There is no more inspiring process in the arts than the evolution of a talent into an artist, Carolyn Hester is the latest young performer to traverse the path toward artistry in folk music. Her story is one of hard work, application and listening — the listening of a performer who wants always to do better.
In many ways the world of folk music is considerably more complex for the city person of cultivated tastes than it is for the simple country person who just "knows what he likes."
For the city person attracted to folk song by its depth, sincerity and melodic richness, questions arise. How can they perform it? Where do they fit in? Whose style should they affect? Where do they learn this self-taught art?
These are some of the many problems that vex the earnest young singers and instrumentalists in today's unprecedented revival of folk music in America. To the natural country performer who starts by singing the songs as he heard them, the matter is an unself-conscious process of absorption and re-creation. But his city counterpart is beset with more troubles than that. He does not have a well-defined "folk community," and may have come by his songs from an acquaintance who learned them from a book or from still a third person who had not lived long with the song.
Carolyn Hester's battle with this problem is therefore not solely an individual one; it is one that stands out, however, because of the way she fought and won the battle. She triumphed over the doubts and confusions of any young performer striving for recognition and she rose to the challenge of being an artistic singer of folk songs who was not completely born into a tradition.
Carolyn was born in Waco, Texas, a member of a family with a more-than-passing interest in music. In childhood years in Dallas, Denver and Austin, the family held many song sessions in which the pretty young Carolyn began to show an amazing aptitude.
Her professional debut came at 13, on a local Texas TV station. She does not know exactly when the strong taste for folk music inhabited her, in the family singing or through the recordings of Burl Ives. But she had her mind set on that body of song that is closest to life and the direct poetic expression of the people.
Carolyn's sights were also set on a career on the stage, although she did not know just what role she would be playing. She moved to New York in 1956, and in typical Manhattan expatriate fashion, took an apartment on the dingy but dignified West Side with two other young struggling actresses. There was talk of theatre in the apartment as Carolyn marched off dutifully to classes at the American Theatre Wing, and dreams of glory as she marched off ruefully to her job as a secretary.
But churning behind and beyond all the thoughts of acting was the rock-solid love of musical expression. She sang for friends, always a modest display — that rare thing in these days of the self-starting and never-stopping parlor folk singer. The lovely young woman with the long tresses and the gentle Southern manner, the warming smile and the big, hopeful eyes would sing. Hers was a voice that instantly communicated a lyrical gift, a disciplined control and an arrestingly beautiful tone.
But she felt something was missing. Despite an auspicious recording debut on the Coral label of "Scarlet Ribbons" she wasn't satisfied. A few of the dedicated folk-music students would tell her voice showed a bit too much polish, a friend would recommend a record to her, or a book, or a singer for her to listen to. The recommendations were taken at the full as imperatives. For Carolyn had matched her vocal gifts with the gift of listening.
Some friends recall that early in 1958 Carolyn set out with her trusty guitar, her dauntless manner and her big smile for an engagement at the Kornman's Cafe in Cleveland and Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. When she returned to New York after 6 months, friends had begun to notice a profound change in her style. She had uncorked a deep, sensual chest-tone quality that she used from time to time to add dimension and drama to a song. They noticed an underlining of a detail here, the heightening of a phrase there. But more than that, there seemed to be a wholeness of conception to her singing, a new understanding, a new foray into the emotional corners of her material that commanded one's attention.
Where had it come from, this new security and this new range of understanding? It was a cumulative accretion that had been building up through all her practicing, all her listening, all the recordings studied and her contact, at the Showboat in Washington, with singers such as Mike Seeger, Howard Mitchell and Paul Clayton. All this coupled with months of work with a group formed by Logan English — the Song Spinners — began to tell. All these influences were hammered by the mallet of her own self-criticism into a style — a promising "talent" began to flower into artistry.
There were triumphs along the way to mark her emergence: Theo Bikel's "At Home" Show on WBAI, the Indian Neck Folk Festival at Branford, Conn., at Gerde's Folk Qty, at One Sheridan Square. Upon her return to Chicago's Gate of Horn in December, 1960, where two years earlier she had a made a one-week inconclusive showing, the management and the audience were delighted by the "new Carolyn." She was selected to fill in on no notice at the Blue Angel and brought the house down. Television and night-club appearances and concerts began to come her way in profusion.
