Hedy West - vocals, five-string banjo, acoustic guitar
Until her death in 2005 after a long battle with cancer, Hedy West was among the legendary American folk music icons that wrote, recorded, and performed traditional songs for over four decades. This recording, made at the historic Ash Grove club in Los Angeles during the hot August summer of 1967, captures West in her absolute artistic prime. Accompanying herself on banjo and guitar, these dozen tracks provide a true testament to the artistry and profound influence that West provided so many folk music enthusiasts and artists.
Born in the rural mountains of Georgia in 1938, Hedwig Grace West learned the art of writing and singing folk music from her family. Her grandparents were Appalachian music enthusiasts, who taught her the rural songs that dated back to the 1890s; her father, a union and coal labor organizer, gave her a life-long affiliation with protest and political music. Her songs about farmers weathering the depression and coal miners fighting for better wages and work conditions stayed with her throughout her entire career. It is widely known that West was among the most influential artists admired by folk upstarts of the early 1960s, including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
As a child, West was taught piano, but she was continually introduced to traditional folk music by her family, and by the early 1950s, she had taught herself five-string banjo and guitar. She headed for New York City in the later part of the 1950s to study music and acting, and was soon infatuated with the burgeoning folk music scene in Greenwich Village. While attending Columbia University in 1959, she made regular appearances at the major folk rooms, including Gerdes. Her popularity there landed her a contract with Vanguard Records; at the time, the most important folk label in America, and possibly, the world. By this time, she was performing along side the likes of Pete Seeger at prestigious Carnegie Hall shows.
The show captured here opens with two Depression-era folk songs written by Dorsey Dixon, "Hard Times In Here" (written about the textile union strikes of the 1900s) and "Danville Girl," a traditional railroad hobo tale. "500 Miles (Away From Home)" was taught to her by her grandmother, Lily West, and endured for over a century, especially when Peter, Paul & Mary had a massive Top 10 hit with their arrangement. (It was also covered by the Kingston Trio, Bobby Bare, and the Highwaymen, among others.)
Other songs provide a wide canvas for West to create her visual lyric-driven themes. "Matty Groves" tells a lurid story of an illicit affair between a peasant and the wife of a ruling British Lord, and later in the show she does a medley of "courting" songs ("My Good Old Man / Old Grey Mare"), again, introduced to her by grandmother Lily West.
By the early-1960s, she had moved to Los Angeles, but it did not suite her Bohemian lifestyle. Around the time of these recordings, West had been studying traditional British folk music in London. The following year she would marry broadcaster Pete Myers, a host of the BBC's Late Night Extra. They would divorce soon after, but West would remain in the U.K. for seven years, doing the folk club circuit and appearing at the major folk festivals each summer. In the 1970s she moved to Germany, but had to return home to care for her elderly grandparents, whose musical memory she picked. The result was three albums which focused on the traditional folk music handed down from generation to generation.
Sadly, West was diagnosed with cancer and by the 1990s, it had ravaged her voice. She performed through the end of the decade, but was a recluse in the final years of her life. She passed away at the age of 67 in 2005.
Written by Alan Bershaw