and fans

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