UPDATE: Check out this link for the latest–including how to download the Womenfolk on iTunes…
I was first drawn to The Womenfolk by the cover of their 1964 album “Never Underestimate the Power of The Womenfolk”. Decked out in fabulous red gingham, Empire-waisted, maxi dresses, I was instantly excited by the prospect of what those five women might sound like. It was the very hot, very dry summer of 1988. I was sharing a room in a run down boarding house near the University of Minnesota. The album belonged to my roommate Annie who brought it with her when she moved to Minneapolis from Chicago. It was included in a bunch of other campy old albums of her father’s that she found funny. I joined in her amusement when she showed me the dated album cover.
Once we put the needle down on the album, however, my ironic chuckles immediately ceased. Since I was a child I had always had a secret love of groups like the New Christy Minstrels and just about anything that sounded like a well-coordinated sing-a-long. I was especially drawn to female voices. As soon as I heard this strong, clear chorus of women I was hooked.
In the following months I played The Womenfolk for anyone who would listen. Most found it amusing and something silly to laugh at. Occasionally, however, I would find a friend or acquaintance who found the sound as fabulous as I did. My obsession with The Womenfolk became common knowledge among my friends. My roommate let me keep the album when we moved into different apartments. Later, another roommate stumbled across The Womenfolk’s last album when she was browsing in a used record store. These were the waning days of the LP when sources of used vinyl began to outnumber sources of new. That album “Man oh Man!” from 1966 was, as the album notes describe, more like the “Womenpop” with the women covering such pop tunes as “Yesterday”, Baby, What You Do to Me”, and “Reno Nevada”. The album also showed the women without the gingham and with about 75% less backcombing and hairspray.
For years these were the only two albums of theirs I could find. In those pre-Internet days the only real opportunity I had to track them down was by checking every used record bin I came across. As I described them to confused record store owners I described their music as Glam-Folk, that is, folk music that was generally happy, wholesome, non-controversial, non-political, and non-threatening. Even covering “The Times They Are A Changin” in 1966, their sound and look seemed apolitical and sanitized.
It wasn’t until years later when I found the live 1963-album they shared with The Villagers and their 1964 eponymous album with songs like “Little Boxes” that I got some sense that the women may have been more than the well-packaged glamour that their later albums portrayed. For the most part the subjects of the songs don’t seem very edgy, in fact they seem the opposite of edgy. But there is an attitude in their singing that is missing in later albums and, at least in my imagination, suggests that, had the times been different, The Womenfolk might have been something entirely different as well.
28 June 2007 UPDATE: I have since heard their Live from hungry i album. I love it, and it definitely shows a edgy side of the Womenfolk including Shel Silverstein’s “Hey Nelly Nelly”.
Where are The Womenfolk?
Little is known about The Womenfolk. Over the years I have called and emailed producers, record companies, and anyone who might have some information with absolutely no luck. No doubt I could do a much better job if I had nothing going on in my life, but thankfully I keep pretty busy. There are a few threads on various Internet discussion boards with bits and pieces of information but not much to go on. In the interest of documenting what is known about The Womenfolk and in the hopes of eliciting more information I want to chronicle as much of what I know here. I had fantasized about a PBS reunion special long before Christopher Guest brilliantly satirized the 60s folk music scene in the reunion mockumentary “A Mighty Wind”. But seeing that at least one of The Womenfolk has passed away, I have all but given up any hope of that happening.
One of the few mentions of the Womenfolk that can be found online at Answers.com is not very enlightening nor accurate. The Internet Movie Database lists several appearances on The Toast of the Town and The Hollywood Palace as well as Hullabaloo. According to the cover notes on one of their albums they also appeared on the Red Skelton Show and the Tonight Show. I am in the midst of seeing whether or not the Museum of Television and Radio has copies of these episodes in their library. They even hosted a short-lived television show in Canada called A Singin’
Online video exists!
Imagine my surprise when I found a clip posted on YouTube from Hullabaloo. The women appear in the middle of a medley by various groups at about the 1:38 minute mark. UPDATE 7/2/7: The clip has been removed from YouTube for violation of their use policy. Maybe it will resurface at some point. It’s too bad too, the women looked lovely and sounded lovely. UPDATE 11/12/07: I guess it has been out there for a while, but I just stumbled across this video of the women, thanks to the conversation thread over at Mudcat.com
- Joyce James – Unfortunately the wealth of information about Joyce James comes from her obituary. She passed away in 2001 in Newmarket, New Hampshire. She was very active in her community and at the University of New Hampshire where they have created an award in her honor. Her obituary notes that she hosted a children’s television show on CBS called “Around the Corner”.
- Leni Ashmore – Listed on “We Give a Hoot” as Len Isabel Ashmore, Leni went on to star in the original LA cast of HAIR. June 28, 2007 UPDATE: Leni is as lively as her pictures suggest. She now lives in Virginia where she is a research historian. In addition to African-American and women’s history Leni’s interests extend to rural, agricultural, and culinary history. She earned her Ph.D. in American Studies in 2005 from the College of William and Mary. She is married and has four children.
- Barbara “Babs” Cooper – Originally from Memphis Cooper graduated from San Fernando High School in 1961. She recorded in 1962 for Indigo Records. No other information known. June 28, 2007 UPDATE: Babs has lived on the East Coast since the Womenfolk relocated to New York in 1965. After leaving the group she worked as a songwriter, and on the fringe of Madison Avenue; singing and writing lyrics and some music for commercials. She branched out into real estate in the 1980s, and nowadays she’s involved in the legal word processing field. Although she no longer takes part in any organized singing, she says she is always singing—her songwriter’s mind constantly recalling old lyrics from the speech of the people around her. She let me know that this upsurge of interest is tickling her muse. Who know what the future may bring.
- Judy Fine – She went to Pomona College. July 17, 2007 UPDATE: Judy Fine has never stopped singing and recently come out with a CD of her own songs. Using her middle name and her married name she now answers to the name Lalah Simcoe. You can check out some audio tracks of her recent work and buy the CD at her website. Lalah has two children and with her husband owns the Bluegrass Grill & Bakery in Charlottesville, VA.
- Jean Amos – Appeared on the final three albums replacing Elaine Gealer. She grew up in France, Germany and the San Fernando Valley. Her father was an operatic Bass and her mother was a pianist. Before joining the Womenfolk she was part of the duo Penny & Jean. Update 11/12/07: Jean has posted this over on the Mudcat.com thread: “OK, well, I have been living in San Francisco since 1969. I taught guitar for many years – basic, ragtime and classical.”
- Elaine Gealer – Appeared on “The Womenfolk” replacing Terry Harley. She wrote into this online forum in January 2007 saying she doesn’t know where the rest of the group is these days.
- Terry Harley – Appeared on “We Give a Hoot”. No other information known.
We Give A Hoot – Womenfolk and Villagers (1963)
The Womenfolk (1964)
Never Underestimate the Power of The Womenfolk (1964)
The Womenfolk at the hungry i (1965)
Man oh Man! (1966)
For a listing of all of the music on their albums check out this link.
I have all but The Womenfolk at the hungry i. For a picture of that album go to this page about the hungry i. For those of you in the San Francisco Bay area, you can also check out this exhibit about the hungry i that is going on until August 2007. Here are the backs of the albums that I own. You can click on the images to make them bigger so you can read the text.
UPDATE (11/19/07): Babs Cooper sent me album images for the hungry i LP. The front is shown here to the left, the back is toward the end of this post.
“The Womenfolk at the hungry i” – 1965
Sorry, I am no expert at getting photos in these posts, so the album art is a little untidily placed.