Hedy West: Ballads and Songs from the Appalachians

The UK label Fellside has released a double album Ballads and Songs from the Appalachians by the American roots singer Hedy West who died of cancer six years ago. The 41 tracks were originally released as three separate albums on the Topic label and they were recorded while West was living in England back in the 1960s. They have been unavailable for several years.

In those days Hedy West was one of the big names of the American folk revival, a singer who frequently played five string banjo rather than the more usual guitar. She came from a family of poor hill farmers in Georgia and most of the songs she sang were learned directly from her grandmother and from other members of her family. Her father was an activist and union organizer, so when she went to New York to join the burgeoning folk music scene she arrived with a stamp of authenticity and from a background very different from most other singers of her generation. West was the real thing. She sang mining songs, narrative ballads, country pieces and children’s songs – always in a plain and unaffected voice as she accompanied herself with rhythmic banjo playing.

In Hedy West’s original notes, reprinted in the CD booklet, she describes a situation which still has relevance today: “The songs readiest available to modern city folk are pop songs, sentimental, unreal songs that cheat, that don’t honestly describe life. The country songs may not be dealing with the supermarket world, but they do rise out of genuine, often deep experience, and they can provide nourishment for a people tired of a diet of artificial things.”

These wonderful recordings show off the great variety of her repertoire. Many of the songs originated as British ballads which then migrated to the Appalachians. Her version of ‘Little Matty Groves’ will be familiar from the classic recording by Fairport Convention. ‘Little Sadie’ and ‘Love Henry’ were both recorded by Bob Dylan, and ‘Beaulampkin’ appeared twice last year (as ‘Long Lankin’) on albums by young English singer Jim Moray and Scotland’s Alasdair Roberts. In later years Hedy West developed more of a cult following as her albums went out of print but these CDs should go some way towards establishing her once again as one of the greatest interpreters of roots music.

A long time ago, when I was still a teenager, I was lucky enough to see Hedy West when she performed at a folk club called the Golden Cross in the upstairs room of a pub in Norwich, England. To my 17 year old eyes and ears she seemed the most exotic person – enormously wise, musically accomplished, and from a world I’d only encountered in books. She must have been just 27 at the time. All these years later it’s great to have these recordings finally available again and attractively packaged with informative sleeve notes.

Explore posts in the same categories: Roots Music from Out There

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