West performing at Newport Folk Festival, 1964
|Birth name||Hedwig Grace West|
|Born||April 6, 1938|
|Died||July 3, 2005(aged 67)|
West was of the same generation as Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and others of the American folk music revival. Her most famous song "500 Miles" is one of America's best loved and best known folk songs. She was described by the English folk musician AL Lloyd as "far and away the best of American girl singers in the [folk] revival."
Hedy West played the guitar and the banjo. She played both clawhammer style and a unique type of three finger picking that wasn't quite bluegrass, and wasn't quite old-time, exhibiting influences from blues and jazz.
Early life and family influences
She was born Hedwig Grace West in Cartersville in the mountains of northern Georgia in 1938. Her father, Don West, was a southern poet and coal mine labor organizer in the 1930s; his bitter experiences included seeing a close friend machine-gunned on the street by company goons in the presence of a young daughter. Later, he operated the Appalachian South Folklife Center in Pipestem, West Virginia and co-founded the Highlander Folk School in New Market, Tennessee.
Her great-uncle Augustus Mulkey played the fiddle; her paternal grandmother Lillie Mulkey West played the banjo. By her teens West was singing at folk festivals, both locally and in neighboring states. In the mid-50s she won a prize for ballad-singing in Nashville, TN. Many of her songs, including the raw materials for "500 Miles", came from Lillie, who passed on the songs she had learned as a child. She used her father's poetry in several songs, such as Anger in the Land.
Her family's politics were also a lifelong influence. Her liner notes for 1967's "Old Times and Hard Times", written from self-imposed exile in London, are an eloquent personal statement on the corrosive effect of the Vietnam War, with the prescient insight, "We'll be controlled by manipulated fear". (See Folk-Legacy Records.) While living in Stony Brook, New York, in the late 1970s, she donated her time and talents in unforgettable benefit concerts for unfashionable causes - as did with her fellow Appalachian-on-Long-Island, Jean Ritchie.
Her songs were rarely if ever overt, topical protests. But her working-class mountain roots were in her voice and ran through everything she sang, giving life and meaning to her laments for beaten-down factory girls and knocked-up servant girls.
Education, career and later life
Hedy West attended Western Carolina Teachers College. In 1959, she moved to New York to study music at Mannes College and drama at Columbia University. When she arrived and saw the "Folk Revival" taking place, she realized that the music the Northerners were playing was in fact music she had heard every day growing up. She embraced her "folk" side and started performing it around New York. She later attributed some of her ability to get 'inside' her songs to her early training as an actress. She was embraced by the Greenwich Village folk scene (most likely in no small part due to the fact that she actually came from the tradition they were reviving), and was invited by Pete Seeger to sing alongside him at a Carnegie Hall concert. She was signed to Vanguard Records by Manny Solomon after an appearance at the May 6, 1961 Indian Neck Folk Festival. After singing on 1961 compilation album New Folks for Vanguard, she soon made two solo records for the company.
She moved to the west coast and Los Angeles in the early 1960s, where she continued singing and later married. West performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. In 1966, she appeared on Pete Seeger's Public Television series Rainbow Quest, in an episode headlined by Mississippi John Hurt. By this time, she was making regular visits to England. She then lived in London for seven years, making tours of the country's folk clubs, and appearing at the Cambridge festival and the first Keele folk festival as well as regular visits to Europe, especially Germany. She recorded three albums for Bill Leader and AL Lloyd at Topic Records - Old Times and Hard Times (1965), Pretty Saro (1966) and Ballads (1967) - together with another for Fontana, entitled Serves 'em Fine (1967).
For a few months in 1962 she had been engaged to Roger Zelazny, who became a well-known science fiction writer. In 1968, in London, she married broadcaster Pete Myers (born Bangalore, India 18 April 1939; died Utrecht, The Netherlands 15 December 1998), one of the founding presenters of BBC Radio 1's Late Night Extra. Shortly thereafter - date unknown - they divorced.
