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Should your knowledge on the history of American folk music be a little rusty, Hedy West, who passed in 2005, aged 67, was one of the leading lights of traditional folk music. She is probably best known for her song 500 Miles. West was born in Cartersville in the hill country of northern Georgia. She was the daughter of Don West, a miners trade union organiser and poet who also ran a couple of folk music centres. She started singing early in her life, winning first prize at the Asheville Annual Folk Festival in the mid-50s when she was just 12, she was later invited by Pete Seeger to sing alongside him at Carnegie Hall. She signed to Vanguard and released her debut album in 1963 with the snappy title of Hedy West accompanying herself on the 5-string banjo, followed a year later by the no less imaginative Hedy West, Volume 2. A regular visitor to England, she spent seven years there in self-imposed exile, recording three albums for Topic and one for Fontana, moving to Germany in the early 70s, releasing a further two albums on Bear Records before eventually returning home to America.
She withdrew from the spotlight in later years and eventually stopped sing completely when she was struck down with cancer; however, prior to her death she had put together this until now unreleased album of songs learned from her grandmother, Lillie Mulkie West, a collection of songs gathered by the family over the years. Indeed, it was Lillie, born in 1888 in Gilmer County, herself who selected the material and who serves as the album’s narrator, hers the voice first heard as a prelude to the scene-setting Lil’ Ol Mountain Shack, the song co-penned by Hedy and her father. It’s the only non-traditional number, the first of which comes with Once I Had an Old Grey Mare with West on banjo and accompanied by fiddle player Tracy Schwarz. It’s followed by Blockader Mama, featuring just West’s voice and guitar on a song, set to a tune she wrote in 1977 based around The Orphan Child, about impoverished mountain folk women making bootleg whiskey for their menfolk to sell, such as sixteen year old sisters Ollie and Rillie Seay, the subject of Lillie’s subsequent recollection.
The next track is actually titled Two Sisters, but has no connection to the narration, being, instead, a variation on the familiar English folk ballad also variously known as The Twa Sisters, The Wind and the Rain and Cruel Sister although West’s version, while still having the bones of the drowned girl’s bones turned into fiddle screws and bow, makes no mention of any sororicide.
West and Schwarz augmented by David Qualley on guitar, a waltzer drawn from the Music Hall tradition, Jack and Joe unfolds another siblings tale, the former asking the latter to take care of his sweetheart while he’s off making his fortune, only to find on his return that the pair have married.
I have no idea of the provenance of Sally Carter, a bluegrass banjo tune driving a song about a feckless wife though the sleeve notes suggest the lyrics Lillie learned from her father involved an elderly mill worker crapping in her stocking and giving it to her boss. Its origins lying in a traditional Irish song about the pitfalls of inebriation and with the earliest documented recording being by Riley Puckett in 1925, the waltzing sway-along I’ll Never Get Drunk Anymore is the catchiest track, Tracy Schwarz again on fiddle and joined by wife Eloise on harmonies. Probably the best known and certainly the oldest – song here is the much-recorded Frog Went Courting which dates back to at least 1548 and, while it may once have had a political context, has long been a children’s nursery rhyme staple. It prompts the last of Lillie’s contributions, a whimsical never give up allegory, about two frogs falling into a churn of milk and being saved because one kicks around so hard he turns it into a lump of butter.
Sung by Hedy and Eloise with banjo and guitar accompaniment, it ends on a gospel note with the redoubtable hymnal The Uncloudy Day, written in 1879 and later popularised by The Staple Singers, the tune drawing on the Scottish traditional Will Ye No Come Back Again? and also serving as the basis for Hank Williams’ I Saw The Light.
All praise to Fledg’ling for not only rescuing this superb collection from wherever it had been gathering dust but, in the process, bringing West’s name back into the spotlight she deserves as one of the great revivalists of American folk music alongside the likes of Baez and Seeger and, it is to be hoped, inspiring a fitting career-spanning anthology of her previous work in the not too distant future.