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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the January 16,
2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Anne Hills’s Folk Dialog
While no one who knows her well would call Anne Hills
a folk music purist, she does believe that some of today’s
singer-songwriters need to spend more time grounding themselves in
traditional songs — if only for the benefit of their own abilities
Hills presents a solo show for the Princeton Folk Music Society at
Christ Congregation Church on Friday, January 18.
Raised in Michigan and schooled in folk music in Chicago, Hills
much of her craft from two icons of folk music, Tom Paxton and the
late Bob Gibson. She says that although she was a vocalist first and
a songwriter second, both men took an active interest in her
such as it is in folk music, by encouraging her to write her own
Hills’ latest album, "Under American Skies," is a brilliant
collaboration with Paxton. It’s a collection of old, traditional songs
recorded with new millennium technology, with a few recent
by both Hills and Paxton added to the mix. Included are some old
songs that have become folk music standards, songs like Malvina
"God Bless The Grass," Gil Turner’s "Carry It On,"
and Gibson’s "Well, Well, Well."
Hills says the concept for the album was hatched at the Clearwater
Festival in New York. "I was sitting with Jim Musselman (of
Recordings) at the Sing Out! magazine booth," says Hills, who
makes her home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her husband, Mark Moss,
is the editor of Sing Out!, one of Americas oldest music magazines.
"We were lamenting the fact that not only are fewer and fewer
people doing political songs, which used to be an instrumental part
of folk music, but more important, some of the older folk songs just
aren’t being performed anymore," she says. "We were talking
about how few people still follow the political path. In the process
of talking about it, Jim Musselman suggested that Tom Paxton and I
do a record together."
Paxton and Hills worked together in the late 1970s and early ’80s,
when Hills first moved to Chicago from her native Michigan. Now 48,
Hills is the third sibling in a family of four girls and one boy.
Her father spent time in India as a sociologist, where she was born,
but he then made his way back to the U.S. to study to become a medical
doctor. Her mother was a schoolteacher. Everyone in her family was
encouraged to sing, and her parents were supportive of her decision
to pursue folk music as a career. Her brother and sisters are now
scattered around the states, in Michigan, Colorado, and California.
"That’s actually one of the nice things about being a touring
musician," she says, "I get to see my sisters and my brother
"I was encouraged in creative writing back home in
she says, "and then after graduating from high school, I had a
brief stint at Michigan State, but immediately dropped out and went
to San Francisco and enrolled in City College there," she says,
recalling the years 1971 and 1972. After a few years in San Francisco,
she moved back home for a brief time and performed at a coffee house
in Interlochen, where another folk singer encouraged her to look him
up if she came to Chicago.
"Tyler Wilson heard me in Michigan and he said, `If you’re in
Chicago, look me up." In Chicago, she met guitar maker and
Jan Burda, who introduced her to traditional American music. She
Burda, and began performing with Paxton and the Chicago-based
Bob Gibson. The three formed a trio they named Best of Friends.
"Jan introduced me to traditional American music," she says,
"because before that I’d been listening to more folk-pop, people
like Emmylou Harris and Jackson Browne. I’d not heard of Doc Watson
or the Carter Family or Mike Seeger or any of that crowd. I really
always feel traditional folk music is like moonshine, or home-made
whiskey: when you first try it, it kind of burns and then you say,
`This is really powerful stuff.’ And that’s one of the things that
draws you to it. It’s potent and emotional."
Asked if her parents were worried for her while she worked to make
a career as a singer-songwriter in the Windy City, Hills laughs.
"First of all, with five kids, you have to learn to let go,"
she says. "They were always very supportive, and they weren’t
too concerned about it." In fact, Hills, who started her college
education at Michigan State in 1971, will earn her bachelor’s degree
in psychology this spring from Moravian College in Bethlehem and plans
to work toward a master’s degree in social work at an accelerated
Hills says when she first moved to Chicago she lived in a women’s
boarding house. "They gave you a room, two meals a day, and they
had a curfew. But it was two blocks from the Earl of Old Town. It
was one of the first Chicago folk clubs and that’s where I first heard
Jack Hardy and a bunch of other people." This was also where she
first met Paxton when she was opening a concert for Bob Gibson.
"Bob really loved my voice and asked me to sing some harmony with
him," she says, "and at that time, I wasn’t doing any solo
work. At that particular time the Chicago scene was lots of clubs
and coffee houses, and everybody was jumping on stage with everyone
Chicago in the late 1970s and early ’80s was a place
were a folksinger could live and work and survive by doing a few gigs
here and there and perhaps working part-time at some more conventional
While both Paxton and Gibson encouraged her to write and begin
her own songs, Hills says Paxton’s prolific pace as a songwriter had
a lasting influence on her. Another songwriter she credits as an
and still frequently performs with is Michael P. Smith. Paxton, based
for many years in East Hampton, N.Y., now lives in Virginia, in the
Washington, D.C. suburbs.
"Tom was very encouraging about singing songs from tradition.
He would say, `You’re going to learn so much from singing these songs,
your own writing will improve,’" says Hills. "That doesn’t
occur enough with the current generation of songwriters. When you
hear Dave Van Ronk, there’s no denying the way he can take a
blues song and pull your heart out with it."
Hills credits the Kerrville Music Foundation for having a major impact
on her songwriting. She first visited the two-week, annual May
in the town just west of Austin, Texas, in the mid-’80s, and has
at many. "As a songwriter, a break for me was the Kerrville Folk
Festival," she says. "Sitting around camp fires down there,
when you hear everybody from a plumber from a small town in Texas
and Jimmie Dale Gilmore in the same circle, and everybody being
of each other as writers in process, it changes your way of looking
"You wonder for a while, `Can I do it or can’t I do it?’ But the
answer of course is you can do it. But you have to learn how to edit
and learn from others and singing the old traditional songs is part
of that process," she argues.
Performing solo, she notes, is different from working with trio
Cindy Mangsen and Priscilla Herdman. With the trio, she has to be
conscious of not stepping on other toes. "It’s almost like using
different spices in a dish," she says. "There are things you
can do with harmonies that you can’t do with a solo voice. With a
solo voice you can have a really intimate dialog with the
Hills says her audiences have a role to play in shaping the kind of
solo show she will present for the Princeton Folk Music Society.
"I walk up on stage with my repertoire at my disposal," she
says, "but I don’t know what order I’m doing my songs in, I’m
not even sure what songs I’m doing. That’ll depend on the mood of
the room, the expressions on the faces of the audience, the response
they give me during the songs and at the end of the songs. I can tell
what’s touching the nerves of an audience."
— Richard J. Skelly
Congregation Church, 55 Walnut Lane, Princeton, 609-799-0944. $12.
Friday, January 18, 8:15 p.m.
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