Fleeting and Forgotten Female Folkies

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 24, 2009 05:47pm | Post a Comment
Lately, whilst reading about unfamiliar folkies popping up on my Pandora folk station, I sometimes feel like I'm reading the same thing over and over when it comes to a handful of female artists. I doubt that the reasons were the same, but several new (to me) discoveries had similar careers involving under-recognized talent, followed by disappearance/retirment and then, several decades later, new interest. Among these chanteuses are:

Bridget St. John -- Bridget St. John learned guitar from John Martyn. St. John began touring the folk circuit and recording for the BBC and on John Peel's Dandelion label with members of Jethro Tull and King Crimson. In 1974, she recorded Jumble Queen and was voted the fifth most popular female singer in the Melody Maker readers' poll. In 1976, St. John moved to Greenwich Village and retired from music. She re-emerged in 1999 for a Nick Drake tribute concert and toured Japan in 2006.

Diane Hildebrand -- Hildebrand started out writing for Screen Gems alongside Boyce & Hart, Carole King & Gerry Goffin as well as other Brill Building alumni, including her frequent partner, Jack Keller. Together they wrote several songs for The Monkees as well as the theme to The Flying Nun. Whilst living in Beachwood Canyon, she signed a one record deal with Elektra, for whom she recorded her sole album, Early Morning Blues and Greens.

Isla Cameron --  Cameron was a Scottish actress and singer who grew up in Dorset and Somerset. In the 1950s, she often sang with Joan Littlewood, then the wife of Ewan MacColl. In 1966, she released her sole solo recording, Isla Cameron. After that, her acting career had took off more than her music and she focused on that until she died in an accident in her home in 1980.

Linda Perhacs -- Perhacs made one album, Parallelograms, in 1970, which failed to gain much attention. She then disappeared and her label spent two fruitless years trying to relocate her. After her album was re-released in 2005, her reputation began to grow, with Daft Punk including her music in Electroma and Devendra Banhart enlisting her for background vocals on some of his Tyrannosaurus Rex-indebted compositions.

Ruthann Friedman -- Friedman was born in the Bronx but grew up in the Valley. After first picking up the guitar at eight, her first song earned her a spot on a televised talent thow when she was twelve. Soon she was playing the Troubadour in West Hollywood where she made several acquaintances. Living in David Crosby's guest house she wrote "Windy" which she gave to Van Dyke Parks, who, with the Association, made it a hit. Her only album, Constant Companion, was released in 1969 although she also wrote and performed the soundtrack for (future Baywatch creator) Doug Schwartz's hippie/biker exploitation film, Peace Killers, in 1971.

Shelagh McDonald -- McDonald released two albums featuring folk heavy-hitters like Richard Thompson, Dave Mattacks, Danny Thompson and Keith Christmas before disappearing in 1971. In 2005, public interest was renewed when her two albums were re-released and she was the subject of several new stories. At the end of the year, the mystery was solved when Shelagh came forth and told the Scottish Daily Mail that a bad acid trip had left her paranoid and unable to sing. In the twenty plus years since, she'd lived with her parents and lived on the dole and then in a tent with her bookseller husband. 

Sibylle Baier -- Baier was a German actress/singer who made several home recordings between 1970 and 1973. After appearing in Wim Wenders' 1974 film Alice in den Städten, she decided to pursue neither career and moved to the US to raise her family. In 2004, her son Robby lent a copy of her recordings to J. Mascis, who released them as Colour Green in 2006.

Vashti Bunyan -- After being expelled from the Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing for spending too much time writign songs, Vashti Buynan went to New York where she immersed herself in the music scene. Back in London, she met Andrew Loog Oldham who gave her a Jagger/Richards song. After recording a few singles for Immediate, she hit the road for the Hebrides in a horse-drawn cart. After recording an album with guests including members of Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band, she dropped out of music and moved to Ireland to raise a family until renewed interest in the 2000s brought her out of retirement.

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Samantha Bumgarner -- fiddling ballad woman of mountains

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 12, 2009 06:49pm | Post a Comment

Aunt Samantha Bumgarner (née Biddix) was a fiddle and banjo player from North Carolina who, in 1924, became the first woman to record hillbilly music. In doing so, she opened the doors for all the great female hillbilly and country musicians who followed. Imagine for a second a world without Brenda Lee, Iris Dement, Jean Shepard, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Norma Jean, Skeeter Davis, Sue Thompson and Tammy Wynette, to name a few. Not a pretty place.


