Hedy West "Ballads and Songs From the Appalachians"
“three forgotten albums from the 1960s folk revival get a long overdue reassessment”
Hedy West was one of the most critically acclaimed of the artists that made up the 1960s folk revival, but didn’t receive the exposure, or indeed sales, of her less exceptional but more famed colleagues.
The real thing in many ways; though a University educated Georgia girl, she learnt the majority of her songs from her family and carried on the tradition of folk storytelling in her recorded material. West went on to spend several years in England in the Mid 1960s, establishing herself as a star of the European folk scene, and it is from this era that the three LPs that are collected here blossom from.
This double CD collects the three albums ‘Old Times & Hard Times’, ‘Pretty Saro’, and ‘Ballads’ which were released in the UK in ’65, ’66, and ’67 respectively, and make their CD debut here after a lengthy slumber in the vaults. Containing exclusively traditional material, the richly poetic songs draw heavily on lost love, death, betrayal, rambling, ghosts and all-too-human struggle. For those not yet familiar, West’s tremulous, melodic and authoritative voice is a real treat; the type you could happily hear sing the phone book. Accompanied very simply, and mostly by just 5 string banjo, the likes of ‘Old Joe Clark’ and coal-mining union fight song ‘The Davidson-Wilder Blues’ sound urgent and surprisingly vital still, and it's the variety in the material that really makes this release interesting.
In spite of the title of this collection, ‘Barbara Allen’, ‘The Rich Irish Lady‘ and ‘The Sheffield Apprentice’ definitely have their genesis in English folk stories and locations, lending the scope of the collection some variety. The latter material relies more on accapella renditions of these ancient songs, however interestingly, ‘Love Henry’ is blatantly the basis for Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads classic ‘Henry Lee’.
Elsewhere, a great number of the songs, like standouts ‘The Unquiet Grave’, 'Gambling Man’ and Shut Up In The Mines in Coal Creek’ manage to be playful, mournful, occasionally bleakly tragic but always richly lyrical. Maybe in an act of purity to the art-form, the gender of the first-person narratives remains resolutely unchanged from the original work, seeing West act out the role of a male protagonist which occasionally seems odd and removed (‘I’m an Old Batchelor’ for example), but the strength in the richly varied, and poetic material always shines through.
The recording and re-mastering job on these discs is all but faultless; despite its 40 year vintage, everything here sounds crystal clear and powerful, and the track-by-track commentary in the booklet giving the background to each track is an added bonus in consuming the wealth of worthy material here.
This collection of some 41 heartfelt songs and skits is a cultural treasury of both musical, story telling and folk history, all faultlessly executed by West, who deserved a much wider audience, both then and now. West passed away in 2005 and recorded up until 1980, but from experience, her exceptional talents have the power to convert even the most ardent doubter, or the uninitiated.
Anyone with even a vague interest in country, folk, roots, or just plain great music has a surprising amount to enjoy here.