In the autumn of 1970, she moved from Great Britain to Stony Brook. She picked her elderly grandparents' brains for scraps of musical memory. She studied composition with David Lewin at Stony Brook University, living nearby with her husband Joseph, with whom she had a daughter, Talitha. She was an adjunct Professor and taught two courses in Folk Music. One of her students, singer-songwriter Robin Greenstein, worked with her cataloging her record and tape collection. On return trips to Europe she made two further recordings. The first, Getting Folk out of the Country (1974)], was recorded in London with fellow American Bill Clifton and released by FV Schallplatten. The second, Love, Hell and Biscuits (1980), was released by Bear Family Records in 1976. She lived with her husband and daughter during the decade of the 80s in Princeton, NJ. Then in the early nineties, following the death of her husband, she moved to the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, area, where she spent most of her final years. One of her last performances was at the Eisteddfod Festival, sponsored by the Folk Music Society of New York at Polytechnic University, Brooklyn, NY, in 2004.
West's most famous song, "500 Miles," was put together from fragments of a melody she had heard her uncle sing to her back in Georgia . She copyrighted the resulting patched song. "500 Miles" has been recorded by Bobby Bare (a Billboard Top 10 hit in 1963), The Highwaymen, The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Peter & Gordon, Rosanne Cash, and many others. Another well-known song that she wrote and copyrighted (but which borrows heavily from existing traditional folk material) is "Cotton Mill Girl."
Cancer ruined her voice in her last years. A fine musical legacy is in unreleased recordings, such as a live concert from the 1978 Chicago Folk Festival, broadcast in her memory by a local radio station. It was her fate to reach the height of her powers long after popular tastes and the music industry had moved on. Even in the heyday of folk music she resisted pressure to slicken up her authentic style in order to become more commercial.
Hedy West died of cancer on 3 July 2005.
- Schofield, Derek (11 September 2005). "Hedy West". Guardian. Retrieved 22 October 2011.
- In this interview, Don West states he was the preacher at Barney Graham's funeral: Oral History Interview with Don West, January 22, 1975. Interview E-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. url=http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/E-0016/excerpts/excerpt_7866.html
- Lankford, Jr., Ronnie D. "Hedy West". Allmusic. Retrieved 22 October 2011.
- Ken Hurt, "Obituary: Hedy West, The Independent (London), Aug. 3, 2005.
- Carden, Gary, "Hedy West in Cullowhee, NC circa 1957," Holler Notes (June 15, 2009)"Holler Notes".
- "Hedy West". December 13, 2006. Retrieved 22 October 2011.
- Newport Folk Festival, tumblr. "Hedy West at Newport FF". newportfolkfest.tumblr.com. newportfolkfest. Retrieved July 27, 2014.
- Kovacs, Christopher S. (2009). "...And Call Me Roger": The Literary Life of Roger Zelazny, Part 1. In: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Volume 1: Threshold: NESFA Press.
- Rockwell, John (May 15, 1981). "Hedy West Renewing Folk Traditions". New York Times. Retrieved 07/04/2013. Check date values in:
- Eisteddfod-NY "Eisteddfod-NY".
- New Folks, Vanguard VRS 9096 (1961) [Hedy has 5 tracks on this LP, 3 of which were reissued on The Original New Folks Vanguard CD, VCD-143/144 (1993)]
- Hedy West accompanying herself on the 5-string banjo, Vanguard VRS-9124 (1963)
- Hedy West, Volume 2, Vanguard VRS-9162 (1964)
- Old Times & Hard Times: Ballads and Songs from the Appalachians, Topic 12T117 (London, 1965); Folk-Legacy FSA-32 (1967), reissued Folk-Legacy CD-32 (2004)
- Pretty Saro and other Appalachian Ballads, Topic 12T146 (1966)
- Ballads, Topic 12T163 (1967)
- Serves 'em Fine, Fontana U.K. STL 5432 (London, 1967)
- with Bill Clifton, Getting Folk Out of the Country, Folk Variety FV12008 / Bear Family BF15008 (1974), reissued on CD - Bear Family BCD 16754 (2010)
- Love, Hell and Biscuits, Bear Family BF15003 (1980)
- Ballads And Songs From The Appalachians, Fellside FECD 241 (2011) - double CD, a reissue comprising the three Topic albums