Helen Reddy: 'Strong, Invincible Woman' at Wolf Trap
Around ten years ago, singer Helen Reddy says she just got tired of performing and needed to move on to other things.
“I was just plain tired,” she said. “Of touring and everything that went with it. I’d done it most of my life from a kid on.” And then, recently, something happened. Reddy realized she missed performing.
“I sang at a birthday thing with my sister,” she said. “And I realized that I missed singing. I missed the audience, and so I thought I wanted to come back.”
Not without some trepidation. At first, Reddy did gigs in California, which had been the base and home for the Australian-born musical superstar of the 1970s and 1980s, the period when she had some of her biggest hits.
Now, she’s coming to Washington, to the Barns at Wolf Trap specifically for two concerts, Thursday and Friday, March 7 and 8, at 8 p.m.
“You know what I really like?” she asked. “It’s that contact with the audience, that back and forth, the emotional tug. It’s not just about nostalgia, or a greatest hits' kind-of-thing. I have some of my old band mates, and I’ll be doing some of my hits, sure, but also standards, and songs of mine that perhaps aren’t so familiar, but that I love.” “No, no backup singers,” she said, laughing.
In a way, her presence in the states and in Washington has a little bit of serendipity to it—the city is and the country is in the midst of celebrating March as National Women’s History Month. Where would Women’s History Month be without a mention, the very presence of a kind of women’s history anthem, still defiant, still particular and pertinent?
Where would any mention of women’s history be without “I Am Woman”? Reddy’s hard-fought signature and anthem song, released in May 1972, had an up and down journey on the charts before finally making its way to the top of the Billboard charts in December of that year.
Not only did she first record and sing the song, but Reddy is its listed co-writer with songwriter Ray Burton. What happened after all that is something else again: the song resonated with women and the women's liberation movement to the point that it became a musical flag for the women’s rights and remains so. There are millions of women—and no doubt quite a few men—who know the song by heart and will sing it without being asked. History keeps right on moving and the song moves with it. There are still firsts for women. Witness that the song was heard in the background after Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director.
Reddy’s presence in the nation’s capital, when all kinds of historical and commemorative exhibitions, symposiums and marches on women’s rights are being held, seems appropriate. You can bet that the song will be part of her show at the Barns, although not quite in the form you’re used to hearing it. “Yes, I will perform it,” she said. “Of course. It’s a strange thing, that song. I’m so proud of it, but it’s also one of those things, an achievement that’s kind of hard to top. I mean I’m a part of history now. So, that song has a huge importance to me and to others.”
“Woman” is not the only hit song Reddy ever wrote, recorded and sang—she’s had a big and long career, being part of an Australian show biz family, and setting out on a singing career in the United States in the 1960s. Her breakthrough hit was “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” the Mary Magdalene ballad from “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It was followed by “I am Woman” and a host of other hits, including “Angie Baby,” “Delta Dawn” (the Alex Harvey-penned song also recorded by a teenaged Tanya Tucker and others) and “That’s No Way to Treat a Lady” among many others. Reddy reportedly has sold more than 25 million records worldwide—which is to say that in the 1970s and 1980s, she was huge.
That kind of red-hot heat of fame rarely lasts, but Reddy was to the stage born and toured often and also made forays into the legitimate theater stage, where she appeared as “Shirley Valentine” and in “Anything Goes” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” in addition to appearances in movies and on television.
“I think there’s nothing like that connection between audience and singer,” she said during our interview. “I really love it. I look out there and see members of several generations, people my ages, old fans, to be sure, but also new ones, and women with their teenaged daughters. That’s very emotionally satisfying to me.”
This month, for sure, it will be good to see and hear Helen Reddy at the Barns at Wolf Trap. She is, after all, Helen Reddy, a star who has lived a life from there and back again. The song and its lyrics resonate for women everywhere, but surely for her, too: “Oh yes I am wise/But it’s wisdom born of pain/Yes I’ve paid the price/but look how much I gained/If I have to/I can face anything/I am strong/I am invincible/I am woman.”