By Richie Unterberger

Elektra Records was thought of as a folk label in the early 1960s, and Judy Henske's early albums might have been filed under the folk section. But Judy Henske was hardly a pure folk record. Drawing from barrelhouse blues, New Orleans jazz, ancient folk ballads, and more, Henske's repertoire was far more eclectic than those of most performers working the folk circuit in 1963, when this debut album was released. Her groundbreaking uninhibited, gutsy delivery, as well as her irreverent comic links between numbers, showed that singers didn't have to don staid straightjackets to effectively interpret traditional material.

    Although Henske was already stretching the boundaries of folk music, and would wholly transcend them over the course of the next decade, she was indeed known as a folk singer when her maiden effort was recorded. Before signing with Elektra, she'd recorded with Capitol Records as part of Dave Guard's Whiskeyhill Singers, headed by ex-Kingston Trio member Guard. As fellow Whiskeyhill Singer Cyrus Faryar remembers, even at that point, the statuesque Henske was hardly sticking to the typical folkie persona: "We actually had to have a stage reinforced in some places, because she pounded a hole right through it. She would keep time not by tapping her foot, but by pounding her heel."

    For her first solo album, Elektra decided to place Judy in a live setting, arranging for her to record in front of an audience of a hundred or so fans in a large orchestral studio (Studio A at Columbia in Los Angeles, believes Henske). "The first night that we recorded, the audience just sat there," she remembers. "I was like sweating blood, because they weren't reacting to anything. It's a very cold place, with these real bright lights and an orchestra." So Elektra president Jac Holzman took the bull by the horns for the second night of recording and "said, 'Well, let's give them something to drink,'" Henkse laughs. "He did, they loosened up, and that's where all of this stuff [on the record] came from, the second night.

    "I just did what I wanted to do. The reason Jac gave me a record contract is because I was already doing what I wanted to do, and I was unusual. Everybody else was doing, 'Well, I'm going to do "The Midnight Special," and then we'll sing "This Little Light."' That was a pretty narrow focus. I was more interested in a whole bunch of different things."

    The set indeed covered quite a bit of territory, from the wailing blues of "Wade in the Water" (surely one of the raunchiest female vocals of the era) to the murder opus "Ballad of Little Romy." The rousing "Salvation Army Song" and the gentler "Hooka Tooka" are still singalong staples of Henske's show today. For more galloping grit, there was her version of "I Know You Rider," a folk warhorse that's been covered by many folk and rock artists, including the Byrds and the Grateful Dead, who both recorded the tune later in the 1960s. Henkse also expresses fondness for "Lilac Wine," "'cause it's so weird! I love the bridge; it's so off the wall. Have you ever heard a weirder song?" She hastens to add that she likes singing all of the cuts on the album: "Everything is my favorite."

    Henske also recalls, with suitable mirth, singing "Wade in the Water" in the 1963 MGM folksploitation movie Hootenanny Hoot, "with chorus boys in black tights and ballet slippers. They'd put their little hands up and shake 'em really hard. It was so great! Pauline Kael got the movie and played it for this huge audience at Paramount when she was over there. She said, 'Everyone thinks it's wonderful.' It will remain funny until the end of the world."

    Several of the cuts on Judy Henske were embellished by Onzy Matthews's orchestral arrangements, which presented some challenges for the singer. "I had never sung with an orchestra before. I'd only sung with a guy going 'hunk-a-chunk-a, hunk-a-chunk-a' on guitar. So it was quite a shock to have this gigantic orchestra. It was wonderful, but it was something that I wasn't used to at the time. I suppose it was fiendishly difficult to mike. I think that Streamline Ewing came up to the microphone and did those trombone solos, like in 'Salvation Army Song.'"

    Henske's lengthy spoken introductions to the numbers demonstrated she would have had a career as a stand-up comedian had she not concentrated more on music. Indeed at times, as on "Love Henry," the intros were about as long and entertaining as the songs themselves. "Pete Seeger, the first person that I admired, used kind of long introductions," she explains. "I love language, and I love to play with it. Talking about stuff before I'd sing it was part of what I did [and still is, in her current live shows]." As for their inclusions on the final album, "I would say that Jac Holzman thought, 'Well, this is what Judy does, so we'll put out what Judy does.' It was all sort of organic."

    Confirms Holzman, "I didn't think of her as just a singer. There was a charming, non-threatening flippancy about her that attracted me. She was Bette Midler before Bette Midler was Bette Midler. Even Bette Midler says that. And Cass Elliot borrowed extensively from Judy."

    For her second and final Elektra album, High Flying Bird (also reissued by Collectors' Choice Music), Henske continued to explore diverse folk-blues, this time in the studio. While her association with the label came to an end after that LP, she continued to record until the early 1970s, both as a soloist, as half of a duo with Jerry Yester (on the cult psychedelic classic Farewell Aldebaran), and as part of the band Rosebud, which included her husband Craig Doerge. After nearly thirty years of retirement from the recording scene, she issued Loose in the World in 2000, for which she was hailed by Dave Marsh in Playboy as "beyond all categories except 'legendary' and 'great.'"

    She's still touring occasionally as well, recording a live album in late 2000 with Doerge and other musicians that varies between full band arrangements and smaller groups, sometimes with just a piano as accompaniment. Featuring some new material penned by her and Doerge, it also "has my introductions, and the poems that I do that are accompanied by jazz, 'cause I wanted to do another live album like Judy Henske. I'm thrilled about it. It's fun to take a chance, 'cause it keeps you alive." For more information about Henske's present and past work, see her website, -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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