Hedy West

b. April 6, 1938 / Cartersville, GA
d. July 3, 2005 / N/A

Singer / Songwriter

Image from Stambler and Landon, “Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1969.
 Hedy West

Singer, banjoist. guitarist. composer, performer, and recording artist

A native of northern Georgia's hill country, Hedy West was born to a folk-singing family on April 6, 1938. Her father, Don West, was a trade union organizer and a well-known Southern poet, and Hedy West has set some of his verses to music, such as "Anger in the Land," which was recorded on Hedy West, Volume II (Vanguard VRS 9126). Although her repertoire includes ballads, broadsides, industrial songs, dance tunes, and original compositions, Hedy West's emphasis is on traditional American folk music.

In the tradition of the West family folk process, she acquired a wealth of traditional material from her paternal grandmother, Lillie Mulkey West, who, in turn, had learned the songs from her parents and grandparents: "I was learning the material before I started, from my parents and from my grandmother, who is from Blairsville in Union County, Georgia. The traditional material was just typical of British-American Southern mountain music. As a folksinger, my father was a big influence but my grandma was the biggest,"

At the age of four, Hedy West was taking piano lessons: and she sang and played banjo while she was in high school: "Before leaving the South, I was involved yearly in the festivals. One of them that I used to sing in was the Asheville Annual Folk Festival, and another called the Mountain Youth Jamboree. One year, I got one of the ballad-singing prizes, in 1950."

In 1959 she came to New York City to study music at Mannes College and drama at Columbia University, but was absorbed by the folk movement almost immediately upon arrival in the North'. "During the revival, all those city kids wore trying to look like Southerners. I didn't know what they were doing, and they didn't know what I was doing! It started to develop slowly between 1959 and 1961, but people that I knew, knew I sang. My father was an old friend of Pete Seeger, and, when I was nine, my father had sponsored a concert of Pete's in Atlanta—when Pete was still sitting at the side of the stage and playing his banjo, and not standing,

"Pete invited me to participate in several performances. One of them was a Sing Out! hoot at Carnegie Hall. And another was an engagement at the Village Gate in 1962, which was my first big date.

"Everything really started happening for me in 1961 when Maniiy Greenhill heard me sing at Indian Neck Festival and told Manny Solomon at Vanguard Records. I made a record called New Folks [Vanguard VRS-9096] with the Greenbriar Boys, Jackie Washington, and David Gude, and everybody that was on the album was Contracted to make other albums. I made two more for Vanguard; Hedy West Accompanying Herself on the 5-String Banjo [VRS 9124] and Hedy West, Volume II. At the same time, I Started singing in various places like Caffe' Lena and Gerde's while I was making the records.

"I went to Los Angeles and started singing in some places there. I got married and lived there. Then I started going to London. I lived in London for about seven ^ears, and I recorded for Topic {Pretty Saro and Other Songs from My Family, Hedy West (12T146,) and Ballads, Hedy West (12T163)] and one with Fontana-Philips Records {Serves 'Em Fine, Hedy West (STL 5432)] in 1967. I lived in Germany for a while, and I recorded an album in 1972 for Folk Variety Records, a German label, and it was called Getting the Folk Out of the Country [FV 12008]." She returned to the United States in 1970 to study composition

with David Lewin, and she now lives in Stony Brook, Long Island.

"In the future, I want to continue singing and documenting folk material, I've been working on a project that's going to take me many more years—documenting my specific family, I don't do it from a romantic point of view, but from an exact point of view, I'm afraid that's my personality, The music is collected and transcribed, but I'm trying to fit it into a social context, so I'm interviewing. I spent a month this summer with Grandma, who's eighty-nine and still sings, and I was interviewing her and finding out about her life. She and my father were big influences for getting me started and doing folk music to make a living, But I, like XU many other singers, was probably influenced greatly by Pete Seeger, who was a general father figure to a lot of people.

"I think In my performances I've been influenced by people who aren't singers, people who are really good actors. I very much admire good acting, Without an acting technique, a singer can't really sing. I consider the essence of acting also the essence of Singing. Without an acting technique, you really can't touch an audience. My music is mixed up with anything that is on the stage, from classical music to pop music,"

Other available recordings by Hedy West are Old Times and Hard Times, Hedy West (Folk-Legacy FSA-32) and Love, Hell and Biscuits, Hedy West (Bear Family Records, West Germany),

-- Folk Music: More Than a Song; Copyright © 1976 by Kristine Baggelaar and Donald Milton. Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York, NY, publisher.


Image from Stambler and Landon, “Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1969. HEDY WEST Singer, banjoist. Born Cartersville, Georgia, April 6, 1938.

A singer of many of the most traditional folk songs, Hedy West, heard her first folk music in her mother’s arms in the hill country of Western Georgia. Her grandmother played the banjo and sang classic ballads or nonsense songs to the children, and her father, Don West, was one of the best known poets of the south. Other friends and relatives also came to the West home to sing and play, including her uncle Gus who was one of the most popular fiddlers in the region.