Samantha Biddix was born in Dillsboro, North Carolina on Halloween, 1878, the same year Black Bart held up his last stagecoach and, more relevantly, Thomas Edison patented the phonograph. Her parents were Has Biddix, himself a fiddler, and Sara MaLynda Brown Biddix. Though Biddix showed an early interest in music, her father wouldn’t allow her to touch the fiddle, an instrument occasionally referred to by hillbillies as a “devil’s box.” Nonetheless, when he wasn’t around, she played it and displayed a natural talent. The banjo, then viewed as a slightly more acceptable instrument for women, was not forbidden and Biddix’s first, constructed from gourd and cat hide, was presented to her at fifteen. Later, having demonstrated her skills for her father, he bought her a ten cent model and allowed her to perform with him in the area. Ultimately, he consented to her entering a banjo competition in Canton and she won. Gaining confidence, she began entering and winning competitions routinely.

When she married Carse Bumgarner in 1902, he gave her her first fiddle but she remained most acclaimed for her banjo playing. A few years later she acquired the nickname "Aunt Samantha." Although through the lens of modern ignorance, a hillbilly woman gaining fame with the banjo may seem completely out of the ordinary, it was actually fairly common for women to play the instrument, especially amongst hillbillies. In 1916, when Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles began field recording in the upper south, nearly three quarters of the hundreds of tunes they compiled as English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians were performed by women. In addition, many famous male hillbillies learned to play from the women in their lives. Ralph Stanley was taught to play by his mother, Lucy Smith Stanley. Cynthia "Cousin Emmy" May Carver taught "Grandpa" Louis Jones. Clarence "Tom" Ashley learned to play from his aunts, Ary and Daisy. Morgan Sexton was schooled by his sister, Hettie. Earl Scruggs was beaten to the banjo by his older sisters, Eula Mae and Ruby.

By the early 20th century, whilst still not completely respectable, several female musicians gained a measure of popularity playing banjo, including Elizabeth "Babe" Reid, Gertrude Evans, Virginia “Aunt Jennie” Myrtle Wilson, Stella Wagoner Kimble, Pearl Wagoner, Ada Lee Stump Boarman and Julia Reece Green. By the 1920s, a veritable banjo craze swept the nation and the most popular brand was the Whyte Ladie. In some respects, Bumgarner was merely part of a tradition involving hundreds of women before her, but as an especially talented musician who usually bested her mostly male competitors, her fame spread in the recording age in a way her predecessors never could. In 1924, she was contacted by Columbia, hoping to capture her talents on shellac.

In April 1924, accompanied by guitarist Eva Smathers Davis of nearby Sylva, Bumgarner traveled to New York City where, on the 23, she and Davis recorded ten songs both together and solo. According to County Music Magazine, that record was also the first release by female musicians in the hillbilly genre. They were also the first recordings of a five-string banjo. Although today the Cashville country scene has little use for anything but this week’s disposable pap, The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum there does feature the 78s of her initial recordings, which were:

Big-eyed Rabbit (Samantha Bumgarner & Eva Davis)
Cindy in the Meadows (Samantha Bumgarner & Eva Davis)
Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss (Samantha Bumgarner)
The Gamblin' Man (Samantha Bumgarner)
Georgia Blues (Samantha Bumgarner)
I Am My Mother's Darlin' Child (Samantha Bumgarner & Eva Davis)
John Hardy (Eva Davis)
Shout Lou (Samantha Bumgarner)
Wild Bill Jones (Eva Davis)
Worried Blues (Samantha Bumgarner)

Aunt Samantha seemed reluctant to pursue her music professionally, although others encouraged her to. Instead, she contented herself with teaching younger musicians, including Harry Cagle, who later formed Harry Cagle and the Country Cousins. When famed quack "Dr." John Brinkley, the so-called "Goat Gland King" (he used goat glands to treat impotency) asked her to allow him to take her to Del Rio, Texas to play on radio station, XERA, she only consented on the condition that Cagle accompany her.

In 1928, she was invited by local banjo-playing lawyer Bascom Lamar Lunsford to play at his first Asheville Mountain Song and Dance Festival. She did, and continued doing so every year until 1959, even though suffering from rheumatism and arthritic hands in later years. In 1936, at one such performance, Pete Seeger was in the audience and word of mouth about her spread amongst the folk revivalist scene. Soon she was playing Chicago, Kansas City, New York, St. Louis and DC, where she performed for the enjoyment of Franklin Roosevelt. She ultimately recorded again as well, for a company in Liverpool.

Bumgarner and her husband moved to Lovefield at some point. They never had any children and he died in 1941. Just one year after retiring from public performance, Samantha Bumgarner died of arteriosclerotic heart disease at age 82 on Christmas Eve, 1960. She’s buried in Dillsboro's Franklin Cemetery.

Although Bumgarner herself seemed content to record rarely and stay in the hills, by the ‘30s, several Kentuckyian women, including Cynthia "Cousin Emmy" May Carver, Lily May Ledford and Laverne "Molly O’Day" Williamson – perhaps encouraged by the possibilities offered to Bumgarner – all used banjo-playing to take them away from the hardscrabble lives in the tobacco fields, hills and hollers of Bluegrass Country to professional careers as musicians, the first of many women to follow a path made possible through a by all accounts humble Aunt Samantha.

