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HEDY WEST - Ballads And Songs From The Appalachians

HEDY WEST - Ballads And Songs From The Appalachians
Fellside Recordings  FECD241

Hedwig (Hedy) West, who died in 2005 aged 67, was an American singer and banjoist of the old school who, though college educated, was born into a poor rural background in Cartersville, Georgia.  50 years back, she was well-known to European audiences and resident for some time in the UK.  Immensely popular and influential, her appearances at my local Folk Club, the Bothy in Southport, in 1966 and 1968 are still talked about in awed tones, such was their spellbinding quality.

Unlike more middle class discoverers of “folk” via the ‘60s resurgence, West was grounded in the tradition from the outset. She resisted attempts to “go commercial” and her unvarnished approach is the better for that. A listen to her most famous composition 500 Miles contrasted with the anaemic Journeymen and Peter, Paul and Mary versions, flags up instantly why A.L. Lloyd called her “far and away the best of American girl singers in the revival.”

Her repertory came initially from her family, but she performed her own material too.  Her father Don had been a miner and Union activist. His politics coloured her writing and gave songs like Cotton Mill Girls a lyrical bite – social history set to music. Those songs are not contained in this double CD re-release though, being just what its title implies and comprises the three albums she made for Topic between 1965 and 1967. Here are Child ballads, broadsides, religious and minstrel songs. Guileless, uncontrived, she sings her songs straightforwardly to 5-string banjo accompaniment or a capella without over-emoting or displaying an iota of self-over-song.

Hedy’s voice, potent but never strident and not what one would call cosy or vulnerable, was a mixture of grit and grace. Her name, in much the same way as contemporaries such as Barbara Dane and Cynthia Gooding, is unfairly I feel, not now as well-known as those of the Baez and Collins ilk of the US revival. Paul Adams, Fellside’s CEO, patently shares this opinion and is to be applauded for making these long out of catalogue recordings available again.  Simply, this is required listening.

Clive Pownceby

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This album was reviewed in Issue 90 of The Living Tradition magazine.