Menu Close

Reviews and News

Flick Review on Tapeheads

 The Womenfolk

The Womenfolk are probably the best kept secret in old style folk music. They came on the scene at the last peak of the genre’s popularity (1963) about two years or so before the beginning of folk/rock. The group consisted of five women vocalists who played guitar and though they did a few songs reflecting society, (a trademark of folk music) they also did a large number of traditional songs such as “A Hundred Miles” and “Turn Around” (‘where are you going, my little one, little one’…. older Tapeheads will remember it).

I recently purchased the third of their five albums, two of which are live performances. One was recorded at the Ice House in Pasadena, and the other at the famous Hungry i. Written words cannot accurately describe the chill that runs up my spine when I hear perfect harmonies which is more than just a singer hitting a third or fifth note above the melody. These women were musicians in the highest sense with outstanding vocals and a presence that overcomes monaural recordings and allows you to hear every nuance. You can even detect when they are singing with a smile.

My most recent purchase, “We Give A Hoot” was a hootenanny recorded at the Ice House which features the Womenfolk on the A side and another popular group of the time, The Villagers, on side B. It is apparent from the crowd’s reaction that while the Villagers were good, clearly the Womenfolk was the favorite. There isn’t a flaw in the vocals on either of their live recordings and with every album I found myself continually turning up the volume in an attempt to pick apart the harmonies but found it as futile as trying to follow one color in a kaleidoscope.

It is truly a shame their label (RCA) didn’t give them a publicity push as they could have (and should have) been a household name. If you like traditional folk music (along with a number of original tunes) done in a unique style, and you also love the harmonies of The Beatles or The Byrds, coupled with a strong dose of toe tapping/sing along music, I strongly encourage you to give the Womenfolk a listen.


All-women band from 1960s records again to share history

The Womenfolk enjoyed 3-year run

By Jeremy Borden | 978-7263

Saturday, December 15, 2007

They were a creation of Hollywood producers, but an unusual one: a group of female folkies who played their own instruments and spoke their minds in a time when such a thing still raised eyebrows.

On Mother’s Day 1963, the Womenfolk were born, five women from different backgrounds who showed up to an audition and, it seems now, moments later were booking gigs and appearing on television and around the world.

They’d achieve modest fame in the United States and more acclaim in Europe, traveling to college campuses, towns big and small, British concert halls and bigger Canadian stages. It would last three years, a quick, euphoric brush with fame that allowed them to see the optimism and idealism of the 1960s from the stage.

So when the women gathered for the first time in 41 years at Live Arts in downtown Charlottesville to record an oral history – and, hopefully, get their records reissued – those memories brought back their inseparable bond, inciting argument, laughter, nostalgia … anything but silence.

Old pictures and recordings ignited colorful memories like fireworks.

Leni Sorensen and Judy Lalah Simcoe, both of whom would later move to Charlottesville, were trying to make it as folk singers in Los Angeles when they showed up to that fateful audition.

Three years isn’t a long time, but the memories seem countless.

They remember eating chicken cooked by Colonel Sanders on “The Mike Douglas Show”; the time Simcoe was so sick they dressed up a broom to replace her on stage; the time they were so close to Steve Allen and Duke Ellington they could hear them talk.They remember the shows, too, such as appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Photos remind them of the day’s “big hair” and the endless grooming that made it possible.

Creating a new style

But it was mostly about music, playing and recording for RCA Victor.

“Bringing five different styles together created a whole new style none of us ever envisioned,” said Simcoe, who still plays and records music under her middle name, Lalah.“I went from being a small-town California girl to essentially being a well-traveled American, and that makes a difference,” Sorensen said. “You feel like everything’s possible.”

People didn’t get it, Sorensen and Simcoe said. Five young women touring the country by themselves turned heads. Didn’t they have a manager? Somebody to carry their equipment? Were they a novelty act?

“They were all too repressed to ask if we were gay,” Sorensen jokes. “There really was a time in which to be an independent woman out on the road … was so extraordinary.”

As Simcoe puts it, “We weren’t just chick singers in front of a band.”

These days, Simcoe and her husband own the Bluegrass Grill & Bakery, a popular breakfast joint in downtown Charlottesville where the waitresses swear the corned beef hash is the best in Virginia. Sorensen, meanwhile, works at Monticello as a historian.

It’s a much different life than when they appeared on big-time TV shows and in front of big-name acts: Johnny Carson. Woody Allen. Red Skelton. Dick Cavett. Bill Cosby.

Taking on social matters

There were other similar groups, sure, such as the Ronettes, but the Womenfolk were unique, they say, because they weren’t afraid to take on matters political and social.

They sang a song called “Hey Nelly, Nelly” written by poet Shel Silverstein and Jim Friedman. It ends like this:

“I see white folks and colored walkin’ side by side

They’re walkin’ in a column that’s a century wide

It’s still a long and a hard and a bloody ride

In 1963.”