Ruth Crawford Seeger - Modernist-cum-Folkie

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 8, 2009 07:43pm | Post a Comment
Female composers getting the short shrift is certainly nothing new, and is by no means limited to classical music. But as an admittedly casual fan of atonality, dissonance, modernism and serialism, I was surprised in February of this year to, for the first time, stumble across Middlewestern composer Ruth Crawford Seeger's unique, innovative musical voice. She immediately became a featured artist on The Lunatic Asylum and I became interested in her story.

Ruth Porter Crawford was born on July 3, 1901 in East Liverpool, Ohio, supposedly the "World Capital of Pottery." Her father was an itinerant minister. Her mother began her musical education with piano lessons when she was 11. Upon graduation from high school, she entered Foster's School of Musical Art in Jacksonville, Florida. In 1921, when it relocated to Miami, Crawford enrolled at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, where she studied with Madame Valborg Collett, Polish-born Henriot Levy and Louise Robyn. By 24, with the completion of her earliest work, she already displayed a unique modernist voice.

In Chicago, she met Djane Lavoie Herz, who in turn introduced her to the music of sometime-serialist Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. Through Lavoie Herz, she met and fell in with transpersonal astrologer/composer Dane Rudhyar, theorist/composer Henry Cowell and pianist Richard Bühlig. Cowell was an early supporter of her work and arranged for performances of her compositions in New York, where her folkish take on avant-garde drew comparisons to the work of Charles Ives and Aaron Copland.

In 1927 she was employed by famed poet Carl Sandburg, teaching piano to his children. Having played a part in introducing her to American folk songs, she returned the favor by contributing to his publication The American Songbag. Two years later she set several of his compositions to music. That same year, 1929, she began studying composition with Adolf Weidig and Charles Seeger.

A partial early discography:

Kaleidoscopic Changes on an Original Theme Ending with a Fugue
5 Preludes (1924–5)
Adventures of Tom Thumb (1925)
Music for Small Orchestra (1926)
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1926)
Suite, 5 Wind Instrument (1927) (rev. 1929)
4 Preludes (1927–8)
Nine Preludes for Piano (1928)
5 Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg: Home Thoughts, White Moon, Joy, Loam, Sunsets (1929)
Suite No. 2, for Strings (1929)
A Piano Study in Mixed Accents (1930)
4 Diaphonic Suites (1930)
3 Chants: no.1, To an Unkind God, no.2 To an Angel, no.3, Female chorus (1930)
String Quartet (1931)

In March 1930 she became the first woman to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship and went to Berlin, where she composed String Quartet, sung in an imaginary language and based on the Bhagavad Gita. In November of 1931, Crawford married her composition teacher, Seeger. After receiving another Guggenheim award, they moved to Paris. In 1933, at the ISCM Festival in Amsterdam, her Three Songs for voice, oboe, percussion and strings was the only American piece performed.

In the 1930s, Ruth and Charles Seeger became Communists and their interest shifted from Adorno-inspired theory to populism. Her subsequent compositions reflected a philosophical shift, and the beginning of a musical one:

Rat Riddles (1932)
Two Ricercare: Sacco, Vanzetti - Chinaman, Laundryman (1932) (text by H.T. Tsiang)
Rissolty Rossolty (1939)

By 1934 Crawford Seeger, for the most part, stopped composing and started developing new methods of primary music education. She focused on raising her family (for the most part) rather than composing original works. She and her family moved to DC in 1936 when her husband received an appointment in the music division of the Resettlement Administration, charged with collecting songs for the Library of Congress. At this point she began arranging and interpreting folk music, which went hand in hand with both her husband's postion as well as her own developing trancendentalism. Crawford Seeger and her husband transcribed songs for the John and Alan Lomax book, Our Singing Country.

In 1948, she published American Folk Songs for Children. Eventually, several of her children became incredibly important in the folk music scene, Mike, Peggy and (stepson) Pete Seeger.

In 1951, composer Esther Williamson Ballou urged Crawford Seeger to join the DC chapter of the NAACC (National Association for American Composers and Conductors). After announcing a competition, Crawford Seeger put her other work on hold to work on the Suite for Wind Quintet (1952). It won and Crawford Seeger wrote to her friends Carl and Charlotte Ruggles, "I believe I'm going to work again -- more. If I live to be 99 as my grandfather did, I will have 48 more years." Unfortunately, she died of intestinal cancer in Chevy Chase, Maryland not long after, on November 18, 1953, just 52 years old.

