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Monday, June 15, 2009

HEDY WEST IN CULLOWHEE, N. C., CIRCA 1957


I just found this 55-year-old, waterstained photograph in my attic: Hedy West at Western Carolina College circa 1957. That's her in the corner, listening attentively to her fellow students. This photograph was made in the basement of the old Joyner building, in what was called the "student center" (now long-gone). Hedy appears to be a very serious young lady, and indeed, she was. She was also unhappy and alienated.(See another post on this blog entitled "Hedy West: Folksinger.") Shortly before her death, I talked to Hedy via "instant message" on my computer, and although she named a few instructors that she liked, she frankly felt that her years at WCC were marked by frustration and bordom. Within a decade of her sojourn in Cullowhee, she would be a celebrated folk musician playing at festivals with Pete Seeger and on her way to study folk music at Columbia where she would meet Allen Lomax. In New York (Greenwich Village)where she sang "500 Miles," and in Germany where she studied "leider."

However, looking at this picture, I remember a different Hedy who sometimes played "Hard Times, Cotton Mill Girls," and told stories of her father,Don West, a poet (avowed communist) and labor organizer. I met him several times when he came to visit Hedy. He was a gifted storyteller and I hung on every word when he talked about strikes and violence in Georgia textile mills. In fact, he gave me a lot of exciting "dangerous" literature about topics like the Haymarket Street Riots, Governor Altgeld of Illinois and Eugene Debs - names and events that became important to me for the rest of my life.

At some point, I hope to give these two remarkable people their due with this blog. I've just acquired two books: a biography of Don West, A Hard Journey, by James Lorence and a collection of his writing No Lonesome Road. Stay tuned!

17 comments:

  1. Thank you, Sherry. I was beginning to think that no one was going to comment on it. I'm determined to do an article on the father, Don West, and I'm buried in research right now.

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  2. Gary,

    Don't think your followers were ignoring this but if they were like me perhaps they didn't think they had anything insightful to say. Then I realized that may not be required. When I looked at this picture it struck me as an amazing bit of lost history. On the one hand, Hedy looks like a normal teenage girl hanging out in a drug store after school; on the other, she looks like she might be plotting a radical march on the administration building or something “deviant”. I loved the folk era and she achieved immortality as one of the icons of that movement. Coming from a family like the Seegars and Guthries who stood for the political ideals and roots of the movement it’s little wonder she was so unhappy stuck in the cultural backwater Western must have been in those days. That makes it all the more amazing to see her sitting there in the student union frozen in time. Wonderful really!

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  3. Cool. Thanks, Cary.
    I spent two days with Hedy when she visited George Herring at the head of a creek near Cullowhee in the 1960s. The college had booked her for a concert and she stayed with her generous old professor where I was staying, too. I knew a little about folk music, but was ignorant of Hedy's music. George berated me and Hedy's banjo songs erased my ignorance forever. I never saw her again, but felt a great loss when she stopped recording, and then died a few years ago.

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  4. Rwwwww,
    I had a bad crush on Hedy and I think it amused her. In case you don't know, I have an older post about Hedy which you can find by searching my blog for "Hedy West, Songwriter." It was also called "My Hirsute Love."

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  5. I just read an interesting thing in Don West's biography. According to the author, Don taught Hedy to be "extroverted and argumentative." Above all, she should "ask questions." Well, that took with a vengeance!

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  6. Gary - Great to see this blog. I have a 1962 Ode banjo that I was told was once owned by Hedy and purchased in NYC from a well known folk guy named Izzy or something like that. A beautiful long neck Ode....Rick

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  7. I only meet Hedy years ago when I went to the festival in Pipesteam. I will always remember her voice and just the way she came across. I am glad Pete Seeger told me about the place. This might of been very early it he 70's
    Still Pickin'
    Bill Hudson

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  8. How is that article on Don West coming? Have you read James Lorence's new book "A Hard Journey" about him? Hope all is well with you. Have not seen a post in awhile. Would love to get a digital copy of your Hedy West photograph. Am considering doing a book about her life. Her archives are now being inventoried at the UGA Russell library.

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  9. Yes, I finally read the Lorence book and reviewed it. If you do a book, one of her roommates at WCU lives in Franklin, N. C.

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