City Paper is not for tourists
In April 1964, an all-female quintet called the Womenfolk scored a minor hit with a rendition of “Little Boxes,” a satire of suburban conformity written by political folkie Malvina Reynolds and popularized by Pete Seeger. The single only hit No. 83 on Billboard’s pop chart, but it became known in collector’s circles for being the shortest record to chart since 1955. (It clocks in at just over a minute.)
Two years later, the Womenfolk just missed the Hot 100 chart, reaching number 105 with a plaintive rendition of Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind.” Then they disappeared—none of the five albums they recorded for RCA Victor were ever reissued, and the band’s members faded into obscurity.
But last fall, the Womenfolk were in the news again, together in Virginia (where two of the surviving members now live) for a reunion that was covered by National Public Radio. What the story didn’t mention was that the chief inspiration for the reunion was an Adams Morgan travel agent, Thomas Otto, who’s been writing in detail about the group since last June on his blog, My Porch (myporchblog.blogspot.com).
The Womenfolk were together from 1963 to 1966, when folk music was making commercial inroads thanks to groups like Peter, Paul & Mary, the Kingston Trio, and the New Christy Minstrels. What fascinated Otto was the Womenfolk’s mismatch of image and sound—their music was much more raw than their contemporaries, but covers of albums like 1964’s Never Underestimate the Power of the Womenfolk suggested a clean-scrubbed act.
“You look at that image and it’s like, ‘Whoa! What is this?’” says Otto, 38. “It just looks so corny. [They’re dressed in] red gingham, empire, plaid maxi-dresses.” He first heard the record in 1988, when he was a student at the University of Minnesota and his roommate owned a cache of vintage LPs. The album cover looked kitschy, but the music hooked him. “We put it on the turntable, and I was immediately just blown away by how they sounded,” he says. “But it was one of those things where I felt a bit sheepish loving it, because it was only supposed to be ironic and funny. But I was really enjoying it. So at the end of the summer when we moved back to school she let me have the album.”
For the next two decades, Otto investigated a band that broke up three years before he was born. He hunted through the bins of used-record stores wherever he was living—in upstate New York, where he earned his master’s degree in urban planning at Cornell University, in Hawaii, where he took another master’s in American studies, and in the District, where he arrived in 1997.
Some of his legwork didn’t get him very far: He called the manager of the ’90s iteration of the New Christy Minstrels hoping for some background information, but he’d never heard of the Womenfolk, and RCA Victor insisted he go through the label’s legal department to obtain any information about the group. Searching online, he eventually came across orlok.com, a Web site of Broadway producer Michael Butler. The site listed Womenfolk member Leni Ashmore as a cast member in a late-’60s Los Angeles production of Hair (her bio reads in part that “she thinks that all governments suck [and] the world is going down the drain”). In 2002, he discovered that member Joyce James had died the year before of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Last year, while working at the General Services Administration, Otto decided to get serious about his Womenfolk research. “I was curious—not to get in touch [but] just to do some kind of tribute,” he says. “So I went back online and just started to hunt. I probably did it at work when I was a government employee and had lots of time.”
When he felt he’d accumulated enough information, he posted “Tribute to the Womenfolk” on his blog on June 9. The article included album cover scans, a discography, and an overview of the group’s history. A few weeks later, he decided to try contacting the group’s members. His first breakthrough was with Ashmore (now Leni Sorensen), who he discovered was working as an African-American research historian at Monticello for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
“When I saw a [recent] picture I compared it to one of [the older ones] and thought, ‘Well, it could be her, certainly,’” he says. “And so I e-mailed her at work. She agreed to let me call her. She was a lot of fun. She was just how she looks—real lively and doesn’t mince words.”
“We didn’t know that people were still interested,” says Sorensen. “Life had gone on, and people had had careers and kids.”
In the course of his research, Otto also learned why the Womenfolk’s music was sometimes at odds with its image. The group was assembled by a pair of producers, Perry Botkin Jr. and Gil Garfield, who produced and/or co-wrote early-’60s hits like Shelby Flint’s “Angel on My Shoulder” and Robin Ward’s “Wonderful Summer.” (Botkin went on to compose the theme music for The Young and the Restless.) Though the pair managed the Womenfolk’s look and chose many of the songs, Sorensen says the group was free to create its own vocal sound. “Once we got together and started singing, the sound that evolved was us,” she says. “They basically didn’t have any way of creating the sound. They just let us run with it. They did not determine how we organized our sound and certainly not our live performances.”
When Otto first spoke with Sorensen, she didn’t have a clue where the other Womenfolk were, but by then Otto had also located another member, Barbara Cooper, through her sister’s Web site. Like Sorensen, Cooper was appreciative of Otto’s efforts, but he didn’t pursue anything further with them. He got the feeling, he says, that “they really weren’t interested in me turning this into anything more than what I had done online.”
But Cooper was actually interested in reuniting the group. She contacted Sorensen and two other members, Jean Amos and Lalah Simcoe (nee Judy Fine). On Nov. 12, the four got together for the first time in four decades in Charlottesville, Va., Simcoe’s hometown. Though the reunion took place at a theater called Live Arts, it wasn’t a performance; the four simply recorded an oral history and caught up with one another.
Otto didn’t learn about the reunion until after the fact, when he met Cooper for dinner at a diner in her Greenwich Village neighborhood when he was in New York for Thanksgiving. Cooper says they didn’t invite Otto because they felt they had to “get used to each other first.”
“At first I was like, ‘Well, wait a minute, why wasn’t I there?’” Otto says. “But at the same time I was just happy that they all got together. Some of them hadn’t seen each other in 41 years.”
The reunion got covered by NPR but didn’t mention Otto’s role; an article in the Charlottesville Daily Progress did mention Otto—it described him as a “New York blogger.” His disappointment was tempered, though, by meeting Cooper, thus far the only group member he has met in person. And the group is now looking into reissuing its oeuvre thanks to his efforts.
“It really was amazing that after 20 years of wondering about these women to not only find out where they were but to actually talk to them,” Otto says. “It’s like being able to check something off on your ‘must-do’ list for your life.”