Hedy West

Nitty-gritty singer of the folk revival

Wednesday 03 August 2005 00:00
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Hedy West was part of the music-making phenomenon known in Europe as the folk revival. Unlike most of her American compatriots, who came to Europe to tour, see the sights and go home, she spent lengthy periods in Europe, including several years in Britain.

Born in 1938 into relatively poor circumstances in Cartersville, "in the hill country of north-west Georgia", her background was a little more grounded in the folk tradition than the Joan Baezs of the movement. In fact she belonged to a working-class mixed oral and literary tradition. She had picked up old songs - child ballads such as "The Wife of Usher's Well" and "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender", common-parlance songs like "Shady Grove" and "Mister Froggie" - and banjo-picking licks from her kinsfolk, most notably her grandmother Lillie Mulkey West and her great-uncle Augustus "Gus" Mulkey.

Her father, Don West, was a labour organiser and Southern poet, described by the noted writer Irwin Silber as "a Georgia red-clay poet with a streak of radicalism that has its roots in history". Her father was no redneck. His 1950 poem "Anger in the Land" - which his daughter later set to music - came about after listening to a black hitch-hiker tell a story about how "his brother was lynched and his body cut down from the limb and flung across the doorstep of his mother's shack". Hedy West recorded the song on her 1963 album Hedy West, Volume 2, and Peter, Paul & Mary, Bernice Reagon and Pete Seeger went on to sing it. As folk-singers went, Hedy West came with credentials.

She had begun piano lessons at four but by high school was increasingly enraptured by the possibilities of the banjo. Still in her teens she entered the world of folk-song contests, winning out-of-state ones, too, in North Carolina and Tennessee. These contests were not lightly won and word about her spread. She entered the coffee-house scene - the closest to Britain's folk-club scene that the United States offered - and obtained engagements in Chicago and New York.

She earned a place studying music and drama in New York, managing also to get bookings at Gerde's Folk City and Caffe Lena, as well as appearing on a hootenanny bill at Carnegie Hall - as a consequence Pete Seeger secured her as his support slot at the Village Gate. By 1961 she was recording in a small way, appearing on the New Folks anthology. In 1963 she had an LP out under her own name on Vanguard Records, Hedy West Accompanying Herself on the Five-String Banjo, and in 1965 her first record in Britain. In 1966 she toured in the South as part of a multiracial ensemble that included Len Chandler and Barbara Dane, organised by Reagon to raise funds for the Southern Students Organizing Committee and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

West referred to her work as chronicling the "lower classes" and, getting to the nitty-gritty with repertoire items like "Cotton Mill Girls", "Whore's Lament" and "Come All Ye Lewiston Factory Girls", songs "specifically from and about farmworkers, mill hands and miners". As the years went by, new issues arose and she took up the cudgels in song. In 1967 she appeared alongside Joan Baez, Janis Ian, Odetta and Buffy Sainte-Marie on Save the Children: songs from the hearts of women, an anthology co-produced by Judy Collins.

It is not clear when she settled in England. What is certain is that she released three albums for the London-based Topic label, Old Times and Hard Times (1965), Pretty Saro (1966) and Ballads (1967), followed by Serves 'em Fine (1967) for Fontana, on which she was accompanied by the folk guitarist Martin Carthy. From England she moved on to Germany, producing a well-received album with Bill Clifton called Getting Folk Out of the Country (1974) and, in 1980, Love, Hell and Biscuits, a career great.

Her "500 Miles" - a hit for Bobby Bare in 1963 - remains her most anthologised song, but interestingly it has been taken up and reworked by the excellent German Liedermacher (song-maker) Holger Saarmann. Whatever Hedy West did always sounded perfectly right. The greatest tragedy is that most of her work is out of print.

Ken Hunt

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