Thursday, January 17, 2013

Judee Sill (1944-1979)

Good afternoon! 

Work has been working my dang nerves all morning, sorry for the late post-- here's a lightning quick thought or two about my latest musical obsession for the week. Spoiler alert, though, it's a sad story!

Have you heard the good word about Judee Sill? I think I'm kind of obsessed right now:

It's not just that I have similarly long hair and want an angel sleeved seventies' dress exactly like this. I keep listening and listening to this one song, and it just won't stay out of my head.

One time I trusted a stranger
Cuz I heard his sweet song
And it was gently enticin' me
Tho there was somethin' wrong
But when I turned he was gone
Blindin' me, his song remains remindin' me
He's a bandit and a heartbreaker.
Oh, but Jesus was a cross maker introduced me to Judee Sills's "Jesus Was a Crossmaker" (quoted above, listenable here) a couple months ago, probably based on my professed late sixties' off the beaten path folk addiction. I'm really into Loudon Wainwright III, Karen Dalton, early Marianne Faithful (and late Marianne Faithfull, for that matter), Tim Hardin and Tim Buckley, so it would make sense that this unusual songstress would pop up in the same genre, yet in all my musical meanderings I had never even heard her name. Something about the sweet, piping, almost squeaky sound of her voice and the intricate lyrical and musical composition of her songs drew me to her work like a magnet. The vocal eighth note runs of the line "Blindin' me, his song remains remindin' me" just KILLS ME. Every time. So of course, I was curious to know more about the lady behind the song.

Whoooooooooa, people. A glimpse at her Wikipedia biography spells out a series of sad circumstances, best summed up by this Goofus and Gallant style compare and contrast of California contemporary (and near and dear to my heart songwriter) Joni Mitchell from a 2009 article on JS in The Guardian:

Joni Mitchell and her willowy sisters worked their way round the folk circuits of Greenwich Village, Judee was in reform school in Ventura, California. While Joni was warbling of Chelsea mornings in Manhattan, Judee was being arrested for stick-up jobs in the corner stores of LA's San Fernando Valley, driven to such desperate measures by a $150-a-day heroin habit.

Told you, it's pretty harsh stuff. In spite of her rough and tumble beginning, including jail time for forged checks and continual drug problems, there was a period there from about 1971-1973 when it all might have come together for Judee. Sill's debut was produced by David Crosby, she was photographed for Rolling Stone by Annie Leibovitz in 1971, received good critical notices for her two Asylum label recordings, her eponymous debut and its 1973 follow-up Heart Food, opened for Crosby and collaborator Stephen Nash on tour, and had her songs recorded by the Turtles, the Hollies, and Mama Cass. Nonetheless, the lack of widespread commercial popularity for either release discouraged Sill, who gradually moved away from music and died of a drug overdose in obscurity in 1979. The waste of it all-- that gorgeous, singular sound she's really sad. French movie, pointlessly sad. But what remains, of course, are the recordings.

Live in London: BBC Recordings 1972-1973 is a great starter, as it includes whole chunks of JS describing the circumstances that led to the writing of the song, and a pared down, perfect set of her best songs with no ornamentation outside of her clear voice and her own accompaniment. Staggering! Critics in the last ten years, faced with a resurgence in interest over the tragic musician's original recordings with the release of a cover album of her music, are bowled over anew by the religious overtones, baroque arrangements, and singularity of the compositions...I'm not even going to try and analyze it, I just love it. How these were not more popular when they were released, I don't know.

Listen to this-- the first is a live performance from the British showcase program, Old Grey Whistle Test, and the second is one is one of my favorites from her debut:


Are you a fan yet? You should be! If you like these, try the two albums she released during her lifetime or the anthology of unreleased material for what would have been her follow up, Dreams Come True.

Have you heard any musicians lately you'd never heard of that just really got into your bones? Do you have any favorite sixties' folk artists with possibly less super sad back stories? Let a girl know!

That's all for today...I'll see you guys tomorrow for Photo Friday!


  1. If you find one of those dresses, you have to let us know! I'm afraid I'm not terribly well-versed in folk music, so I don't have many suggestions on that front. I do have Carole King's Tapestry and Linda Ronstadt's Heart Like a Wheel on LP and I enjoy both of those. I've actually been listening to a lot of Baroque and 20s pop music lately. I definitely think it's time to make another trip to the record store, though. I could spend sooo much money on albums...

    1. I just got two of the craziest prairie dresses last week, I need to do a post on them sometime-- but am always on the hunt for more! Ugh, LOVE ladies' folk records, both the one you mentioned are great.



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