The Little Folksinger That Could

“i speak without reservation from what i know and who i am. i do so with the understanding that all people should have the right to offer their voice to the chorus whether the result is harmony or dissonance, the worldsong is a colorless dirge without the differences that distinguish us, and it is that difference which should be celebrated not condemned. should any part of my music offend you, please do not close your ears to it. just take what you can use and go on.”

Born ‘Angela Marie DiFranco’ on September 23, 1970 in Buffalo New York where she was also raised, Ani DiFranco pronounced (Ah-nee Dee-Frank-O) was nine years old when her parents bought her her first acoustic guitar. It was at that same store where she met and befriended a Buffalo singer-songwriter named Michael Meldrum. “So Michael Meldrum started taking me around to his gigs. He was my buddy. I was his sidekick, and he started the Greenwich Village Song Project: He was bringing singer-songwriters in from New York City to play in little folk venues in Buffalo, and he needed a place to put up these folk singers, so they actually stayed in my room.”

Ani’s parents were both very creative people, both interested in the arts and consistantly surrounded Ani with art. Allowing Ani her own free reign to bring folk singers into the house helped her develop an interest in poetry as well as folk music at a very early age. Unfortunately like many of us Ani’s parents separated and divorced just before Ani hit puberty. Ani moved into an apartment with her mom and began to play in bars and coffee shops. Ani began to accumulate a local following as she would pound out Beatles tunes and aggressively own the stage commanding the attention of anyone within earshot. Ani began writing her own songs at the age of 15 when she moved out of her mother’s apartment. Living on her own, she played every Saturday night at the Essex Street Pub, and at sixteen she graduated from the Visual and Performing Arts High School. At 18 Ani moved from Buffalo to New York City where she began making her first record. To finance her first album (self titled), Ani depleted her bank account and borrowed the rest from friends. After a few years in the big city Ani moved back to Buffalo. She rejected offers from indie and major labels alike, and instead started her own record company, Righteous Babe Records. “I don’t think the music industry is conducive to artistic and social change and growth. It does a lot to exploit and homogenize art and artists. In order to challenge the corporate music industry, I feel it necessary to remain outside it. I could be selling a lot more albums. Life could be a lot more cushy. But it’s much more interesting to try and hammer out an alternative route without the music industry and maybe be an example for other musicians. You don’t have to play ball.” The grassroots response to that first album and the ones that followed led to lots of offers for shows, and within a few short years she was moving from coffeehouses and college dates to larger theaters and major folk festivals.

Fast forward to 2003: Ani not only writes and publishes her own songs, but also produces her own recordings, creates the artwork, and releases them. She employs like-minded people in management and staff positions, supports local printers and manufacturers in her hometown, and utilizes a network of independent distributors in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

To date Ani has written, produced and released over 20 albums the newest and much-anticipated being Evolve (released on March 11, 2003). She has also participated with other musicians and folk singers on their albums including Utah Phillips, Nora Guthrie (Woody’s daughter), the Peace Not War compilation, and has opened for such artists as Bob Dylan. In 2002 she released her own documentary entitled “Render.” Her folk background strongly influenced by Arlo & Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the People’s Songs Movement shows up in every album as well as rock and roll, funk, jazz and hip hop tendencies.

Ani DiFranco’s lyrics have always been very personal and very poetic. Including the emotional, sexual, or political she has touched on topics such as broken relationships, abortion, religion, gun control, women’s rights, and the tried and true sex drugs and rock and roll. “The Million You Never Made”, on the album Not a Pretty Girl, talks about why she continues to turn down major record labels: “If you don’t live what you sing about, your mirror is going to find out.” Also on this album she reads a poem about abortion, sings “Shy”, a seductive invitation to on-the-road trysts, and “Light of Some Kind”, in which she explains to her boyfriend why she slept with a girl. By talking about issues such as abortion and bisexuality, she makes it clear to us that personal is political and that “If we can bring ourselves to admit to all this shit and then talk about it, I think we’re that much better of.”

Ani realized at some point that people were attending her shows simply to look at her and not listen to her music. She found herself in the old dilemma where men would size up a woman for her looks. So she changed – by shaving off her hair. “I thought I would rather you just listen to my music. Men don’t smile at you as much. But at least when they do smile, you know it’s genuine and not necessarily a come-on. I think I caught a glimmer of what racism might be like,” she says. “Conversations would stop when I would enter the room, or people would move to the other end of the subway platform, or follow me around stores. It’s a very subtle thing, but it’s very claustrophobic after a while.” “It’s the music that’s important to me, and not the fame and fortune,” says DiFranco

Since then Ani has grown her hair out and wears dresses, again shirking off any image or box that people want to put her in. And through it all she has stayed true to not only herself but her music and fans as well. She continues to encourage her fans to be active and involved in not just their community but nation-wide as well. In “Face Up and Sing,” on her album Out of Range, Ani DiFranco encounters a female fan who’s thankful to her “for saying all the things I never do.” To which the she replies in that song, “It’s nice that you listen. It’d be nice if you joined in.” She has recently added an ACTION: our actions will define us! section to her website where fans can access links to sites under MEDIA & PEACE AND JUSTICE that are alternatives to main stream media coverage and local and nation-wide peace movements.

Ani continues to be an inspiration to those of us who are tired of corporate owned media and music. She signs other musicians to her label that also put out individual unique sounds that you cannot get from Sony or BMG. She is of a firm belief music should not only be artistic but a way of communication also. However, she has made it quite clear that it’s not about the money or power: “And me. I’m just a folksinger, not an entrepreneur. My hope is that my music and poetry will be enjoyable and/or meaningful to someone, somewhere, not that I maximize my profit margins. It was 15 years and 11 albums getting to this place of notoriety and, if anything, I think I was happier way back when. Not that I regret any of my decisions, mind you. I’m glad I didn’t sign on to the corporate army. I mourn the commodification and homogenization of music by the music industry, and I fear the manufacture of consent by the corporately-controlled media.”

Ani DiFranco is a bold refreshing change for folk music and the people who make it. She continues to challenge our beliefs, thoughts and actions as well as our ears. If you take anything away from this article take away the fact that Ani DiFranco is a force to be reckoned with and will continue to be an active musical power for years to come.

if I drop dead to
morrow, tell me my grave stone won’t read:

ani d.

Please let it read:


~Ani DiFranco

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!