Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies from the Canyon
ompilations can often be a haven for record collectors, summing a number of artists and sides that they’ve been unsuccessfully Ebay-ing for years. This, of course, assumes that the collector takes a legitimate interest in the music, rather than simply nursing a hard-on for scarcity. It’s rare when a compilation can come totally out of the blue, presenting a wealth of material that has not only gone unheard, but unheard of. The tracks collected on the Numero Group’s Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies from the Canyon, however, are likely too obscure to register on the radars of even the most diehard collectors.
Taking its name from a Joni Mitchell album, Ladies compiles an esoteric sect of female folk singers that sprouted in the late 60’s and early 70’s, spurred by the still-strong folk revival and the mixed-up love and psychedelics movements that were largely drawing to a close when much of this material was recorded. Trapped in small towns, ignored by the greater music community, the characters of Ladies perpetually walk around in the muted, stilted tones of all those old Woodstock videos.
But reality is far more interesting. Contrary to the title, the majority of the artists on Ladies weren’t San Fran revolutionaries; they were from Peoria, Wichita, Newton (PA), St. Cloud (MN) and other places in which they were likely part of a small, “radical” clique. Many of the performers were teenagers; albums pressings sometimes numbered in the dozens, and never more than a few hundred. Their audiences were churches and coffee shops. And if they burned themselves out on drugs and freedom, many have regardless grown into “adults”: vocalists for Disney albums, opera singers, owners of bed and breakfasts. The revolution wasn’t televised, but there were plenty of sitcom endings.
Despite the disparate geographies, Ladies retains a consistent, meaningful sound, even if the limitations of the 70’s folk idiom are mostly responsible. So many altos, so little time. What Ladies lacks in gripping vocal performances, it makes up for in ambience. Marj Snyder’s “Rain” and Linda Rich’s “Sunlight Shadows” are stereotypical to the point of ridicule, but presented as part of a whole, there is a sadness and tragedy inherent to these recordings encompassing more than stormy poetry and lonesome acoustic guitars.
Most of Ladies was recorded in the early-to-mid 70’s, well after the Summer of Love, well after, as the liner notes indicate, the scene’s hero (Mitchell) had “made a jazz album.” These women—often teenagers—were trying to live an ideal and music that had, by the mid 70’s, largely passed them by. Theirs wasn’t “Dylan goes electric” so much as “Dylan goes adult-contemporary,” and their attempts to inject a drained mysticism into life is both thrilling and strangely pathetic. Shira Small’s “Eternal Life,” the album’s most singular melody, was born of a phrase on a bathroom wall and trouble she was having in math class—it was her senior project. “A Special Path” was inspired by a verse in Jeremiah, the introduction on the only album ever made by Becky Severson, a music career halted at 19. “With All Hands” features a foghorn, and one of the 50 pressed copies was rejected by a record company under the premise that “The world doesn’t need another Joni Mitchell.”
The record company was probably right, but their arithmetic was off: the world didn’t need another fourteen Joni Mitchells, at least not in the mid 70’s, and that, as much as anything, may have kept these pie-in-the-sky folkies operating in obscurity. But that’s what makes Ladies so compelling: a document of obscure artists, anachronistic almost in their own time, fighting music trends which must have seemed the devil, buoyed by their underappreciated, misjudged talent.
Ladies arrives at a convenient time, with everyone overturning rocks for lost “psych-folk” forbears, something Numero Group acknowledges. But unlike longtime collector jewels Vashti Bunyan and Judee Sill, these women languished in severe obscurity, their records lost to church basements and anyone who walked up to the stage after one of their shows. And while some of these performances are exultant—Caroline Peyton’s dexterous vocals, Ginny Reilly’s pained sigh, “Nobody’s doin’ that these days / And you’re just as crazy as they say”—there is little to suggest that the women of Ladies had time for scenes or experiments. They were Rapunzels for dying thoughts, and if their music isn’t revolutionary, it has proved a faithful vessel.