Music

Dorris Henderson with John Renbourn: Watch the Stars

Steven Horowitz

A British Invasion of the '60s of a different sort: an L.A. lady goes to London, meets an English gent, and creates a cross-cultural folk record whose beauty shines like the stars.


John Renbourn

Watch the Stars

Display Artist: Dorris Henderson With John Renbourn
Label: Fledg'ling
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 2005-09-19
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Folk music exploded in England during the mid-1960s. Solo artists like Roy Harper, Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy, and groups such as Fairport Convention, Fotheringay, and the Incredible String Band burst onto the scene with fresh sounds that made the Skiffle revival of the previous era seem dated and hokey. The Florida-born, Los Angeles-raised Dorris Henderson was a vital presence of the Brit Folk scene. Although she only released two albums under her name (with guitarist John Renbourn) during that era, the African American artist made a strong impact through the quality of her work. She had a strong, bright, and earthy voice and a good ear, and selected top-notch material into her repertoire.

Henderson recorded Watch the Stars, her second album, in January 1966, but it was not released until 1967. The record has just been digitally remastered and reissued by Fledg'ling Records with one bonus cut, Arthur Lee's bittersweet and bouncy "Message to Pretty". The crystal clear production suits the L.A. lass's intimate vocals and Renbourn's precise acoustic guitar playing style. It's a shame Henderson, who died in May of this year, did not live to see her music released to a new audience. The old record has been out of print and unavailable for years.

Several of the tracks on Watch the Stars, such as the title cut, are traditional American and English folk tunes. Highlights include the jaunty "When You Hear Them Cuckoos Hollerin'", the Piedmont Blues of "Thirty Days in Jail", and the gentle "Come Up Horsey". The influence of Joan Baez on Henderson is clearly evident on these tunes, in which Henderson's voice rings like a bell. The L.A. lady also covers Bob Dylan's wistful "Tomorrow is a Long Time" and Gordon Lightfoot's loutish "For Lovin' Me". These songs were part of the standard folk set list of many musicians of the period and could be heard at hootenannies around the globe. Still, Henderson and Renbourn perform splendid renditions of these cuts. Renbourn opens the Dylan cover with a jangly riff, full of quiet, empty spaces that allow Henderson to gently croon the lovelorn lyrics and be heard. When she raises her voice in volume and pitch for emphasis, the effect is appropriately dramatic.

The two take the opposite tack on the Lightfoot cut, which makes sense as the narrator roughly boasts that he's leaving his lover and "won't think of her when he's gone". Lightfoot's purposely ambiguous lyrics suggest he's being cruel to be kind. His bravado serves as a mask. Renbourn's guitar work functions to reveal the narrator's hidden, deeper feelings about leaving through his intricate fingerings that indicate his emotions are more complex than the words indicate.

Henderson wrote or co-wrote several songs on Watch the Stars, including the wistful "Mosaic Patterns" with Annie Briggs. The reclusive Briggs has become a legend over the years, in part because of Richard Thompson's beautiful song about her, "Bee's Wings". The psychedelic imagery of "Mosaic Patterns" suggests Briggs' delicate mental state at the time. It's unclear what parts were written by Henderson and which lines were penned by Briggs, but Henderson's other material here shows that she was a very talented songwriter. The L.A. songstress's poignant "Lonely Mood" and spiritual "Gonna Tell My Lord" show her facility at conveying profound emotional states. Henderson and Renbourn also do a lovely version of Briggs' heartrending ballad, "The Time has Come".

The three "Poems of Solitude" provide the disc's most intense listening thrills. Henderson recites, rather than sings, the lyrics. The trilogy weaves together Joan Chi's bitterly romantic "Poems of My Heart", the Zen-like spiritualism of Pao Chao's "Eighteen Tedious Ways", and Li Ho's "Magic String" as performed by Renbourn. The guitarist plucks the guitar rather than strums it, which gives the music an eerie resonance. The result seems simultaneously loud and quiet in a manner that mimics nature, i.e., the crashing of a wave upon a wave.

Renbourn went on to a successful solo career and as a member of Pentangle and the John Renbourn Group. Henderson joined the largely unknown folk group Eclection and died in relative obscurity. She put out one solo album in 2003 (with Renbourn appearing as a guest performer) and played occasional dates with Renbourn during the past decade, but her glory days were far behind her. Fledg'ling Records should be commended for bringing this gem back in print. Henderson was too good an artist to be forgotten. And these early recordings of Renbourn show he always had the goods.

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