One begins to wonder, on hearing the music of the Womenfolk, just how many "off-brand" artists RCA Records was stuck with during the mid-'60s -- after all, in answer to the Rascals, they had Denny Belline (on Denny Belline & the Rich Kids), and in response to Rotary Connection, they had Loading Zone; and even when they had first-rate talent signed, like the Blue Things, they couldn't sell their records if their lives depended on it. It sometimes seems like apart from Elvis Presley, the Jefferson Airplane, John Denver, and David Bowie, and anywhere other than the country field, the company's pop music talent scouts and marketing departments were usually several days late and more than a few dollars short. The Womenfolk were part of the early-'60s folk revival, coming in a little late in the game circa 1963, with a couple of live releases -- one from a performance at the hungry i, no less, where the Kingston Trio cut some of their best live stuff. Elaine Gealer, Joyce James, Lina Ashmore, Babs Cooper, and Judy Fine came out of California, initially with a live offering from Pasadena -- and they had a fair amount of potential as an ensemble. Anyone with ears could tell just how strong an impression the female singers in the New Christy Minstrels and the Serendipity Singers could make on listeners (not to mention the success that Joan Baez had already enjoyed by 1963, and the name Lynne Taylor was making for herself with the Rooftop Singers), and the idea of doubling the numbers wasn't a bad one. And these young women could harmonize in a lightweight manner -- there was one heavyweight talent among them, and that was Cooper.
The basic problem was that neither the group nor their producers could ever decide what they wanted to be on their records -- either a bold folk-based outfit plunging into fiercely original takes on blues and other roots related music, or a younger, leaner version of the King Family, or the McGuire Sisters gone folkie. The group's repertory ranged from folk staples such as "Silver Dagger" (done as "Katie Dear") to Broadway-spawned songs. Additionally, a lot like other outfits of this kind that came along in 1963-1964 (and Simon & Garfunkel in their original folk incarnation come to mind), they had a very short time-line in which to develop and capture any public attention. Folk music, even if well-performed without something special to recommend it, was already getting passe by the middle of 1963, and the arrival of the British Invasion put some high-wattage competition into the air that soon pulled in young players like Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn, and David Crosby, not to mention Bob Dylan. Had they been able to make up their minds on a musical direction in the midst of that musical ferment, the Womenfolk would be something more than a folk music curio or a footnote in the history of proto-lesbian sounds. Instead, the Womenfolk finally ran headlong into the folk-rock boom, and adapted to it not even as well as the New Christy Minstrels did on their records (and that was nothing notable, except that they did it -- once). By 1967, after four albums and a handful of singles, they were history, and well on their way to being a forgotten part of that. In the end, only Babs Cooper -- also sometimes credited as Barbara Cooper -- ever did anything separate, and the group's albums and singles have become rare over the ensuing decades. As to their impact on music, that was limited to one song -- their single of Jonathan Harris' "Love Come A-Tricklin' Down," paired with a rendition of Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes," never charted, but it introduced the song to Kingston Trio, who recorded a stunningly beautiful version for their debut album on the Decca label, Nick-Bob-John. Perhaps someday, Buddha Records or Collectables will issue a "Best of the Womenfolk," though in the RCA library, they're less alluring than, say, the Blue Things, and no one in the U.S. seems to be in a hurry to release their stuff. either. ~ Bruce Eder