  Ruth Crawfod Seeger Chamber Works CD

Crawford Seeger, according to her peer Henry Cowell, broke the stereotypical notion of female composers with her serious, adventurous and unsentimental compositions. On the other hand, she continued in the tradition of talented female composers like Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler, who sacraficed their own considerable musical talents for their families whilst their husbands soaked in the glory. Although highly regarded by her peers, some of her works, such as the first and third chants in Three Chants, weren't recorded until 1996. Yet there's no reason Crawford Seeger shouldn't be held in the same esteem as similar but more widely known composers like Schoenberg or Webern.

World of Ruth Crawford Seeger CD  Ruth Crawfod Seeger: Portrait CD
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Dumpster Diving Story

Posted by Whitmore, May 12, 2008 08:56pm | Post a Comment

As a child I spent many of an hour dumpster diving, trash picking and rummaging where I shouldn’t have been rummaging. In my neighborhood, Wednesday was the night-- trash night. I’d sneak off after dinner in search of treasure, check out all the neighbors' garbage cans, boxes of junk curbside, apartment building dumpsters, and I’d be back home an hour or so later, laden with exotic booty from the world over. My mom would usually yell at me to get my latest cache out of the house, “That crap might have bugs in it, for Christ sakes!” But it wasn’t all infested! In fact, I still have some of that ‘crap,' and some of that dumpster swag still decorates my parents' house.

Over the years I’ve lugged home great pieces of furniture, collectible books, pottery, artwork, glass wear, jewelry, you name it … and once I found something that altered and twisted my thinking forever. I found it right there on Franklin Avenue right down the way from the Shakespeare Bridge in the Los Feliz district in Los Angeles. Stuck to the bottom of an empty trash can was an LP from 1963 on Vanguard Records, Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo by Sandy Bull. Back then I was just an innocently corrupt thirteen year old Catholic school boy, but already on the long path I’m still unraveling today-- that of a musician. I had just started taking guitar lessons, and as could be expected, I was struggling with all the important fundamentals: getting the hang of bar chords, finger picking, playing those newbie-guitar standards like “House of The Rising Sun” and “Knocking on Heaven's Door,” and trying to convince my parents to let me grow my hair long. Anyway, I got home, I threw this Sandy Bull record on the turntable, turned it up and it blew my freakin’ pubescent mind.

Sandy Bull came out of New York’s early 1960’s folk revival playing mostly instrumentals. His recordings on Vanguard Records, with Billy Higgins on drums, often merged eastern and modal explorations into extended improvisations on guitar, banjo and oud. Bull touched on "world music" years before any such tag was invented; his playing was also a precursor to what would eventually be called “American primitivism.” I had never heard anything like Sandy Bull before! As far as I knew, I was listening to a fisticuff between a drummer and an acoustic guitarist rolling in the mud, the crud and sheer madness. As I stood there, confused by it all, I thought I could smell the blood pouring from the someone’s nose, I thought I heard a bone snap during the drum solo; I expected to hear old Dick Lane yell “whoa Nellie” like it was Sunday Night Wrestling on channel 5. There was no song, no melody, no order. To my unsophisticated, bubblegum ears this was pure chaos, unbridled eccentricities, godlessness … and I reveled in each note. I heard sound and rhythms and chords I could never have imagined.

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Richard Thompson

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, December 8, 2007 11:12pm | Post a Comment
Richard Thompson
Friday night, December 7th, 2007
Performing at the Montalvo Arts Center in the Carriage House

I know all of that is true not only because I looked it up on the net to verify my facts, but because I was there.

An intimate run of shows in this adorable town goes by the name Saratoga. Mind you, us Amoebas are in California, though I certainly would love to see Richard Thompson perform in an intimate venue in Saratoga, New York. I always loved that town. In Saratoga, California there are wineries and some really nice shops and no snow in December. (Unlike Saratoga, N.Y., though I haven't been to New York since this wacky global warming craze started, so for all I know it was colder in California last night.)

I grew up back East and I hate being cold about more than I hate anything except huge things like injustice, starving children and being stabbed. I do not mean to downplay how much I hate being cold, but luckily --although I have spent much of the last month freezing my damn ass off  --the intimate theater that Richard Thompson played in this week was only a chilly place. Not freezing, not really even officially cold.

Richard playing at Amoeba Hollywood

One December, I went to see Charles Brown perform at Kimball's East also here in California and it was freezing in that damn venue. I am well aware of the massive tangent I am on right now, and I don't give a damn. I'd had my face smashed open by a car dashboard when I was about 16, and that night at Charles Brown, it was so damn cold, my face ached so, and I watched the whole show holding the right side of my face because, frankly, it was sheer agony. Now Friday night, December 7th, 2007, in Saratoga California, I was not holding my face at all. I will admit to occasionally rubbing my legs and wearing a few layers, long johns and all. But it's been a cold December here in Northern California. This all popped into my head because I was at the Charles Brown show with the same person that said, "Hey, I have an extra ticket to see Richard Thompson, drive on down here."

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