The first time it was fathers
The last time it was sons
And in between your husbands
marched away with drums and guns
And you never thought to question
You just went on with your lives
'Cause all they taught you to be was
mothers, daughters and wives. When the Weavers' Ronnie Gilbert performed in Washington not long ago, she sang a poignant version of "Mothers, Daughters and Wives" and spoke of how moved she was when she first heard it performed by Australian folk singer Judy Small, who wrote it in 1980. Small, who will make her Washington debut Friday at the Hoover Auditorium, has a similar story to tell.
"I heard Ronnie sing the song at the Winnipeg Folk Festival last year," she recalls, her words colored by an engaging accent that betrays her home down under. "It brought tears to my eyes. Mind you, I've heard other people do the song before -- there are five recorded versions of it apart from mine -- but Ronnie's version was just so passionate and personal that I cried."
Small's reaction is all the more understandable when you consider that she's been listening to American folk music for most of her life. She grew up in a seaside town in New South Wales, tuning in the Weavers, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary during the '60s folk boom and teaching herself to play the guitar.
"I was 11 or 12 then and all you could find on the radio was either the Beatles and Rolling Stones or this American folk music," she says. "I like the beat behind good rock, but I've always been attracted to music that says something more than 'I love you, baby, will you be mine.' The words have always been more important to me than the music."
As for traditional Australian folk music, Small remembers hearing songs about "Let's go shear a sheep and see who can do it faster" and little more. She was most impressed by American women folk singers, who seemed "stronger" than their pop and rock counterparts. "They were singing songs about what mattered -- real people and issues."
When Small was 18 she moved to Sydney, where she received a master's degree in psychology and later taught legal counseling. "I was singing all the while, and eventually the singing began to take up as much time as the 9-to-5 stuff," she says. "It just got to the point where I had to make a choice."
The decision, in a sense, was made for her in 1981, when some friends confronted her after a concert. "They asked me when I was going to make my first record and I told them when I raise the money," she says with a laugh. "They asked how much money and I, naively, told them $10,000. They said they'd raise it for me, which is what they did. I have great taste in friends."
Since then Small has released several albums, and although she's drawn strong support from the women's music movement in this country, her music isn't easily categorized.
On the album "Mothers, Daughters and Wives," for example, the songs are quite varied, although each is graced by Small's lovely soprano voice. "Bridget Evans" is a trenchant and heartfelt song about "nuclear madness" in Europe, dedicated to the women at the Greenham Common peace camp. "Speaking Hands, Hearing Eyes" was inspired by what Small calls the "beautifully expressive and complex language" of the deaf. And "The White Bay Paper Seller" is precisely the kind of song Small set out to write years ago -- a vivid portrait of a seemingly ordinary life.
Curiously enough, Small points to "The Life of the Roly Poly People" as the "most radical song I've ever written": This is a song for the Roly-Poly people
The people who just don't fit
Into size 10 dresses and whose mood depresses
Every time somebody goes and mentions it. "That song really challenges a popular view," she says. "The view that fat is ugly and undesirable is one of the least questioned tenets of our society. By saying fat people are okay really challenges people's views about a subject they may not have given much thought to before."
Now that Small has enjoyed considerable success as a folk singer in Australia, she's approached every so often by producers interested in making more commercial music. "I tell them I'm not interested in being a pop star," she says flatly. "I'm a folk singer with something to say, and I have enough of an ego to want to say it through my own music."