Hedy West - vocals, five-string banjo, acoustic guitar
Born in 1938, Hedy West's musical education began early. At the age of four, she began taking piano lessons and by the age of 12, was being recognized for her ballad singing. During her teen years, West performed at Southern folk festivals, both locally and in neighboring states. She also taught herself banjo, on which she developed her own style, combining the clawhammer technique with three-finger picking. Her banjo playing had a distinctly mournful sound that was quite unlike contemporary bluegrass recordings. West's voice retained her southern roots, which she did not attempt to alter when singing.
Unlike many of her peers, who first experienced traditional folk and rural music in urban settings during the late 1950's folk revival, West drew directly from her own family's musical heritage while growing up in the rural landscape of Cartersville, Georgia. West's family played an integral role in shaping her musical direction and convictions. Her father, Don West, was a local trade union organizer. He introduced his daughter to the songs of Southern mill workers and miners, which would remain a focal point of her repertoire and instill in her a lifelong affiliation with folk music that revealed the indecencies inflicted on Southern working men, women and children during the early half of the last century. West's grandmother, Lillie Mulkey West, and her uncle, Augustus Mulkey, also exposed her to traditional British-American ballads. Her grandmother, according to an interview with Hedy, "specialized in sober or tragic songs, perhaps conditioned by her hard life, but Gus (her uncle) preferred humorous songs; indeed, he was not likely to sing unless he could extract a bit of fun out of the song." Balancing these two nearly opposite approaches became essential to West's live performances, captivating nearly everyone that heard her perform.
In 1959, West moved to New York, where she pursued music studies at Mannes College and drama studies at Columbia University. With the folk revival taking off, she began performing at Gerde's Folk City and Cafe Lena in Greenwich Village, where she was perceived as one of the few authentic folk singers who actually came from the tradition that most others on the circuit were simply reviving. She also appeared on a hootenanny bill at Carnegie Hall, which led to her opening for Pete Seeger at the Village Gate and an invitation to sing with him at a high profile concert at Carnegie Hall. This led to a recording deal with Vanguard Records and by 1963 she had two albums out under her own name, accompanying herself on banjo. Her combination of sobering topical songs and humorous political commentary would be the basis of her repertoire and an integral aspect throughout her career, enamoring and influencing the likes of up and comers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
"500 Miles," West's most recognized song, was actually a hodgepodge of melodic fragments she learned from her uncle. She registered the resulting patchwork for copyright, a wise decision since it soon becomes one of America's most ubiquitous folk songs. Initially popularized by Bobby Bare, who scored a Top 10 hit with it in 1963, the song was subsequently recorded and performed by countless others since. Her initial success provided the means for her to relocate to Los Angeles and to make regular visits to England, where she experienced even greater recognition and popularity. This led to her moving to England, touring European folk clubs and festivals and securing a recording contract with Topic Records, where she recorded three more influential albums [Old Times and Hard Times (1965), Pretty Saro (1966) and Ballads (1967)] as well as one for Fontana Records [Serves 'em Fine (1967)].
Which brings us to this historic Ash Grove performance, recorded in August of 1967, capturing West in her artistic prime. Accompanying herself on banjo and guitar, these fourteen tracks provide a true testament to her artistry and influence. The initial five songs of this set are a virtual chronicle of the struggles of Southern textile mill workers and factory laborers that so affected West growing up in Georgia. All five of these ballads focus on the indecencies and challenges that Southern working families faced, where both children and parents were forced to work 12- hour days to support their family and entire towns and villages were essentially owned by the textile mill companies. These songs, "Babies In The Mill," "Factory Girl," "Cotton Mill Blues," the title track of her most recent album at the time, "Serves 'Em Fine" and finally "Lewiston Factory Girls," all clearly depict the meager existence and unending struggle of mill workers during the early half of the last century. West referred to these songs as "chronicling the lower classes and getting to the nitty-gritty" and all of these songs clearly fall into that category. Despite being about a specific time and place in American history, these songs of survival and dreams of escaping one's circumstances have a resonance that remains universal.
The next three songs of the set head in a bluesier direction and West switches over to banjo on the first two. "Little Sadie" is a classic murder ballad while "Ramsey County Jail" explores being a prisoner with no escape, except through dreams. Both of these feature West's unique, almost modal approach to banjo. The next song, "All In, Down And Out Blues" is another notable cut from her 1967 album, Serves 'em Fine, a tale of gambling, bootlegging liquor and hard times, before West heads in a more political and humorous direction, showing another engaging side of her personality.
Other than the set closer, the remainder of this set consists of a series of short politically motivated dittys that reflect West's feelings in regard to the U.S. presidential administration and the Vietnam War. The first four of these also share another thing in common; they are all familiar melodies that West has revised with new, often scathing lyrics of her own. "Riding Through The Reich" revamps "Jingle Bells" into a sarcastic Nazi commentary and "No More Lyndon Over Me" becomes a draft resistance anthem name checking President Lyndon Johnson. "Hush Little Nation," West's revision of the traditional lullaby "Hush Little Baby" and "The Poverty War Is Dead," based on "Go Tell It On The Mountain," continue in the same mode, also taking aim at President Johnson. These humorous moments lighten the mood before West gets deadly serious by closing her set with "I'm A Roving Grave Digger," one of her most intensely moving anti-war songs of the era, which West had translated from German. This set-closer also displays what a strong influence the British folk movement was having on West since her move to England. On this song her guitar playing strongly emulates Martin Carthy, one of the premiere English folk guitarists, who had recorded with West back in London. This final number has the Ash Grove audience clamoring for an encore and she obliges. West returns with her banjo and jumps into "Brother Ephus," one of the more lighthearted numbers from her 1965 album, Old Times And Hard Times.
These songs about Southern families weathering the depression remained an integral part of Hedy West's repertoire throughout her career, as did her gift for combining humor with thought-provoking political commentary. Long before the anti-Vietnam war movement gained momentum and political protest was still downright dangerous, Hedy West gave a voice to many who suffered in silence. In doing so, she had an influence on nearly everyone who heard her, from Dylan to the New Depression/American Roots musicians of today. Hedy West was a woman whose convictions and working-class mountain roots ran deep, and this recording captures her during a most compelling time in her nearly five decade career.
Written by Alan Bershaw