Hedy West: Untitled

Hedy West has been mentioned many times on this blog and here she is again. The American singer and banjo player from northern Georgia died prematurely in 2005. Largely forgotten at that time, her reputation as one of the very finest interpreters of traditional Appalachian folk songs has since undergone a huge reappraisal beginning with the release of the award-winning Ballads and Songs from the Appalachians in 2011.

Other re-releases followed and last year’s From Granmaw and Me kept the ball rolling. Now comes the rather lamely titled Untitled which is previously unreleased and was recorded in the late 1970s when she was living in Germany. There are contributions from Eloise and Tracy Schwarz (New Lost City Ramblers) but it’s mostly West singing and playing her familiar banjo and occasionally guitar.

West drew heavily on the repertoire of songs handed down by her family and her best work is found in the old songs and ballads that she knew so well. Unlike some of the more popular big city-based folk singers of her generation she really was closer to the lives she describes and that she sang about in a plain uncompromising style.

Untitled is more varied than her other albums. It contains some traditional ballads but also tracks by modern songwriters and a wider range of musical styles. There is also a song sung in German. This is ‘Der Graben’ (The Trench) a pacifist, anti-militarist song by Kurt Tucholsky who died in 1935. A strong social and political thread runs through the album. ‘Bush Whacker’ is another pacifist song from the Civil War collected in North Carolina. ‘On the Rim of the World’ is a 1960s composition by Malvina Reynolds (of ‘Little Boxes’ fame) that sympathises with people living on the street, while ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ is a well-known Depression era song containing the lines:

I know the police cause you trouble / They cause trouble everywhere / When you die and go to heaven / You’ll find no policeman there.

This leads nicely into ‘There’ll Be No Distinction’ a 1929 song from West Virginia described by West as “A happy rollicking country gospel hymn, a celebration of justice in at least the afterlife.”

This being folk song there’s the obligatory story of incestuous rape (but no murder) in ‘Queen Jane’ which also has the best banjo playing on the album. And then there’s the delightful ‘The Three Friends’ learned from Leslie Haworth of Cheshire, England who created the song by adapting a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. On the surface it’s a fairy tale with animals (and a sausage) but with a philosophical edge and is sung and played wonderfully by West with a great contribution from Tracy Schwarz on fiddle.

Untitled is short with the eleven tracks running to around 35 minutes but who cares when we’re able to listen once more to the inimitable Hedy West. The late singer and scholar A.L. Lloyd believed that of all the women singers of the 1960s American folk song revival she was “by far the best of the lot”. Years later the continued unearthing of these recordings just reinforces that view.

Untitled is out now on Fledg’ling Records.

http://www.fledglingrecords.co.uk

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