During the 1970s when Illinois became a battleground as a pivotal state in the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, many women and men spent a great deal of time and energy at the Capitol attempting to persuade our lawmakers and sway public opinion on the validity of the ERA. In the end, Illinois failed to ratify the proposed amendment and it never became a part of the US Constitution. Among the demonstrators was a young singer-songwriter named Kristin Lems who drove over from Champaign-Urbana to join fellow advocates in singing and playing original tunes and the songs of the day. This is back when folks actually played music for social change and expected it to do some good.
“I sang inside the rotunda many times with the ERA fasters and blood throwers,” said Lems, “and outside too, on the steps with demonstrators.”
In the middle of all this intense chaos she tells of “an amazing story” that as she relates it some 30 years later, still inspires a sense of awe and wonder in the depth and strength of the human spirit.
“A country-looking security guard approached me and struck up a conversation. He was definitely not liberal leaning, but said he enjoyed my music and wondered if I had any use for drums. His son had recently died in a plane crash and he wanted me to have his conga drums,” she said in a quiet voice filled with amazement. “I was there to protest and he was there to protect, yet he reached out to make this connection. I still have the drums.” She paused and then spoke in more upbeat tones. “Maybe he will read this and come to the show and I can give back his son’s drums.”
This is just one of the many incredible tales from the life of Kristin Lems, singer-songwriter, protester, union-activist, demonstrator, mother, writer, artist and now a back-on-the-scene performer. Through music and work she traveled extensively, received numerous awards and performed with distinctive artists and dignitaries, but several of her favorite stories begin and end here in the capital city.
“I’ve had a long-term relationship with Springfield,” said Lems, who currently resides in Evanston, just north of Chicago. “There is a good sense of place and people and pride — all the things that go along with a vibrant, juicy sense of community are here.”
She tells of playing Crows Mill School on “New Year’s Eve in ’77, ’78, ’79 — one of those years” and seeing the old wooden floor “go up and down” with the dancers while she sang, “Those Were the Days.” Her Springfield connection continued with performances at the Sangamon State University-sponsored Mother Jones banquets “a couple times in the ’90s” and a benefit for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom with Peg Knoepfle and friends in 2008. Throughout her career, along with a sincere devotion to the notion of personal and social empowerment through music, she also stayed committed to a balance of familial obligations.
“The thing about the Women’s Movement of the ’70s and ’80s — it was a totally different place back then. Politics and culture were not so separated,” she said. “But soon I became married with children and reinvented myself in that role.”
She dedicated her life to working, teaching and raising children until recently, when her last child went off to college. Now the urge to play music fits with the time available and Lems is at it again, playing house concerts and coffee shops, union meetings and schools, spreading the gospel of equality, decency and other nice and good stuff through her songs and lifestyle.
“The kids don’t want me to mope around and miss them, so I’m getting back on the road,” she admits. “I hope and believe I made an impact on people’s lives and opinions. And I’m not anywhere done yet.”
Contact Tom Irwin at email@example.com