Tribute to The Womenfolk


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

The Women

  • 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.

Discography

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.

“We Give a Hoot” – 1963

“The Womenfolk” – 1964

“Never Underestimate the Power of The Womenfolk” 1964

“The Womenfolk at the hungry i” – 1965

“Man Oh Man!” – 1966

Sorry, I am no expert at getting photos in these posts, so the album art is a little untidily placed.

See the latest picture of The Womenfolk here.

29 thoughts on “Tribute to The Womenfolk

  1. Barbara E June 14, 2007 / 10:00 am

    Dear Thomas:Thank you for your very sweet “Tribute to the Womenfolk.” I was so touch by your interest. And, yes, we did had a very unique “womanly” sound, My personal favorite was a song that we recorded on the “Man Oh Man – The Womenfolk” album by Tom Paxton called “The Last Thing on My Mind.” And, yes – I am interested in communicating with my pals from San Fernando High School, and the remaining Womenfolk as well. Let’s talk Thanks again, Barbara Cooper

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  2. Kees June 16, 2007 / 3:28 pm

    A group that made a lot of good songs. My favourites One man’s hand, and Love come a-trickling down.Addition to the discography: besides the LP’s, they also had a 45 on RCA, My heart tells me to believe b/w The way I feel (Gordon Lightfoot song). Two tracks not on LP.I also have their live recording of Malvina Reynolds’ song “You can’t make a turtle come out”, source unknown.

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  3. Thomas June 16, 2007 / 4:49 pm

    I never really thought about which songs were my favorites. I would definitely agree with Barbara about “The Last Thing on my Mind” and Kees on “Love Comes a Trickling Down”. I like the energy of “Jane Jane” and just about every song from “Never Underestimate…” Since it was the first album of theirs that I ever heard, it is cemented in my head as the definitive Womenfolk sound, regardless of whether or not that is true.

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  4. Anonymous December 28, 2007 / 11:21 am

    After a family Christmas get together this year, two of my sisters and I were reminiscing about music and the Womenfolk name arose. I myself, loved listening to them when I was a child in the 60’s, so we dug out a CD made from one of the albums my parents had, and we all began to sing. We sang every song and then began to wonder what had happened to them. Now we know, and I am sad to hear of Joyce James passing, but to me, listening to them, with their energy, vitality and colourful lyrics in each song had a way of lifting my spirits and bringing a rush of good feelings that would tingle my skin and make me want to sing out loud. It is mujsic I have shared with my children as well. Thank you Womenfolk! J. Raymond

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  5. Anonymous March 19, 2008 / 10:48 pm

    I can’t belive it. I have acctually found some info about The Womenfolk. My mother still owns the album simply called The Womenfolk. It wasn’t until I bought my PC that I knew that they even did more than one album. . I love the music on the album “The Womenfolk’ I do wish/hope that someone puts all of their songs on a CD that I don’t have to pay a fortune for. It is nice to know that some of the group are still around. Maybe I should contact a recording company and let them know that their are still several people that would like to hear them again. And that’s just the ones who have had the time to look them up. No doubt that there are plenty of others. This world needs more of that kind of music. And I do indeed like the songs that some would call silly. Such as Little Boxes, Moutain Dew, and Rickity Tickity Tin. Never Underestimate The Power of The Womenfolk? More power to them !!!

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  6. ThomasGuy May 11, 2008 / 10:50 am

