Folk hero Kristin Lems

Kristin Lems Folk singer Kristin Lems says she has performed “at every watering hole you could possibly imagine.” (Photo by David Sameshima)
Longtime singer-songwriter Kristin Lems inspires other women with her witty recordings.

Soon after she arrived on the University of Illinois campus in 1973, Kristin Lems, MA ’75 LAS, MA ’83 LAS, wrote Women Walk More Determined—a powerful anthem to equal rights. Proud of the tune, she inquired about playing it at the Red Herring Folk Festival, a then prominent event—only to be told no female musicians were good enough to join the bill.

Outraged, Lems and her sister Karen placed an ad in The Daily Illini recruiting female acts and staged a one-night festival of their own. The next year, the event grew into a six-day celebration featuring workshops, jam sessions and appearances by well-known feminist artists.

Forty years later, the National Women’s Music Festival endures. Although Lems stepped away from the helm long ago, she returned to perform at the anniversary celebration in July 2015, also accepting the newly created Women in the Arts Kristin Lems Social Change Through Music Award and announcing the release of her eighth album, You, Me, and All of the Above—her first in 10 years.

Lems grew up with a piano-teacher mother and years of classical training, but the ‘60s inspired her to trade Mozart for a guitar, and the musical styles of Joan Baez and Judy Collins. During her decade in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., she earned a master’s degree in West Asian Studies, recorded three albums and performed in her clear soprano “at every watering hole you could possibly imagine,” Lems says.

After graduation, the musician balanced motherhood and a career in education—the first of her two children were born in 1987, and she currently instructs bilingual educators at National Louis University. Still, music remained a big part of her life. Through the years, Lems has shared the stage with Maya Angelou and Gloria Steinem, and performed for hundreds of thousands of people at rallies.

But Lems feels most fulfilled by the emotional reactions of her fans—older women who reach for their handkerchiefs during Wrinkles, a song about accepting and loving aging faces, or those who tell her they’re haunted by Oh Little Bird, a refugee ballad on her new album.

“The proudest moments are when an individual tells me a song I wrote changed their life,” she says. “That’s just the best.”