Two women folk singers with a powerful message, and one old Minnesota granary converted into a women's space - and you have the Granary Girls, the gutsy duo of Jodi Ritter (52) and Patty Kakac (55) who are singing the song of empowered womanhood to the men and women of greater Minnesota. Yes, men too; for the Granary Girls are making them think about a range of subjects they have some feelings about: natural foods, violence against women, war, how to raise children.
The Granary Girls, like women everywhere, are pointing to a simple message: that the planet is wonderful, and we get to live here if we don't abuse it. Ritter knows firsthand what it is to live with abuse. She got into an abusive relationship at the age of 18 and three years and two babies later, had a Magnum 357 pointed at her head. "That was in 1971, before shelters existed," Ritter says. "I was lucky to get out with my life and the life of my children."
Down the road, after a second marriage (which later ended in divorce), Ritter started her career in domestic violence work at a crisis centre in Fargo, North Dakota, where she's from. After going back to finish college and earning a Master's degree in counselling, Ritter now works part-time as a counsellor in a pilot project, Intensive In-Home Counselling, where mothers and children can talk about abuse in a comfortable setting. Abusive husbands may participate if they have gone through a treatment programme, but unfortunately that has never happened. "Guys just don't do the work," said Ritter.
Patty Kakac's activism began during the 1970s too, when she became aware of the health effects of power lines and worked with Paul and Sheila Wellstone (the Minnesota Senator and his wife, who were killed in a plane crash in 2002) for alternative energy.
Kakac met Ritter in 1997 when she was doing the music for a play about AIDS. "Jodi came up to me shyly, saying, 'I just do back up.' But she could sing!" They began playing together.
Then Ritter lost her job because she "was talking about diversity too much", as she puts it. Kakac offered Ritter the granary (converted to a living space in the 1970s) on her farm to stay in. And it was here that the Granary Girls was born.
Now the granary is a centre for women's circles, and draws women from miles around. "We never have an agenda. We meet and talk, and raise each other up!" says Ritter. They cook up some organic food and farm fresh eggs, do some rituals (opening and closing of the granary, full moon ceremonies, peace drumming etc), and enjoy that all-woman space, talking about healing, and about what needs to be solved.
The good news is that women's circles are popping up all over the Midwest. In the isolation of a Minnesota farm winter, it's not easy to get together; but when the women do, it's a source of sustenance. "Today, in spite of all the communication technology, we are as isolated as we have ever been. When we're young, we're busy with mating. Then we're busy with babies. And all of us work, it seems, incessantly. Circles of women are able to make the connections between it all, so we think it's up to the women now," says Kakac.
When they're on the road, the Granary Girls play at varied venues, from the Minnesota Folk Festival to the Maxell Magnet School. Every year, they play at an annual women's retreat held by the First Women Foundation, where sacred American Indian ceremonies are kept alive. And in Grand Rapids, North Dakota, they entertain at WomanSong's annual retreat.
Is Kakac's husband supportive? "He keeps our van running!" she laughs, "He's kind of afraid of the wooey-wooey stuff - he's into science. I don't feel like pushing anybody into believing something they don't want to believe. As long as he's not resistant to what I do, it's ok." That sounds like her song, 'So long as I am free to love him'.
The duo's music also crosses various divides. "Music crosses over from the conservative to the liberal," says Kakac. "My parents were Republicans but they were very giving people, and also very respectful of the earth. When I sing my song, 'We didn't have much but we sure had plenty', conservative people relate to that. And some of the songs have a cowboy feel. 'White Spotted Black Horse' is about a girl who felt controlled by men, and how that's so hard on a woman." Ritter interjects, "Because it's about a horse, people who are generally more conservative, respond to that. But then they go, 'Oh. I didn't really think about that'."
"Sometimes we think maybe we're a little overbalanced on the women's issues but men respond. One song on our newest album (Wild Roses), called 'Diamonds in Her Soul', we think of as a women's song. But once two men came up afterwards to tell us they had cried over it," Kakac adds. Her song, 'God, Are You a Woman?' is one of the group's most requested songs. "It's surprising how many men request it," she says.
The Girls sure know how to find the proverbial soft spot. Ritter's song, 'Goodbye', mourns not only the loss of her brother, but all the losses we sustain as we go through life.
Maybe audiences respond because folks in the Midwest are feeling the pressure just like the rest of us - of life in a country at war, facing growing deprivation of goods and services. Due to rising property values and competition from corporate farms, the last family farms are closing down. Then there are new health issues. Allergies to wheat, soy, corn - staples across the nation - are becoming more prevalent, and evidence points to pesticides, genetically modified food crops, and over-consumption. "We're kind of surprised by the responses. We don't intentionally write songs to be therapeutic," Ritter says. "They just come to us, based on our own experiences."