Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hedy West, folksinger

I wrote this piece about a year ago and when it was published in a regional newspaper, it received a bit of attention. Lots of folks remember Hedy. Recently, I mentioned her to a friend of mine who is also a storyteller, Marvin Cole. He said that they thing he remembered about her that she sang in the choir at the Baptist Church. I asked if he thought Hedy was religious. Marvin said, he though she came for the music. "She always brought a book to read during the sermon," he said. That is the Hedy I remember.


Back in the early 50’s when Western Carolina University was still Western Carolina Teachers College, I got a crush on a feisty little coed named Hedy West during my sophomore year. Hedy played a banjo and sang exhilarating songs about dying miners and terrible injustices visited on people who worked in cotton mills. I followed her about like a devoted puppy and although she never encouraged my attentions, she didn’t reject them either. Sometimes, I would ask her to sing “Cotton Mill Girls” and when she complied, I would quake with mindless joy, and I don’t have the slightest idea why.

I worked in a cotton mill all my life;
I ain’t got nothing but a Barlow knife.
It’s a hard time, cotton mill girls,
It’s a hard time everywhere.

Why did I find this spunky little lady so fascinating? Well, there were several reasons. I noticed that she was totally unimpressed by everyone at WCTC (not just me); she was “different” in some fundamental way, too. In class, she frequently challenged instructors and argued with them while the rest of us sat in astonished silence. Most of us had never heard a teacher’s statements questioned, and we were impressed when Hedy was kicked out of several classes for being “disruptive.”

Hedy usually wore Levis and plaid shirts (which I found provocative in an era of cashmere sweaters and saddle oxfords). But more than the banjo, her rudeness or her Levis was another singular fact that caused me to perspire. On the rare occasions that she wore a skirt, I discovered that Hedy didn’t shave her legs. From mid-thigh to ankle, she displayed provocative, black, silken swirls that seemed designed to drive me crazy. Why? I have no idea. Admittedly, I was a “quare” fellow.

On rare occasions, Hedy was visited by her somewhat “notorious” father, Don West, who was a union organizer, poet and sometimes minister. He had been involved in several north Georgia mill towns strikes and had the scars to prove it. Hedy finally invited me to meet him at the Townhouse (a student hangout in the ‘50’s); Don gave me a stack of books to read, including Howard Fast’s “The American,” and a ragged copy of his latest volume of poetry, which contained rousing lines like, “Worker’s arise! The day is coming!” He also told me that a well-dressed gentleman who was drinking coffee at the Townhouse counter was actually an FBI agent who “accompanied” him in his travels. “I’m supposed to be dangerous,” he said. Wow. I was impressed!

From Gilmer to Bartow is a mighty long way,
From Cartoogechaye to Elijay
It’s a hard time cotton mill girls,
It’s a hard time everywhere.

Well, the years have rushed by and Hedy and Don quickly vanished over the horizon, but not from my memory. Hedy became relatively famous and strummed her way through engagements in Greenwich Village, the Village Gate, a Carnegie Hall concert and a half-dozen eastern universities, including an Alan Lomax folk music preservation job. At one point Don took up with a fellow named Myles Horton and the two of them began the Highlander Center over in Monteagle, Tennessee – the place where Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger and Ralph Abernathy would meet to plan strategies to fight segregation and poverty. The Center was labeled a “hotbed of communists,” and Don and Miles were frequently called “dangerous agitators.”

Eventually Don left the Highlander and established an Appalachian Center up in Pipestem, West Virginia. He continued to support unions, preach and write poetry (“No Lonesome Road”) and Hedy set several of his poems to music. Don continued to write and conduct workshops until his death 1992. His old friend, Myles Horton went on to become a mentor for some of America’s most noted leaders. His autobiography is called “The Long Haul.” He died in 1990.

During the winter two years ago, I experienced a bout of insomnia that lasted for the better part of a month; I became maudlin and sentimental about the past. What became of my hirsute temptress, Hedy? Well, I gritted my teeth and plunged into cyberspace where I eventually found an email address somewhere in Pennsylvania. When I wrote, I got an immediate response. Hedy wanted to know who the hell I was, whereon I delivered a modest package of saccharine memories: her banjo, “Cotton Mill Girls,” Don West’s poetry, the FBI agent, plays and recitals in which she participated, her role in a play I directed, an article she had written about the Spanish musician, Segovia, etc. (I decided not to mention the unshaven legs.)

In effect, Hedy told me that the majority of what I recalled “had never happened.” She assured me that her memories of WCTC were so unpleasant, she refused to dwell on them, and she wasn’t sure she remembered me at all. Certainly, there was no FBI agent. She was thinking of writing a book and she was performing again – mostly in eastern universities. I believe she holds the copyrights for “Cotton Mill Girls” and “500 Miles.”

Several days later, she contacted me. Yes, after due consideration, she did remember me and inquired about a music instructor she had admired (Dr. Renfro). She said that she had mentally erased WCTC and never included it on her resume (I think she got an M.A. from Columbia). She now remembered her father’s visits to WCTC, but she still didn’t believe that he was ever accompanied by an FBI agent. (“You have an overly active imagination, Gary,” she said.) The guy was there!

Naturally, I began to wish I hadn’t called, but at least, I’m glad that I didn’t mention those unshorn limbs. That way, they are still true and the memory of them is still inviolate. At this late date, I am beginning to learn how to protect the good memories.

Note: After I finished this article, I decided to email Hedy again. My message came back. When I wrote “Hedy West, folksinger” on Google, I got an obituary. Hedy had died on July 3, 2005, shortly after I had called her.

When I die, don’t bury me at all;
Just hang me up on the spinning room wall;
Pickle my bones in alcohol.
It’s a hard time cotton mill girls,
It’s a hard time everywhere.


  1. Well now that was a fine story Gar Nell. Sounds like you and Hedy would have butted heads had that match came to be!

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  3. احب اشارك معاكم موقع متخصص في اعمال الحديد والاستانلس
    ايه رايكم فيه؟