Dawn Landes “The Liberated Woman’s Songbook”

FunMachine Music, 2024

Landes breathes new life into eleven songs that trace the women’s rights movement through the ages for a contemporary audience.

artwork for Dawn Landes album "The Liberated Woman's Songbook"Dawn Landes belongs to that complexing group of artists that have never quite achieved the commercial success or recognition that their talents and recorded output clearly deserves. She released her debut album almost twenty years ago, and with such revered albums as ‘Fireproof’ (2008), and the award-winning ‘Bluebird’ (2014), amongst her back catalogue, Landes has long been a critics favourite, seemingly always on the verge of a major breakthrough. Having most recently worked with Daniel Goldstein on the musical ‘ROW’ of which the resulting album featured contributions from such luminaries as Will Oldham, Landes is back with a new album ‘The Liberated Woman’s Songbook’, of which the eleven tracks are drawn from the book of the same title originally published by folk singer, guitar teacher, and author of over 200 books, Jerry Silverman in 1971.

The initial driving force behind Landes’ recording these songs came from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of ‘Dobbs versus Jackson Woman’s Health Organisation’, stating that the Constitution of the United States does not cover the right to abortion, thus overturning the landmark decision of ‘Roe versus Wade’, and rolling back woman’s autonomy by fifty years. It was the first time in American history that the court had acted to revoke a right. Angered and frustrated by the findings Landes found herself returning to a book she had picked up at a thrift shop some two years earlier, researching and learning each of the seventy seven songs collected in this canon of women’s activism from 1830 – 1970, until she had honed them down to the songs that make up this album.

Recording the album at Little Pink Studio in upstate New York and The Garage, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with producer Josh Kaufman who also supplies all percussions, bass and mandolin, Landes has set about bringing women’s voices back to the forefront, by breathing new live into these eleven reimagined songs from the liberation movement. Having worked previously with the likes of Bonny Light Horseman, Kaufman is more than familiar with updating old songs, giving them a more expansive full band arrangement that helps to amplify the powerful lyrical message of freedom and equity that originally was meant exclusively for the picket line with their repetitive easy to remember narratives. With Landes wanting to deliver these songs against a more modern backdrop, musically as well as politically, it has at times required her to develop the lyrics, add choruses, and occasionally even melody so as to help create a fresher more relevant sound for new ears. It would also appear to be a conscious decision to order the tracks chronologically thus creating a linear progression from the Civil War through the ages, to deliver a history lesson of women’s activism, trying to teach and understand the journey travelled to this current predicament and maybe somewhere within find the solution.

The album itself opens with ‘Hard Is The Fortune Of All Woman Kind’, a traditional ballad from 1830, regularly sung at protests and demonstrations throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s by such legends of the folk movement as Peggy Seeger and Joan Baez, though under the alternative title of ‘The Wagoners Lad’. The arrangement here is more sprightly of pace, a testament to Kaufman’s work throughout the album, while on ‘The Housewife’s Lament’, a tale of eavesdropping, the more lighthearted delivery still haunts with the fear and consequences of fading beauty and fortune. Elsewhere, Ella May Wiggins, a union organiser murdered in Gastonia during the 1929, Mill Strike, is remembered through the song written in the same year ‘Mill Mother’s Lament’, while the origins of Florence Reece’s song ‘Which Side Are You On’, are born out of the Harlan County Wars of the 1930’s. In both songs Landes perfectly captures the bravery and defiance that inspired the original works. However, there is room for a little “tongue in cheek’ levity with Meredith Tax’s adaptation of the children’s song ‘There Was An Old Woman Who Swallowed A Lie (fly)’, written as a valentine. The album closes with the newest number ‘Liberation Now’, written in 1970, and delivered with the sparsest of arrangements, Landes voice supported simply by a gently strummed acoustic guitar and backing vocals, emphasising the inclusive theme within this quintessential protest song.

March 29th saw the celebration of ‘Woman’s History Month’, and with ‘The Liberated Woman’s Songbook’, Landes has helped to draw attention to a subject still far from addressed, highlighting how the messages from two hundred years ago are as timely today as they have ever been. Whether this album sees the breakthrough that Landes’ career rightfully deserves is a moot point, as sadly the subject matter along with its source of traditional material may dissuade some from embracing the delights within. Alas, that will be there loss as this is an album that can proudly stand alongside the best of Landes’ output today.


About Graeme Tait 125 Articles
Hi. I'm Graeme, a child of the sixties, eldest of three, born into a Forces family. Keen guitar player since my teens, (amateur level only), I have a wide, eclectic taste in music and an album collection that exceeds 5.000. Currently reside in the beautiful city of Lincoln.
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