Judy Henske, folk singer known as ‘Queen of the Beatniks’, dies at 85

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Judy Henske, a singer whose powerful and deep alto voice, Olympian stage presence and rugged sense of humor earned her the nickname “Queen of the Beatniks”, died on April 27 in a hospice in the Los Angeles area. She was 85 and lived in Pasadena, California.

The death was announced by her husband, Craig Doerge, a fellow musician.

In a career that spanned half a century, Ms. Henske was originally hailed as part of the folk music scene of the early 1960s, but proved equally at home with jazz, blues, rock and stand-up comedy. She made solo recordings and “Farewell Aldebaran” (1969), a collaboration with her first husband, guitarist Jerry Yester, became a psychedelic cult classic.

Late nights in cafes and nightclubs from California to New York, she shared programs with the Kingston Trio, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. Allen’s fictional Annie Hall, from the Oscar-winning 1977 film of the same name, shared a birthplace with Mrs. Henske – the town of Chippewa Falls, Wis. When asked, Ms Henske said she believed Annie was a composite of her and actresses Louise Lasser and Diane Keaton.

The late lawyer and crime writer Andrew Vachss admired Ms Henske so much that he made her a recurring character in his series of private ‘Burke’ novels. In “Blue Belle” (1988), Vachss wrote: “If Linda Ronstadt is a torch singer, Henske is a flamethrower.

“She was a very specific kind of folk,” music historian and biographer Barry Alfonso said in an interview. “She loved the drama and cheerful spirit of folk material. She definitely didn’t see herself in airy maiden folk mode, the kind of women who strummed instruments and sang medieval ballads in high, pristine voices. She called them “dulcimer girls”. ”

Ms. Henske seemed to come from many different traditions, but was most often said to have been influenced by vaudeville star Sophie Tucker and blues singer Bessie Smith, who both sang their songs with a boisterous authority rather than a hint of deference. In turn, Ms. Henske’s brassy, ​​full-throated delivery seemed to have made a strong impression on Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, among others.

Judith Anne Henske was born in Chippewa Falls on December 20, 1936. Her father was a doctor and her mother ran a cultured household. “Judy liked to say that poetry was handed out at her family’s dinner table with the mashed potatoes,” Alfonso said.

“She’s the only person I’ve ever met who can quote a Maxwell Bodenheim poem from memory,” he continued, referring to an early New York bohemian writer who celebrated Greenwich Village and the free love in most of his works.

Ms. Henske sang in a church choir and at weddings before leaving to study music at Rosary College (now Dominican University) in Illinois and the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She moved to San Diego in the late 1950s and performed her first solo gig at the Zen Coffee House and Motorcycle Repair Shop in Pacific Beach.

Standing over 6ft tall, Ms Henske had a naturally commanding stage presence – and she loved live performances. “I loved when people were engaged, and they show it laughing and not just clapping,” she told the Chippewa Herald in 2013. “It didn’t look like people sitting lifeless in their seats, to admire you. It was alive.”

In 1963 Mrs. Henske recorded her first two albums, “Judy Henske” and “High Flying Bird”. She also won a weekly spot on “The Judy Garland Show,” but was reportedly humiliated by a skit she said poked fun at Midwestern farmers and a vapid studio band that screeched trumpets during longer passages. sweet from “God Bless the Child”. ”

That same year, she was cast alongside Johnny Cash in “Hootenanny Hoot”, which writer Roy Trakin called a “folksploitation” film. In 1964, she played the lead role in “Gogo Loves You”, an off-Broadway musical remembered only as one of Anita Loos’ (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) last projects.

In the early 1970s, Ms. Henske turned away from recording and performing to raise her daughter. She contributed lyrics to several Doerge songs, including “Yellow Beach Umbrella” (covered by Three Dog Night and Bette Midler), “Might as Well Have a Good Time” (recorded by Crosby, Stills & Nash) and “Save me” (sung by Johnny Hallyday).

She spent the 1990s presenting occasional low-key events in Southern California and writing feature articles for the San Diego Reader, including one on competitive pigeon racing.

In 1999 Ms. Henske released her first album of a generation, “Loose in the World”. It was followed by “She Sang California” in 2004. Rhino Records released “Big Judy: How Far This Music Goes, 1962-2004”, a two-CD career retrospective, in 2007.

Her marriage to Yester ended in divorce. In addition to Doerge, survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Kate DeLaPointe, and a granddaughter.

According to Alfonso, Ms Henske was a “versatile creative person, an unassuming intellectual, a person who loved to learn, laugh and speculate wildly for her own good”.

More than anything, he admired the lack of bitterness she felt about how lasting fame was slipping away from her. “The weird twists and turns in his career made him laugh,” he said. “Part of her seemed to stand back and look back at the amazing things she had done and take them in with wonder and a strong sense of the absurd.”


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