Journeys in song
by Seth Rogovoy
(PITTSFIELD, Mass., March 31, 2003) – Priscilla Herdman is widely regarded as one of the finest singers in contemporary folk music, as a solo performer and recording artist, as one-third of the Herdman, Hills and Mangsen trio with Anne Hills and Cindy Mangsen, and as a backup vocalist for the likes of Bill Staines, Allen Power and Fred Small.
It must be her singing, because Herdman is that increasingly rare bird – a singer who doesn’t write her own songs, but rather one who scours the world for songs written by others, songs that suggest some deep and profound connection to make the singer want to interpret them.
Yet to hear Herdman tell it, she is shy about her voice, even going so far as to expressing relief when an interviewer reassures her he isn’t planning on attending her upcoming show at the Common Grounds Coffee House at the First United Methodist Church on Fenn Street on Saturday, April 5, at 8. (Call 413-499-0866 for reservations.)
“Somehow people like how I sound,” said Herdman in a phone interview earlier this week from her home in the Hudson Valley town of Pine Plains, N.Y., where she lives with her husband and teen-age daughter.
“It baffles me at times, but at other times I understand it,” said Herdman, who confessed to being “incredibly critical” of her own voice.
Not that she hasn’t been working at it for a long time. “I’ve literally sung since I was old enough to talk,” said Herdman, who grew up the youngest of four children in Eastchester, N.Y. “It seemed so natural to me that when I was two I’d sing along to the radio. My mom would rock me and sing me a song and put me to bed, and then I’d lay there on one side and rock and keep singing myself to sleep. I’d sing to my stuffed animals. Those were my earliest performances, I guess.”
Public performances wouldn’t occur until Herdman went to college at the University of Iowa. She began learning guitar when she was 16, but she first got up in front of an audience as a freshman at a ‘60s-style hootenanny.
“The very first thing I did when I arrived at the university in the fall of 1966 was to find out when the hootenannies would be,” said Herdman. “The fellow who ran it was an upperclassman, and he put me way down on the list.
“It was two-thirds through, and someone did a song where it had a part where he invited everyone to sing. So I stood next to the host so he could hear me, and then he said I could sing next. I sang, and that was the moment of discovery. The audience loved me. And he said sing another.
“The next week I got a job at the local hangout, called the Red Ram, a basement hangout, and I sang there for three years while I was in college, ostensibly studying to be an artist and an art teacher.”
After three years, Herdman moved to New York to finish her art studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology, but undoubtedly also to be in Greenwich Village, ground zero of the folk movement. She began performing in coffeehouses and church basements, and even toured in England and Europe for the first time.
It was around about this time that Herdman, who was blessed with a naturally clear, sparkling voice, finally got some vocal coaching by going straight to the master.
“I went to Odetta and had a half dozen lessons with her,” said Herdman. “She said I’d been doing everything right, which was astounding coming from her, as she was one of my heroes. But what I didn’t have was the breath control and the understanding of how it all works. She helped me stretch my range and develop my breath control, so I could sing with a big voice and also have delicate control.”
In 1977, Herdman’s debut album, “The Water Lily,” came out on the Philo label. Since that time, she has released eight more solo albums, including several award-winning children’s albums.
Her most recent album, “The Road Home” (Redwing), just came out last week. Produced by Anne Hills and Scott Petito, it’s a collection of songs about journeys by contemporary writers including Eliza Gilkyson, Julie Gold, Linda Thompson and the late Dave Carter. Musicians lending a hand on the mostly acoustic effort include guitarists Artie Traum and Al Petteway, percussionist Brian Melick, and Petito on bass, guitar and mandolin.
When deciding on songs to include on an album, Herdman thinks long and hard about how they fit together thematically.
“It’s more than just this is a song that I’ve heard and I respond to it strongly and love something about it,” she said. “With an album it has to go beyond that. If I were a writer these would be a collection of short stories, or even moreso, they would be chapters in the same story, somewhere in that fine line.
“They really have to be the right pieces of work as a united album. I’m looking to take you some place and weave my way through time, lives, places, in order to take you on a journey.
“On ‘The Road Home,’ each song is a journey, a search for something that we each inherently need, a reminiscence of a thing. That’s what tied it all together.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 3, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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