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Author: Nicole Plett. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 15, 2000. All rights reserved.
Priscilla Herdman Encore
As folksinger Priscilla Herdman prepares for this,
her 10th performance for the Princeton Folk Music Society, currently
celebrating its 35th anniversary year, she still remembers the first
time, when the area folk music enthusiasts "took a chance with
"The first time was a Jean Redpath cancellation," says Herdman,
in an interview from her home in the upper Hudson River Valley. "They
called me on three or four days’ notice. They had an audience and
no singer. That was in May, 1978, the year after I released my first
album, `Water Lily,’ and they took a chance with me."
The self-described "singer-songfinder," an interpretive singer
who has been hailed by Rolling Stone for "her elegant, perfect
pitch voice," with 10 albums to her credit and 25 years on the
national scene, performs a program of traditional and contemporary
songs at Christ Congregation Church, on Friday, March 17, at 8:15
In a folk music scene crowded with singer-songwriters, Herdman has
built a repertoire of what she considers some of the finest songs
"I see myself as a singer. I see myself as an interpreter, as
someone who can take a song and make it something unique for myself,
maybe different from the way the songwriter would interpret it, but
without changing the intent or its feeling," says Herdman. "I
try to make it my own but also to do justice to the song in that process."
Growing up on a tree-lined street in Eastchester, New York, Herdman,
the youngest of four children, discovered her singing voice at an
early age. Her father was an electrician with his own business, and
her mother was the company bookkeeper.
"Both of my parents liked to sing, but it was my mother, Ellen,
who was the most musical. She had a wonderful voice and had played
guitar, banjo, and ukelele when she was a young woman." After
marriage and motherhood, the instruments were put in the attic, but
eventually her sister Susan brought them back to light, taking the
guitar off to college with her. "That old guitar had captured
my heart, and on my 16th birthday, a new guitar from K-Mart started
me on my way," says Herdman.
"I always seemed to love melodies and would make up songs and
sing them walking around the house — until my brother started
making fun of me, and then it became a more private thing. I also
loved songs from musical theater. Later I had 45s from shows like
`Carousel’ and `Oklahoma’ and I used to sing my brains out, singing
anything that had to do with musical theater." At 18 she was earning
her way through college in Iowa and New York playing in bars, coffee
houses, and church basement folk clubs.
"We listened to a lot of music on radio and television. We had
television when it first came out, my dad being an electrician, of
course. We saw Lawrence Welk, and my mom loved Mitch Miller. We had
tons of Sing Along with Mitch records."
After a three-year stint at the University of Iowa, during which she
began her coffeehouse performances in Iowa City, Herdman came back
east in the early 1970s, and, at her father’s urging, finished her
degree at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, moving directly
into a job in the New York fashion industry.
Describing herself as a "painfully shy" young person, Herdman
recalls the process by which she gained enough confidence to become
a solo performer. "Singing helped me grow and be more outgoing,
and if the audience liked you it was intoxicating," she says.
"I think what happened was that when I saw that a woman like Joan
Baez could get up with a guitar and connect with all those people,
it felt like something I could do on my own."
"In the ’60s, a guitar and a voice was all you needed. We never
had any classical music at home, but I used to rent classical records
from the library." In college, as an art major, she also took
up vocal lessons, but her teacher was a poor match and devastated
her hopes for developing her voice. She did not study with a voice
teacher again until she was 28 and had already been signed to Philo
"I took lessons with Odetta, who reassured me that I had a natural
voice. I had to learn to breath, to develop control, and take care
of what was there, like a runner who has to have training to use their
muscles in their right way."
In 1976, encouraged by a contract with Philo Records, Herdman gave
up her day job and moved to Philadelphia to become a professional
singer. Her first album, "The Water Lily," was released in
1977, and she began to tour, one of the few women performers on the
folk revival scene.
"When I got connected to Philo, I was 27. I had not gone after
them, but a friend sent them a tape of a live performance. One day
I heard a knock at the door, and it was the people from Philo Records.
