Hedy West: CD release of first two albums

Hedy West is back again. After a long time in the wilderness the Appalachian singer and banjo player’s star continues to rise with the release on CD of her first two albums. This is an event that really can be said to be long-awaited as most of West’s recordings were unavailable until last year when Fellside’s double CD Ballads and Songs of the Appalachians – a compilation of three albums recorded in the UK in the 1960s – won the fRoots award for best re-release of 2011 (and is reviewed elsewhere on this blog). Sadly, Hedy West is not here to see the renewed attention as she died in 2005 at the age of 67.

This newest release is a CD containing her first two albums Hedy West and Hedy West, Volume 2 which were recorded on the Vanguard label and are now released through Ace/Vanguard. In those days albums were shorter and so the two LPs fit neatly onto one CD along with two previously unissued bonus tracks. The first album (rather quaintly subtitled ‘accompanying herself on the 5-string banjo’) contains West’s best known song ‘500 Miles’ which was covered many times by other artists and became a folk crossover hit. Her version with its simple vocal and banjo arrangement is the definitive one. ‘Cotton Mill Girls’ is another of her socially conscious songs, typically learned from a family member and then developed and expanded into its present form.

Volume 2 is perhaps even more accomplished than the debut album, though West (in her mid-20s at the time of these recordings) seems already fully formed as a great interpreter of traditional songs and ballads as well as a songwriter. She set to music her father’s politically inflammatory poem ‘Anger in the Land’ and it’s one of the most powerful recordings here. Inspired as it was by the true story of a lynching in Georgia it’s a relative of the more famous ‘Strange Fruit’. There are many fascinating lessons to be learned from these recordings: West’s song ‘Pans of Biscuits’ was learned from her great-uncle who first heard it during the depression of the late 1890s. Its melody is the same as the religious song ‘Palms of Victory’ and the tune was used again with new words by Bob Dylan for his ‘Paths of Victory’.

The song which opens Volume 2, ‘Boston Burglar’, was commonly known in the south-eastern mountains and was learned by West from her grandmother who in turn learned it from her uncle. The same song was recently recorded in the UK by English singers Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson who learned it from Irish sources. This folk process was a natural thing for Hedy West. As Ken Hunt points out in his informative essay included in this nicely packaged release, she was not like the other headlining female folksingers of her time as her music was more in tune with her own American roots and “her deceptively economical banjo notes rose and fell like southern speech patterns”. She was the real thing. Now that most of Hedy West’s recordings are available again on CD we can finally appreciate her legacy as a wonderfully natural singer and musician.

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