    In the sixties, friends told me that I was a folk music snob. If the artist did not record for Electra or Vanguard records then I would not listen to them. No Limeliters, or Peter Paul and Mary or Kingston Trio in my record player. If it was folk, I wanted purity, honesty, truth. Ok, Ok, remember I was a teenager complete with 60’s idealism, confusion, and angst, and folk music connected me to a place I really liked. But was I naive about this earth. So my music box was playing Tom Paxton, Eric Anderson, Phil Ochs and Judy Collins. And my dad bought me that Montgomery Ward” guitar that I earned my callouses on. And I went on Civil Rights marches, protested lettuce, and went to a peace rally where I was beaten up by tormented hoodlums. Those were the early 60’sBut there was one group that I discovered who blended pathos and comedy, and had the most beautiful vocal blendings. I saw them sing a Shel Silverstein anti- war song, called “Hey Nelly Nelly” and a comedic song about Brooklyn mobsters on some latenight talk show, and I was hooked. They were my Dixie Chicks. Their music just made me love folk music. And they recorded for RCA Victor, not one of the folkie labels. Their albums were a mixture of bluegrass, traditional ballads, singer/songwriters tunes, and comedy songs. But it was the lifting harmonies of these 5 women and the vocals of Leni Ashmore, and Babs Cooper that really grabbed my heart. They gave me permission to let go of my preconceived notions about 60’s acoustic music, so I could discover my own voice, pick up a guitar and sing any damn thing I wanted to. I had all 5 of their albums and played them so much that the covers decomposed right before my eyes. But I got older and they broke up. And somehow I lost all my albums. Didn’t matter because I only had a cd player. And those 5 albums were long out of print, sitting in the RCA vault somewhere. A few years ago I began to google ” the womenfolk” and literally came up with nothing. But little by little, I found out on folk forums that I was not alone. And last summer, they were found. And they had a reunion for an NPR segment, and now have a my space page “60swomenfolk”. They all have had various careers in an out of music.Joyce James an original member of the group passed away as did Elaine Gealer, an earlier member. It is good to know that The Womenfolk still appreciate the sentiments of their fans. I subscribe to a magazine called American Songwriter” and they have a page called ” The Records I Could Not Live Without” where subscribers list their choices. The new issue came today, and they printed my list. And one of The Womenfolks’ albums is on that list. Maybe RCA Victor will see this and re-release their albums. See, I am still naivetom taylortimonium,MD

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  7. Thomas May 12, 2008 / 9:57 pm

    I think Elaine Gealer is still alive and kicking.The Womenfolk now have their final album “Man Oh Man” available on iTunes. I downloaded my copy. Their other albums are still to come. I can’t wait. I think “Never Underestimate…” is my favorite.

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  8. ThomasGuy May 13, 2008 / 6:07 am

    You are absolutely right, Elaine is alive and well. I knew that, and thought that I changed that in the blog. Sorry for the error!!!

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  9. Karen June 10, 2008 / 4:53 pm

    I am so excited to find this site! My parents had The Womenfolk album and I listened to it alot when I was around 10 or 11 and the album has long since been lost. Since I haven’t listened to the album in 40 years or so, my memory is a little foggy. There was a song on it that has stayed in my brain about a woman cooking a man for stew – is that right? What is the name of the song?

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  10. ThomasGuy June 11, 2008 / 6:58 pm

    “One morning when she had nothing to do, sing Rickety Tickeiy Tin, One morning when she had nothing to do, she cut her baby brother in two, and served him up as an Irish stew and invited the neighbors in”Yes, I loved that one two. It is called Rickety Tickety Tin and it is on the album The Womenfolk”

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  11. Thomas June 11, 2008 / 8:25 pm

    Thanks ThomasGuy for supplying the answer. I am terrible at lyrics and would have had to try and hunt that down.

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  12. Anonymous July 4, 2008 / 1:52 pm

    I grew up listening to “The Womenfolk” album while my Mom would sew ’till late in the evening, as I laid in bed from the time I was 5 yrs. old. She played the record all the time. Last year I burned it to CD. It is very scratchy but I LOVE this stuff. This blog is Great. I hope more young people like you keep this going. I enjoyed the info! — Jim G.

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  13. Anonymous August 26, 2008 / 11:19 am

    This is weird. I was just cleaning out my basement and discovered a huge cashe of records from my high school days in the sixties.They included a number of folk groups and individual singers from the period (The Seekers, The Kingston Trio, etc.) and, among them, the MAN OH MAN! album by the Womenfolk. Obviously I had bought this record when I was around seventeen but lost all memory of it. Maybe I was evolving like everyone else at the time. Anyway it was in primo shape; I don’t believe I had played it more than once or twice by the high quality of its condition. When I brought it upstairs and put it on my stereo, it absolutely slayed me. What a great sound. I, too, will burn it to CD ASAP. Finally, I decided to see if there was anything on this group in cyberland and was so amazed to find your blog. It’s really strange sometimes how long it takes for a message to connect with its receiver. In this case forty-two years.Phil M

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  14. Monte September 2, 2008 / 6:23 am

    You might say that I’m a history buff by nature – this site is an absolute tribute to Americana and the WomenfolkI was introduced to the Womenfolk, in December of 1964 on a Sunday night AM radio station called “Guest Star” in which they sang three songs from their debut album: “Don’t you Rock them Daddy-O”, “Little Rag Doll” and “The Green Mountain Boys.” Since then, it took a dozen years to find this debut album (at our local library) and I made a cassette copy of it. As another 10yrs floats by, I forgot about that recording until the name “Womenfolk” popped up on the airwaves on a FM station that was doing folk music. This revived my interest in this group and just got introduced to eBay, in which I did find that original stereo, in excellent condition,debut album, plus their “Let’s have an Hootenanny” – live in Pasadena album. What a joy to hear these ladies sing again.Good luck as always!

