Joanne Gillies' Right to Live: Hard Times and Love on YouTube

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She's written songs of her life, sung over a few chords strummed on guitar.

Mike Mosher

The Michigan Nature Association sponsored a workday in March, 2012 to help remove invasive Autumn Olive plants from the Rizor Sanctuary near Partialville, Michigan. The Sanctuary (for rare wild flowers, painted turtles, etc.) was named for naturalist Lyle Rizor (1920-2007) and his wife Mary, my creative friend Joanne's father and mother.

She writes,
I re-inspired my Dad to nature by being in the hiking club SpinDrift Girl Scouts, and then he bought a little piece of woods in the middle of the woods...and he put away the shotguns, and deer rifles, and spent more time with his cameras....

My mom and dad and I were like a three fold cord. We did a lot of hiking, and tree planting, and watering, and seeking out wildflowers together. I think the love of nature was a gift that we gave back and forth to each other. When I was very little, I followed Dad like a shadow doing gardening, and planting trees, grass cutting, and even fire wood and tending the fire in the fireplace in the house. Then when I was a teenager, my attitudes and values persuaded him that he needed to spend more time in boots, slacks and flannel shirts with the camera, than in the hard shiny shoes and suits he wore to work.

When a sophomore at Ann Arbor Pioneer High, she lived in a big rambling and messy house, with her parents and plenty of siblings, on then-rural south Main Street that has since been replaced by apartments. The Saturday in October, 1970, when I visited, it felt relaxed and lived in, piles of stuff around, shaggy year-round-outdoor dogs yowling in the back yard. Joanne was friends with an older man down the street, a friend of songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, who taught her piano, and she played a beautiful rendition of "Like a Bridge Over Troubled Waters" that melted the heart of everybody's mom.

She liked me in 10th grade, I liked her too, and she used to draw ornate crayon drawings during classes that she'd give to me in our mid-day romantic interludes. It was one of those yearning, intense, straining unconsummated affairs before teenagers start really doing it, and I hope I'm not being ungentlemanly to say she was a terrific kisser. We would huddle on the stairs to the second floor entrance to the school auditorium, pressed close until the crew-cut campus cop quietly asked us to leave.

Joanne Rizor moved 28 miles from Ann Arbor to Hartland while still in high school, and I lost touch with her. She graduated from Hartland High School in 1973, attended Bible college for a year, and soon married a Canadian guy named Gillies. And in the end, Facebook puts everybody in touch with everybody whether they like it or not, but I was delighted to hunt her down about a year ago. Joanne Rizor Gillies now lives in Kaministiquia, Ontario. Perhaps her father's appreciation of nature inspires her own in this locale.

She's done a lot of living, the mother of twelve children, who raised the last eight kids by herself. She's written songs of her life, sung over a few chords strummed on guitar. It's a plaintive, old-school folk music style, reminiscent of Joan Baez or Judy Collins or even earlier mountain country models. She has posted videos of her original songs on YouTube. which you can find by searching "joaohnna13" (note eccentric spelling).

"You Have the Right to Remain Silent" (2007-2008) cuts close to the bone, unspooling emotions, especially pain, sung clearly in the clear light of day. This woman came into her voice after a lot of life and suffering, bitterly but assertively proclaiming "I think I have a right to live." She sings a ballad of the adventurous family with seven children piled into a car on a quixotic trip to New York in "Proverbial Words", and babies keep coming until Gillies gives her the boot.

One deep motif in her life is her appreciation of John Lennon and his message of peace, and how John lived it in his respect for, and cooperation with, his wife Yoko. The nearly 22 minute song "I Love You John/Change the World" is accompanied by a pen drawing she made, entitled "Changing the World", that gradually changes colors, patterns, stripes. John is drawn carrying laundry, a task he performed the last five years of his life when he was a househusband and the banker's daughter Yoko handled the family business of music royalties.

Joanne looks into the camera to narrate "Mom of 12", a multi-part spoken word odyssey, harrowing stories of her creepy stoner ex-husband's rock star desires, and their shared intense interest in Lennon, her stressful times of medical problems and an unheated house.

It's not entertainment as much as it is art, and maybe a feminist statement much like Mary J. Blige's testaments to survival. More people should know and listen to Joanne Gillies, for the hard-won women's wisdom of a tender songwriter.

Mike Mosher exalts Michigan creativity for Bad Subjects. John Lennon graphic © Joanne Rizor.

Copyright © Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.

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