"My first album included seven songs by a turn-of-the century
Australian folk poet, Henry Lawson, who is obscure to Americans, but
well known in Australia. It was unique. The words were set to music
by me and by others." Philo musicians Jay Ungar, fiddle and mandolin,
and Abby Newton on cello performed with Herdman on her debut album,
musicians she continues to work with. Newton is her collaborator and
In 1990, she began performing with Anne Hills and Cindy Mangsen. Their
first collaborative CD, "Voices," was released in 1990, and
in 1997, "Voices of Winter."
Although she is coming up on her 18th wedding anniversary, Herdman
still likes to tell the tale of how she came to move to Pine Plains
in 1982, a small town of 1,000 in New York’s Hudson River Valley,
where she met and married Dick Hermans all within the space of six
"I moved here after I was held up at gunpoint — for the second
time — in front of my house in Philadelphia," says Herdman.
Having made the decision to move, her friends helped her figure out
"We looked at all the places I work — Boston, Montreal, Albany,
New York, and the Hudson Valley — and located the upper Hudson
Valley as the center."
The hold-up was in October, and Herdman spent November and December
looking for rentals, finally putting an ad in the paper for something
"remote but not isolated." The first call was the house she
eventually took, a small, 1820 house in Pine Plains, a town of about
1,000. Because she could not afford rent and utilities by herself,
her friend referred her another friend who had a bookstore in a small
town nearby called Millerton. "They had our records in their store
and offered to help me find a roommate," she says.
"When I called the store the guy who answered the phone asked,
`By the way, which house is it?’ It turned out it was right next door
to his own. His house was converted into three apartments, and he
didn’t want to live with his renters any more. Pretty soon he said
`I’ll share the house with you.’ We met and settled it with a handshake.
Then I asked, `By the way, do you smoke?’
"He paused and replied, `I gave it up.’ And when I asked, `When?’,
he replied, `Right now.’ Six months later we married," she concludes
Dick Hermans continues as an independent bookseller
and co-owner of Oblong Books and Music in nearby Millerton. For the
past 25 years he has also broadcast a four-hour live show for WKZE
in Connecticut called "Harmony Junction." Today the couple
are parents of a teenage daughter, and Hermans is a volunteer member
of the Pine Plains School Board.
Herdman describes her daughter, Suzanna, born in 1985, as "my
most wondrous release." Now a teenager, Suzanna has a special
interest in musical theater. Becoming a mother also gave a wondrous
boost to Herdman’s career when she released "Stardreamer: Nightsongs
and Lullabies," in 1988. Co-produced with Abby Newton, as a gift
for both of their young daughters, the album won top honors from parents
organizations, and continues to break sales records. It has produced
two sequels, "Daydreamer" (1993), and her most recent solo
recording of 1998, "Moondreamer," which she describes as a
collection of lullabies for adults and children.
"Forever and Always," Herdman’s album of love songs released
in 1994 on the Flying Fish label, remains an adult favorite. A bouquet
of songs spanning centuries and continents, it opens with John McCutcheon’s
"This Time of Year," includes a stunning rendition of the
traditional "The Water is Wide," and takes in a unique a cappella
interpretation of Billy Joel’s "And So It Goes," performed
with trio members Anne Hills and Cindy Mangsen. Bill Staines’ "Music
To Me" is included on the album, with Staines contributing the
harmony. Anne Hills also wrote the closing, standout track for the
album "Follow That Road," a lovely melody that features a
broad interval leap that Herdman bridges as effortlessly as if it
were a quiet chat.
"I had asked Anne if she would write a song for the album,"
Herdman recalls. "She was working on a few different ones at the
time, but when she sang this one to me over the phone, it passed my
tear test. `I think that’s the closing song,’ I told her."
"It’s a love song to anyone," she continues, "to an old
sweetheart, to your sister, to your kid who doesn’t come home enough.
It’s one of my all-time favorites."
Herdman describes her process of putting together an album as "an
excruciating process involving everything from the key that the song
is in, the instruments, and the content. I look for a good story and
a beautifully crafted tune," she says. "The language or the
poetry of the song has to be wonderful.
"The unifying factor in any album is how the songs relate to each
other, as if they were a collection of short stories," she says.
"I look at myself a little bit as an editor, looking at material
and grouping it so that it makes sense, and takes you somewhere."
— Nicole Plett
Christ Congregation Church, 55 Walnut Lane, Princeton, 609-799-0944.
$12 at the door. Friday, March 17, 8:15 p.m.
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