The group changed the last verse to “1964,” the year they sang it.

When they performed it at West Point, Sorensen said, they didn’t expect the boos they got from thousands of all-male Southerners, much to the chagrin of a commander, who later apologized.

“West Pointers couldn’t help being Southern boys,” Sorensen said.

In a way, Sorensen said, that’s what the Womenfolk were all about. Here were Northern women singing in front of an all-male crowd and not backing down.

“We’re pre-now,” Sorensen said, explaining that the word “feminist” had hardly entered mainstream use and that the group’s anti-Vietnam stance wasn’t yet commonplace.

“They would have been insulted on one level, and to be insulted by women was, I’m sure, even harder,” Sorensen said. “We were truly in an ambiguous place that people could not figure out. ‘How did these women live outside of what seems to be the rules for how women are supposed to live?’”

They like this one, called “Little Boxes,” written by Malvina Reynolds. Folk singer Pete Seeger also famously sang the song, which laments the conformity of American suburbia.

“And the people in the houses

All go to the university,

And they all get put in boxes,

Little boxes, all the same.

And there’s doctors and there’s lawyers

And business executives,

And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky

And they all look just the same.”

The song inspired plenty of criticism, the women said. Some called it “communist” and “anti-social.”

“That made me glad that we were doing it,” Simcoe said. “I really thought the song itself criticized very gently and with humor. And I feel like when they were reacting, maybe on some level what the song was saying was true.”

The song was also their biggest hit, appearing on the Billboard top 100 and other charts.


The womenfolk met Ed Sullivan in 1963. With Sullivan are Joyce James (from left), Jean Amos, Barbara Cooper, Leni Ashmore Sorensen and Judy Lalah Simcoe.  They also appeared on “the Mike Douglas Show.”

Internet creates reunion

Even now, they say, their music is being downloaded on the Internet. They don’t know how often, but someone, somewhere remembers.

“Somebody’s remembering us and somebody is rediscovering us,” Sorensen said of the evidence on the Internet.

The reunion at Live Arts came about because of the Internet. More specifically, because of a New York blogger named Tom Otto.

He did a small tribute to the group on his blog and contacted Sorensen. Her husband, Kip, keeps track of eBay and other Web sites for Womenfolk memorabilia, but Sorensen didn’t realize until contacted by Otto that there was still a following.

Even if it’s a small amount of money, they believe it’s their right to a cut of it. The women are trying to find a way to get Sony Records, which now owns RCA Victor, to re-issue their records or give them the rights to the originals.

So they had business to take care of when they were in Charlottesville, and they recorded their conversations for posterity.

Old stories get new life

But most of all, they gathered to breathe new life into old stories. Sorensen and Simcoe were there. Barbara Cooper, another member, drove in from New York. Jean Amos flew in from San Francisco.

The only one missing was the group’s leader, Joyce James. More than a decade older than the rest of the group, she died in 2001.

Sorensen and Simcoe have an uncanny recall of events big and small – the terror of boy’s bathrooms, fried-egg sandwiches at the airport and nights, before the advent of fast food, when they were so hungry an airport fried-egg sandwich would have been a welcome delight.

And while they had their fun – Simcoe likes to say each moment could, without warning, erupt into “spontaneous comedy” – it wasn’t a VH1 “Behind the Music” lifestyle.

“None of us were junkies and most of us were only moderately alcoholic,” Sorensen said. “We were tipping the maids. We never destroyed a hotel room.”

The group broke up in the summer of 1966. Simcoe became mysteriously ill while in England and had to be hospitalized. Amos decided to leave the group. So they were down to three, and the constant, sleepless travel had taken its toll.

“All of us were really stressed and really bummed. … We were all just really pissed off,” Sorensen said.

Times were changing, even within folk music. Dylan went electric in 1966, and the acoustic sound and group harmony that had defined them suddenly seemed dated. Nobody at RCA Victor, the women said, was willing to spend time with the Womenfolk to help them adapt.

“I didn’t have any money,” said Sorensen, who joined the group when she was 20 and is now 65. “I didn’t have any parents to fall back on.”

And that was it, leaving them with the memories of traveling what Sorensen calculated to be about 750,000 miles on what then seemed an endless road, in a time when Americans were banking on a new, different future.

They saw that time from the stage. And some memories may as well have happened yesterday.

It was Galesburg, Ill., in June 1964, and they were performing at an outdoor concert at Carl Sandburg College, Sorensen remembers. What happened next, was “the one most transcendent moment we ever had.”

The sun was about to sink beyond the horizon, and the Womenfolk began their act singing:

“If you miss the train I’m on,

You will know that I am gone.”

Somewhere in the distance, a train whistled.

“All of us burst into tears,” Sorensen said. “It was one of those moments … you couldn’t possibly make happen. We didn’t even wish for it to be recorded. Just to remember it.”



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

− 1 = 4