Hedy’s parents wanted her to learn music and started her on piano lessons when she was only four. Hedy’s interest in music continued to increase as she got older, veering more and more toward the folk idiom. In high school, she taught herself to play the banjo, following her grandmother’s example. Soon she was singing some of the old songs at local gatherings. Word of her ability spread beyond Cartersville and she was asked to appear at other folk music events. In 1956, seventeen-year-old Hedy won hearty applause for her singing in a festival at Boone, North Carolina. Two years later, her reputation was further increased when she won first prize in a folk song contest at Nashville, Tennessee.

After this, her career began to move into high gear. She traveled north to play in coffee houses in Chicago and New York. This led to an invitation to appear in a hootenanny run by Sing Out! magazine at Carnegie Hall. Pete Seeger was impressed with her ability and asked her to join him in a two-week engagement at the Village Gate in New York.

Some of her renditions were then included in a Vanguard LP called “New Folks.” Soon after, she was featured on her own LP, “Hedy West.”

By the mid-1960s, she had sung at most major festivals in the U.S. and given recitals across the country. Audiences were enthralled with her performances of such songs as “Mister Froggie,” “Single Girl,” “The Wife of Usher’s Well,” “Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender,” “Little Old Man,” “Cotton Mill Girl,” “Pan of Biscuits” and “The Brown Girl.”

In addition to her singing, Hedy wrote words and music to classical material or composed her own songs. Her output included music to go with her father’s poems, “Anger in the Land.” The 1963 country hit by Bobby Bare, “500 Miles,” is credited to Hedy, Bare, and Charlie Williams.

At the end of the ‘60s Hedy moved to London, and performed widely in Europe.

-- Bio from Stambler and Landon, “Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1969.
And thanks to Pete Curry for contributing this transcription to the LINER NOTES.


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 Baez 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 organizer 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, organized 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 farm workers, 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 anthologized 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.

Hedy West, folk-singer, banjoist, musician and political activist: born Cartersville, Georgia 6 April 1938; married; died 3 July 2005.

Source credit unknown
 


Hedy West
US folk singer, popular in Britain, whose performances had a political dimension

Derek Schofield
Monday September 12, 2005
The Guardian

Described by the great English folk musician AL Lloyd as "far and away the best of American girl singers in the [folk] revival", Hedy West, who has died at the age of 67, was the real deal. In the 1960s, the urban-based American folk revival had an idealised view of the singers and instrumentalists from poor, rural America, and sought to emulate them. This was West's background, but she was educated and intelligent and had little sympathy for the city copyists.

The foundation of her singing was the traditional ballads and songs of her childhood. These songs had their roots in the folk songs of Britain and Ireland - songs such as Little Matty Groves and The Wife of Usher's Well. In addition, she wrote her own songs, or adapted songs from her community, the best known of which are Cotton Mill Girls and 500 Miles, which was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, the Seekers, Bobby Bare and Sonny and Cher.

Born in Cartersville, Georgia, West grew up on a farm in nearby Kenesaw. She was named Hedwig Grace, the former name from a German friend of her father, but it was quickly shortened to Hedy. It was a musical family: her great-uncle Gus played the fiddle, while her grandmother Lillie, a great influence on West's musical development, played the banjo. West had piano lessons from the age of four, and taught herself to play the five-string banjo, as her grandmother had done. In the late 1970s, she received funding from the American National Endowment for the Arts for a detailed project of the music and life of her grandmother.

Hedy's father Don West was a trade union organiser and a well known southern poet, and later she set some of his poems to music, including Anger in the Land, based on a story about the lynching of a black man, told to Don West by the victim's brother. The song was later sung by Pete Seeger.

Having won a prize for ballad singing when she was only 12, by her teens West was singing at folk festivals, both locally and in neighbouring states. In 1959, she moved to New York to study music at Mannes College and drama at Columbia University. She was also absorbed by the folk revival in the city, and invited by Pete Seeger to sing alongside him at a Carnegie Hall concert. Her talents were quickly recognised, and after singing on a compilation album, New Folks, for the Vanguard label, she soon made two solo records for the company.

She moved to the west coast and Los Angeles in the early 1960s, where she continued singing and later married. By this time, she was making regular visits to England. She then lived in London for seven years, making tours of the country's folk clubs, and appearing at the Cambridge festival and the first Keele folk festival. She recorded three albums for Lloyd at Topic - Old Times and Hard Times (1965), Pretty Saro (1966) and Ballads (1967) - together with another for Fontana, entitled Serves 'em Fine.

In the early 1970s, she lived in Germany, where, before returning to the US to study composition, she made a number of further recordings, including one with fellow American Bill Clifton, Getting Folk out of the Country (1974), and another entitled Love, Hell and Biscuits (1980). Her songwriting gave a political dimension to her performances, and she was active in the freedom movements of the 1960s and beyond. She strongly supported the boycott of the ABC network after it refused to include Pete Seeger in its programming.

Hedy's singing was heard less frequently in recent years, and she stopped altogether when cancer affected her voice. At the time of her death, she was living in Long Island. Her husband predeceased her. She is survived by her daughter.

· Hedy West (Hedwig Grace), folk singer, born April 6 1938; died July 3 2005

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,3604,1567659,00.html

Songs Credited to Hedy West Song Title
1. Five Hundred Miles
2.  

 

CLICK HERE to go to theHOME page of the Kingston Trio LINER NOTES.
Last revised: December 13, 2006.