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Artist Details

The Womenfolk
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Date Born/Group Began:
Date Died/Group Ended:
Also Known As:
Members:
Barbara "Babs" Cooper (Dang)
Elaine Gealer (Dang)
Jean Amos (Dang)
Joyce James (Dang)
Judy Fine (Dang)
Leni Ashmore (Dang)
Terry Harley (Dang)
Gingham Back Alive
How one blogger’s obsession revived a forgotten folk group.
By Tony Sclafani

Posted: February 8, 2008

In April 1964, an all-female quintet called the Womenfolk scored a minor hit with a rendition of “Little Boxes,” a satire of suburban conformity written by political folkie Malvina Reynolds and popularized by Pete Seeger. The single only hit No. 83 on Billboard’s pop chart, but it became known in collector’s circles for being the shortest record to chart since 1955. (It clocks in at just over a minute.)

Two years later, the Womenfolk just missed the Hot 100 chart, reaching number 105 with a plaintive rendition of Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind.” Then they disappeared—none of the five albums they recorded for RCA Victor were ever reissued, and the band’s members faded into obscurity.

But last fall, the Womenfolk were in the news again, together in Virginia (where two of the surviving members now live) for a reunion that was covered by National Public Radio. What the story didn’t mention was that the chief inspiration for the reunion was an Adams Morgan travel agent, Thomas Otto, who’s been writing in detail about the group since last June on his blog, My Porch (myporchblog.blogspot.com).

The Womenfolk were together from 1963 to 1966, when folk music was making commercial inroads thanks to groups like Peter, Paul & Mary, the Kingston Trio, and the New Christy Minstrels. What fascinated Otto was the Womenfolk’s mismatch of image and sound—their music was much more raw than their contemporaries, but covers of albums like 1964’s Never Underestimate the Power of the Womenfolk suggested a clean-scrubbed act.

“You look at that image and it’s like, ‘Whoa! What is this?’” says Otto, 38. “It just looks so corny. [They’re dressed in] red gingham, empire, plaid maxi-dresses.” He first heard the record in 1988, when he was a student at the University of Minnesota and his roommate owned a cache of vintage LPs. The album cover looked kitschy, but the music hooked him. “We put it on the turntable, and I was immediately just blown away by how they sounded,” he says. “But it was one of those things where I felt a bit sheepish loving it, because it was only supposed to be ironic and funny. But I was really enjoying it. So at the end of the summer when we moved back to school she let me have the album.”

For the next two decades, Otto investigated a band that broke up three years before he was born. He hunted through the bins of used-record stores wherever he was ­living—in upstate New York, where he earned his master’s degree in urban planning at Cornell University, in Hawaii, where he took another master’s in American studies, and in the District, where he arrived in 1997.

Some of his legwork didn’t get him very far: He called the manager of the ’90s iteration of the New Christy Minstrels hoping for some background information, but he’d never heard of the Womenfolk, and RCA Victor insisted he go through the label’s legal department to obtain any information about the group. Searching online, he eventually came across orlok.com, a Web site of Broadway producer Michael Butler. The site listed Womenfolk member Leni Ashmore as a cast member in a late-’60s Los Angeles production of Hair (her bio reads in part that “she thinks that all governments suck [and] the world is going down the drain”). In 2002, he discovered that member Joyce James had died the year before of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Last year, while working at the General Services Administration, Otto decided to get serious about his Womenfolk research. “I was curious—not to get in touch [but] just to do some kind of tribute,” he says. “So I went back online and just started to hunt. I probably did it at work when I was a government employee and had lots of time.”

When he felt he’d accumulated enough information, he posted “Tribute to the Womenfolk” on his blog on June 9. The article included album cover scans, a discog
(WeddingBelle)

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Dang   Offline  -  Donator  -  06-11-07 08:18 PM  -  12 years ago
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The YouTube clip (www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCDylO5MPMc) is a medley of several artists, and you need to fast-forward to about 1:38 into it to see The Womenfolk.
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