The Great Rediscovery of Forgotten 70s Folk Singer Judee Sill | Music

The story of Judy Seal, a relatively obscure figure in the folk-rock scene of the early 1970s, begins as another familiar fable of showbiz tragedy.

After a chaotic youth of abuse, addiction, and petty crime—including robberies of gas stations and liquor stores in California—Seall ended up in prison, first in reform school and finally in prison. It was there that Sill became determined to pursue what she believed to be her musical calling, and after her release began playing jazz bass and flute in the dark basements of the Los Angeles club circuit. She was the first artist signed to David Geffen’s Asylum Records in 1971, which landed her a Rolling Stone cover and attracted the attention of music industry players such as Graham Nash, who approached her as a producer, enchanted by her “feel for melody and structure, which was truly outstanding”.

Sil, however, never prospered. The two records she made on the label—her 1971 self-titled debut and 1974’s Heart Food—were critically acclaimed but failed commercially, leading to a whirlwind of rejection, despondency, domestic violence and a series of physical injuries that drew her back into the addiction that eventually killed her, aged 35, in her Hollywood apartment in late 1979.

It’s the type of disaster that has littered the history of rock and roll, a fate that many others may have lost without fanfare. But decades after her death, Sill’s out-of-print studio albums began to attract a modest but devoted fanbase among a new generation eager to preach an artist whose work shines beyond the boundaries of time.

Judy Sill with guitar and dog, February 5, 1971. Photo: Submarine Entertainment

Andy Brown and Brian Lindstrom, obvious fans themselves indoctrinated during Judy’s resurgence in the early 2000s, attempted to probe beyond the “Wikipedia version” of Seal’s life with their documentary The Lost Angel: The Genius of Judy Seal. which premiered at Doc NYC this month and streams online November 27. Nine years in the making, this is the first work to bring together all available biographical information about Seal, including newly discovered interviews and personal diaries.

The film features an array of talking heads, from contemporary musicians and families to former lovers and collaborators, as well as Asylum Records cohorts, including Geffen himself. Seal’s labelmate, Linda Ronstad, recognizes her music as “something special…it wasn’t in a category, it wasn’t in a niche. It was original.”

Indeed, the strangeness of genre-defying, Pentecostal-inspired celestial folk swing, categorized by Seal herself as “occult-sacred-western-baroque-gospel”, was a double-edged sword: it’s what prevented her sound from being absorbed by the audiences of her time, but also what undoubtedly propelled her music into the public consciousness nearly half a century after her death.

Inseparable from the pandis of her personal life, her work reflects an internal struggle between darkness and light, and Seal herself believes that she is literally ordained by a higher power: “It comes to me from God and then I look back and say hey, this is mathematically perfect she says in the documentary. “Always comes out right.”

Jim Pons of the Turtles, who boosted Sill’s rising stardom in the late 1960s when they covered her song Lady-O, attributes this to her fastidiousness when it came to composing and producing her music (which she did mostly on her own, down to conducting the orchestra for her second album): “She believed it was drawn from a higher source and had to be accurate. She was here on a mission to wake up the masses.

Seal was a prodigious multi-instrumentalist with perfect pitch, something she considers ancillary to her songwriting talent, but which gives her music more depth than that of her pop contemporaries. Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief articulates something of this intoxication with Seal’s music in the film, reflecting on Seal’s song The Kiss, which goes beyond what it sounds like: “I [needed] to learn this song… It felt like something I could listen to all my life and keep discovering more and more meaning. It just seemed like a bottomless well…a life-giving song. Like medicine.”

The filmmakers, with the earnest enthusiasm of a fanzine, present an empathetic portrait of an artist who was fit neither for consumption in her lifetime nor for obscurity afterward. Intimate scans of Seal’s personal diaries, magnified on screen, describe an astonishing bitterness. The use of her personal materials – charts of chords scrawled frantically with Pythagorean formulas and prayers, interspersed with caricatures of brooding bums and desperate notes to herself about how badly she wants to “get off the drugs” – recontextualizes Seal to the point of a strange resurrection. It represents the treasure of what Seal left behind: a work so great that it survived not only her death, but a decade of cultural burial by an audience that simply didn’t understand it. We rejoice in knowing her, even as we mourn for what was never meant to be.

If the real sadness in Judy Seal’s story is that she was never well known, the driving force behind her revival is that this forgotten music simply there is to be heard. Resolution is achieved through testimony: now we know and we listen.

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