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  15. Anonymous November 24, 2008 / 11:45 pm

    I’ve been thinning out my vinyl collection and found an album by “Penny and Jean” so I hit the net to find out what I could. This site was one that came up. I am sure that, by description, this is Jean Amos of the WomenFolk. Anyone know what happened to Penny Palmer?

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  16. pengil@ January 7, 2009 / 4:03 am

    Hi! I am Penny of “Penny and Jean”, Jean’s precursor to “The Womanfolk.” While my life has taken a very different path, I have always loved music in general and “The Womenfolk” in particular. I was especially drawn to their rich harmonies, and the fact that there was no lead singer. Of course, I loved Joyce, with her smooth effortless, enveloping voice; I always wanted to sound like that. (“Penny and Jean, Two for the Road” was recorded when we were both eighteen!)Thanks for remembering. I am a librarian, a former bookstore owner and an English major. Thanks, Garrison).Penelope Palmer Gilde

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  17. Penny January 7, 2009 / 12:42 pm

    Hi, I am Penny of “Penny and Jean”, a precursor to “The Womenfolk”. While my path took a different direction, I have always loved music in general and “The Womenfolk” in particular. Their sound was bold and rich and harmonius. One could always hear the strong five voices weaving their fine intricacies.I guess my favorite is “White Lilacs”. I’ve listened to it for forty years and Joyce’s rich, silky and enveloping voice never fails to reduce me to tears. I would have given anything to have her experience and full-bodied sound.Hey, we were 18 years old when Jean and I recorded “Two For the Road”!Thanks for remembering.Penny

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  18. Bob June 6, 2009 / 1:26 pm

    I'm in my sixties now, but those songs and that group meant a lot to me.

    My albums got lost in my parent's move after I went into the army (over forty yeats ago), but I've always remembered them and their music, tried to find it, and now I have.

    I was always taken by the quality and power of their voices (seemed lower in pitch than most girl groups) and the harmony is impeccable.

    Thanks to Amazon, I have been able to listen to my favorites once again, and I was almost afraid to do so. So many times you return to something you valued and wonder, “What th' hell was I THINKING”?, but in this case it was still the same.

    My wife remembered First Battalion, and followed the advice given when I came home from Viet Nam. Didn't ask where I'd been, and since the blood had been cleaned up, never minded the scars that weren't there the year before.

    If Barbara E ever comes back on, “The Last Thing On My Mind” still gives me chills to hear, and is one of the most musically satisfying pieces I've ever heard.

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  19. cory December 28, 2009 / 2:35 pm

    My Mom is the former Terry Harley – she still sings and plays Guitar to this day (11 children later). I am the oldest of the 11 (43) and my mom used to play guitar while us kids sang – at weddings, and so forth. When I found one of her old records – she told me all about her Womenfold days. Wow.. can't wait to forward this blog to her!

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  20. Thomas at My Porch December 28, 2009 / 11:19 pm

    Cory: How lucky are you that your mom was a Womanfolk. I'd love to update the blog with a little bio of what your mom did after the WF. Thanks for stopping by and keep in touch.

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  21. John February 21, 2011 / 3:53 am

    So nice to find all of this information about The Womenfolk. In the summer of 1966 three of us, all students from British universities decided to fly to NewYork and hitch-hike in both directions across the United States. The one song which we really loved and which I have remembered since that summer was the Womenfolk singing The Last Thing on my Mind. We heard it played many times throughout our travels and to hear it now brings back so many fond memories of that summer. I often wondered what happened to this group and now I know. Thanks to all contributors who have enlightened me

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  22. Thomas at My Porch February 21, 2011 / 10:21 am

    John: The Last Thing on My Mind is one of my favorite WF songs. I bet you have some great stories about your summer of hitchhiking across the US.

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  23. Anat March 11, 2011 / 11:40 pm

    For a Sixties show, members of our Desert Voices chorus would like to sing their eponymous song “Womenfolk” April 30 and May 1, 2011
    in Tucson, Arizona at Pima Community College. Working on creating sheet music for the song now since I was unable to find any. What a great group, and great voices. I would like to know who owns the copyright so we can obtain formal permission to sing the song.

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  24. Thomas at My Porch March 12, 2011 / 8:21 am

    Anat: Send me your email and I will forward it to Babs Cooper. She might be able to help. My email is onmyporch (at) hotmail (dot) com

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