Carolyn had fought the good battle fairly and been victorious. On this record are the fruits of that victory, for her growing legion of admirers to enjoy.
Variety of background and mood dominate the songs on this recording — songs of several countries, cultures and of a wide range of feelings.
One of the songs Carolyn has lived with most is the song of resignation, "The House of the Rising Sun," a Negro folk blues believed to have been familiar to early jazz musicians in New Orleans prior to World War I. The smoldering dramatic potential of this song has been exploited to the fullest by Carolyn, who builds it relentlessly into perhaps her best-known and most distinctive interpretation.
During one of her many visits to the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress the singer came upon "The Water is Wide" a song collected in America by Cecil J. Sharp. Polished poetry in the text seems at times to be the work of a highly gifted poet, but actually has evolved through the folk process into one of the most beautiful, remorseful lyric statements in the body of Anglo-American folk song.
For her next two selections, Carolyn turns to an area she has great love for, the religious music of the American Negro. "The Lord" is done in a starkly simple style, accompanied only by her metrical tapping on the body of the guitar. The spiritual was learned from her father, Gordon Hester, who learned it from a boy in his native town, Lott, Tex. Mr. Hester believes the boy may have learned it from one of the many revival meetings that were held in Lott. Another spiritual, "Virgin Mary" is currently becoming a classic of its genre, having been sung in many forms. One of its earliest versions was in a collection made from spiritual singing in the South Carolina sea islands, which spread along the Atlantic Coast between Charleston and Savannah, Ga. Carolyn's lyric, benevolent interpretation should add more to the song's growing popularity.
The singer's mother, Ruth Hester, passed along "Lindo Capullio" which is a song by Raphael Hernandez that was popular in Puerto Rico and Mexico about twenty-five years ago. Mrs. Hester learned it in Houston, Tex. A line translated from the Spanish text gives the plaintive cast of the song's message:
"If you could know my sadness, you would respond to my love;
For you know without you life has no meaning."
Many songs in Carolyn's repertoire are from the commodious songbag of John Jacob Niles. Of the many, she has chosen Mr. Niles' "Go Way from My Window" which he composed in 1908 after hearing a Negro ditch-digger singing a simple phrase in two note repeated over and over again. From this rudimentary beginning, Mr. Niles has wrought one of the bright gems of American folk music.
To "open the door" to the second side of the record, Carolyn sings the unaccompanied "Open the Door Softly" which she learned from Pete Seeger's singing. It is a fragment, presumably of an Irish folk air, which Seeger learned from a laborer in the vicinity of his home in Beacon, N. Y. He has never been able to determine any more about the song or more of its text. Carolyn has interpolated it as an introduction to the beautiful Irish song, "She Moves Through the Fair" a poignant love lilt with words by the poet Padraic Colum to music by Herbert Hughes reset from a Gaelic song.
Carolyn has taken a sortie into song-writing herself. The second composition she has written, "Jaime" is included here. She wrote the graceful song in 1959 while living in New York, during one of her Sunday work sessions when she would close her door to the world to spend time alone with her guitar. The beauty of this song promises a good deal we may be hearing from Carolyn, not only as singer but also as song writer.
After the playful nonsense ditty, "Little Pig" and the romantic "If I Had a Ribbon Bow" Carolyn turns to another recently composed song in the folk vein. "Blackjack Oak" was composed by the late Walter Schuman to the poetry of Stephen Vincent Benet from the production of "John Brown's Body." It is the lament of a Southern girl, Melora Vilas, whose Yankee lover has left to rejoin his regiment leaving her with child and with sadness.
Love is also the theme of the dramatic "Malaguena Salerosa" which Carolyn sings in her second language, Spanish. It is an effective vehicle for her use of the Latin-American idiom that she is as conversant with as she is the American.
Carolyn Hester has ranged wide in her search for material. Sometimes that search has taken her into new areas, including the musical theatre. Here she closes her program with the popular standard, "Summertime" by George and Ira Gershwin from the folk opera "Porgy and Bess." This affecting lullaby is not often performed as a folk song, yet much of its simple quality and its inherent durability suggest a song that will last long and be transmitted as a folk song for many years to come.
— STAGEY WILLIAMS