Friends mourn for Cambridge songwriter, activist
Friends say Marcia Deihl was always the first person to think up a witty song that perfectly captured the moment, and to encourage the same lyrical invention in others with her "Bizarre Song Parties," where the price of admission was a ditty of one's own.
Deihl was a Cambridge activist who spent her life fighting — and singing — for what she believed in, and who had embarked upon retirement with joy that she could finally dedicate all her time to her art.
And she loved to ride her bicycle, a clunky old three-speed decorated with paper flowers and streamers. With her long hair streaming behind her, she cut a distinctive figure, one familiar to many Cambridge residents.
On Thursday, friends mourned the untimely death of the 65-year-old, who was killed Wednesday after being hit by a dump truck while riding her bike on Putnam Avenue.
"She was an icon of Cambridge life. She was a very colorful figure, beloved by the people who knew her," said Pam Chamberlain, a longtime friend who described Deihl as "a riot" with a keen sense of irony and a gift for bonding with people. "It's a great loss for the folk community and the feminist movement."
The accident occurred around 1:30 p.m. as Deihl left the Whole Foods Market, authorities said. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
The driver of the truck, a 44-year-old Medford man who was not identified, is cooperating with investigators, and no charges had been filed by late Thursday afternoon, according to Jacquelyn Goddard, a spokeswoman for Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan.
Deihl was a musician, singer, and songwriter who performed from 1973 to 1980 with The New Harmony Sisterhood Band, a feminist folk string band formed by students at the Goddard-Cambridge Graduate School for Social Change. In 2006, Smithsonian Folkways reissued the band's 1977 record, "And Ain't I a Woman?"
"We considered ourselves to be one of the musical voices of the women's movement, and one of the musical voices of the left," said Deborah Silverstein, one of Deihl's bandmates. "We were singing about women, we were singing about class oppression, race — the progressive issues of our generation."
Silverstein said that one song on their record, "Union Maid," conjures Deihl's fighting spirit, in its opening lyrics: "There once was a union maid, she never was afraid."
The song, Silverstein said, incorporates women's and labor issues — the heart of their activism.
"That line is about speaking out, and not being afraid, and using your voice, and that's what we were doing," Silverstein said. "We were breaking out, and breaking away, and breaking rules, and shocking and disappointing our parents, and we were not afraid. We wanted to be heard."
Deihl's brother, David, said his sister had always loved music. In high school, she played the French horn, and she worked for Rounder Records in its early days before going to work at Harvard as an administrative assistant.
In the summer, he said, she would play the fiddle for the crowds at Faneuil Hall, more for the fun than the quarters tossed her way.
"She just enjoyed it," he said.
David Deihl said his sister was a leftist at home in Cambridge's progressive tradition.
"She and Cambridge were a perfect match," he said with a chuckle.
Marcia Deihl's originality, and her willingness to be "her whole self everywhere she went," resonated deeply with the people she worked with in the activist community, said Abe Rybeck, founder and executive artistic director at the Theater Offensive, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender theater company, where Deihl was a volunteer and donor.
"She didn't hide a part of herself from anyone," said Rybeck, who said he treasured the natural beauty of what he called her "outness" in advocating for the bisexual community.
Deihl was brilliantly funny about her own life, and celebrating who she was, those who loved her recalled. In one song she wrote called "I'm Settled," she sang about what she said was a true story: watching her brother get gifts celebrating his marriage, and sending out her own fake engraved invitations proclaiming herself "Settled."
"No hubby no house no car no kid, no regrets for what I didn't or I did," she sang.
Since retiring a few years ago, Deihl had concentrated full time on her singing and writing, said Martha Collins, a friend who attended Old Cambridge Baptist Church. Deihl was active on the church's racial justice committee, and took part in a march to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.
In her art and social activism, Deihl embodied the idealistic spirit of the 1960s, Collins said. "She kept it with her her whole life," she said.
Deihl had begun working on a memoir, said Silverstein, who has the old band's record and posters in her Cambridge home. Her friend had kept a diary since she was a little girl, she said, her sharp and wise observations filling the record she kept of her extraordinary life.
"She was an archivist, in her own personal way, archiving our generation and her piece of it," said Silverstein. "I think she had the mind and the spirit of a historian, and she knew that we'd lived on the front lives of a revolution."