The Circle Game
Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies From the Canyon
“I had closed the door on that dream,” says Judy Tomlinson, who strove some 30 years ago to make her mark as a singer-songwriter. Now a mother in Dallas, Tomlinson experienced a surreal flashback when she heard her music would be part of the new compilation Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies From the Canyon, which documents a generation of American girls who picked up acoustic instruments in the 1970s. “All of the excitement, hopes and emotions came rushing back,” Tomlinson says. She’s still shocked.
For Tomlinson and many others, those dreams started with Joni Mitchell. Like a mushroom that generates rings overnight, Mitchell’s breakout success in 1970 with her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, helped to inspire a widespread underground of female singer-songwriters. While some struck out for coffee shops and open-mike nights, others played for their high school friends or congregations. These girls emerged as flower children, their flowing tresses hanging over their acoustic guitars as they sang poems previously hidden in journals. Not everyone could be signed to Reprise or Elektra, though, so with the help of family, school faculty or a church bake sale, the music of these young women was recorded, privately pressed up, sold to friends and kindly parishioners, then forgotten as dreams faded against the harsh reality of the record biz or the call of family.
Left in Salvation Army bins, such homemade curios were recently harvested by Chicago’s Numero Group, an imprint that seeks out neglected music for reconsideration. Previous Numero excavations have collected soul music from Ohio and funk made in Belize; the most recent revisits the songs of 14 talented young women who were emboldened by Mitchell’s tales of the Laurel Canyon ladies.
Becky Severson, a Minnesotan whose early-’70s selection “A Simple Path” opens the set, expresses a sentiment common among her peers: “Singing brought me so much fulfillment. I could do that in public or in my little bedroom, and it would not have made much of a difference.” Based on a passage in the book of Jeremiah, her song lasts scarcely a minute; her voice quivers over delicate finger picking as she tells of her youthful devotion to God. Severson married young, and says her faith has held fast: “I am committed to serving Christ for eternity because of his love he revealed to me when I was 16.”
Asked if she was ever a flower child, Severson confesses to taking on the style of dress, but little else: “I didn’t fall into the ‘free love’ mode, because I didn’t believe in passing out something that I valued dearly.” Tomlinson, for her part, says the sexual revolution barely pierced the Bible Belt: “Free love and drugs frightened me.” The title track of her lone record from 1974, Window, mingles her bright vibrato with piano chords copped from Joni as she sings poignantly about life’s changes: “All our life together forms the panes that fill the window of our days.” On the cover, a longhaired woman basks in a beam of light symbolic of the path Tomlinson, too, chose. “I literally ‘saw the light’ and made a commitment to put my faith in Christ,” she says. “We did what the Psalm says, ‘Make a joyful noise.’ ”
But the joyful noise wasn’t limited to the heartland. “When I was younger, I could do a great Joni Mitchell imitation — I used to really nail it,” laughs Shira Small, the only African-American on the compilation, as we recline on a bench in Central Park. Small and her siblings came up in East Harlem, pretending to be everyone from the Temptations to the Marvelettes; Small could also mimic Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald to a T. Small sets a striking contrast with the other “ladies from the canyon” in more ways than one: Of her contemporaries on the disc she says, “There’s lots of talk about how short life is. And [my song] is how life never stops, how big it is. I have a strong spiritual core, but not that really religious thing.”
Having worked in the medical field for three decades, Small is glad stardom passed her by. She busked on subways and in the lobby of the Brill Building, but “I was such a flotation device, going with every single flow. I would’ve self-destructed.” As Small discusses her contribution to the album, her lip trembles and her throat tightens. She was a teen in the tumultuous Vietnam era when “Eternal Life” came to her. “I was finding out you had some control over how you were feeling . . . over whether or not I had to be in a bad mood all day long. And I had a couple of friends that were going through a depression, and . . . that song was directed to them. I didn’t write those lyrics, they just popped out of my head one night on my friend’s waterbed.” A smile now flashes as she recalls the setting. “We were probably stoned to the bone, knowing us.”
Small’s voice is brassy and bold compared to the effervescent warbling of the surrounding songs, and the contrast is not lost on her: “That light, airy tone . . . you think they’re just hovering in La-La Land, but some of that stuff is kind of dark.” Small conveys the struggle that you hear in Nina Simone, while also offering an uplifting message akin to the space hymns June Tyson used to sing for Sun Ra. “I’m the one with the heavy voice,” she says, “but I got the upbeat music going on.” At this point in our conversation, a nearby conga lesson gets the better of her and she taps out a polyrhythmic response, delighting the old conguero, and offering a glimpse into the musician still residing within. Small says later that being contacted by Ken Shipley and the Numero Group rekindled her creativity: She wants to write lyrics again, even if no one hears them.
Caroline Peyton is the only Canyon lady who ended up having a music career. She’s sung on Broadway; she’s done vocals in Disney films such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Pocahontas. But her career path wasn’t exactly straight.
“I was a little guitar-playing, Joni Mitchell–imitating teenager singing through a vacuum-cleaner hose, making really weird noise with the Screaming Gypsy Bandits,” laughs Peyton on the phone from the front porch of her parents’ home in Mississippi. Though her Southern accent is thick, you wouldn’t know it from her silken, spot-on Joni imitation on “Engram,” one of Wayfaring Strangers’ most striking compositions, with its thorny and disjointed stream-of-consciousness lines about “hotel mornings putting devils in your drawers.” “I didn’t know what I was singing about,” Peyton admits, “but I made it sound pretty.” Peyton had struck out to study acting at Northwestern; soon, however, the times drew her to the Needmore Commune outside Bloomington, Indiana, where she hooked up with the Gypsy Bandits and jammed odd music at all hours. “We were ahead of our time,” she boasts. While her audition for Clive Davis ultimately fell through, her music has found fans in British DJ Gilles Peterson and in Japan, where her records have been reissued on CD. As for the songwriting, though, “I put my guitar down and never picked it back up.”
And so say they all. Many of them wonder, though, what might have been, if they’d only known about each other when they were all so very young.
Muses Tomlinson, “We would have enjoyed sharing our songs and becoming friends. We each walked the same path for a while. I never imagined there were so many others.”
WAYFARING STRANGERS: Ladies From the Canyon | Numero Group
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