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Spring 2017

Among the many great live experiences this year, Josh Ritter – a singer-songwriter inspired to play “messianic oracular honky-tonk” – blew into Britain for a handful of gigs, including St Stephen’s Hammersmith. The acoustics were perfect and the Idaho-born folkie – who’s spent some time holed up in Woodstock, writing songs and (to coin a phrase) watching the river flow – dipped deep into his songbag, bringing the house down with “Galahad”, his racy retelling of the Holy Grail Story.

Barbara Dickson, now relocated to Edinburgh, across the bridge from where she grew up in Dunfermline, turned in the most fantastic show at London’s Union Chapel. Those who came to hear the chart hits weren’t disappointed but the real treats were the folk songs, traditional and modern, from Scotland and beyond, which she performs with both reverence and deep knowledge – the poignant “Palace Grand”, for example, learned from the late Jean Redpath, the singer and collector who left Fife for New York as the 1960s revival drew a callow Bob Dylan to that city (Joan Baez recorded the song as “Lady Mary”.)  Other traditional highlights included “MacCrimmon’s Lament”, sung a capella and segueing into an exhilarating Irish jig, which spotlighted Troy Donockley’s Uillian pipework, he riffing on them much as he does on lead guitar, and the majestic “Farewell to Fiunary”, all drums and drone.

Barbara Dickson, with the Ballads of Child Migration, featured in the Radio 2 Folk Awards at the Royal Albert Hall, where the Scots and the Irish rather swept the board. Ry Cooder was given an award for Lifetime Achievement, flying in specially from Santa Monica for the occasion. He recalled how, growing up in 1960s West Hollywood, he’d seen the New Lost City Ramblers – “vests, bow ties, sad faces” – on TV and been struck by their sound. So he sought out Tom Paley, from whom he learned banjo and guitar, discovering the excitement of open tunings. The song he chose to sing at the Awards was “Jesus on the Mainline”, collected in Mississippi by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins. Cooder bade the audience applaud the 89-year-old Paley – who has long lived in North London – enjoying his moment in the spotlight. He had been preceded on stage by Collins, who last year marked her own eightieth year with a new album, Lodestar, nominated for Best Album.

Paley had been an old pal of Woody Guthrie, inducted into the Hall of Fame in this the fiftieth anniversary year of his death from Huntingdon’s Chorea, a brutal disease which had silenced him years earlier. Naturally, it was Billy Bragg who stepped up to accept the honour, and his speech set Guthrie in his musical and social context as “arguably the first punk rocker” and “the father of the topical song tradition”. Bragg, punk turned folkie, chosen by Nora Guthrie to comb through her father’s archives and to set to music his unrecorded lyrics, sang “I Aint Got No Home (In This World Anymore)”.

Billy Bragg and Tom Paley
Billy Bragg and Tom Paley

Politics has always been good for folk music which chronicles challenging times and flourishes in them. So it’s perhaps no surprise that hidden in the Woody Guthrie Center’s Oklahoma archives was a song to Fred C Trump, slum landlord and father of Donald J Trump, apprentice President of the United States. The discovery was made by Will Kauffman, Professor of American Literature at the University of Central Lancashire. “Old Man Trump” was written around 1950, when the Guthrie family rented a home from Trump near Coney Island, Brooklyn. Kaufman, the author of Woody Guthrie, American Radical, said Guthrie would be repulsed by Trump and pointed to Guthrie’s song “Deportee”,  about a plane crash that killed Mexican farm workers, as an example of Guthrie “always championing those who didn’t have a voice, who didn’t have any money, who didn’t have any power.”

That song featured in Joan Baez’s set, on which she was joined by the Indigo Girls and Mary Chapin Carpenter, at her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but Baez has also debuted her own Trump song, this one for the Donald, ahead of the ceremony. “Nasty Man” has garnered almost 5m hits on YouTube and it has ended a long period of writer’s block for the 76-year-old, who has announced a final album, Fare Thee Well, and tour sometime next year. “I’ll quit singing and get fat”, she joked in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. The Los Angeles Times suggested that her long career is ripe for reappraisal.

Bob Dylan, meanwhile, plays on, touring the UK in April-May and offering up a selection from the Great American Songbook to which he accords more reverence than his own songs. Some fans and critics loved it, but Square Roots co-founder Liz Thomson wasn’t so sure, finding the mannered vocals and poor sound at Wembley upsetting.

A visit to the Slaughtered Lamb pub in London’s Clerkenwell made for a more rewarding evening. Ned Roberts, a talented singer-songwriter, was launching his second album, Outside My Mind, released on Green Note’s fledging Aveline label. He was joined on stage by James Kreiling on keyboards and Yoanna Prodanova on cello, a lovely addition which gave the music a new dimension and texture.

Roberts has been getting a fair bit of attention of late, his self-titled debut album, released in 2014, having set the stage. In addition to touring, he’s had a good deal of radio exposure, including a live session for Bob Harris. His songs are finely wrought and beautifully delivered, critics seeing shades of both Laurel Canyon and Greenwich Village in work that has drawn comparisons with Tim Hardin and (of course) Bob Dylan. Indeed, Roberts has done a rather lovely cover of “Girl From the North Country”. Check him out.

Alan Franks
Alan Franks

Finally, a great evening in Richmond (south-west London, not Virginia), where last month the multi-talented Alan Franks – journalist, novelist, poet, playwright (Looking at Lucian, starring Henry Goodman, opens at the Theatre Royal, Bath, in July) and musician – brought friends together to perform the songs that comprise his latest album, Wherever You Go. It’s the sixth collection of his songs in a playing career that began at the Edinburgh Festival, when Franks was a student and its 17 songs feature settings of his lyrics by a variety of performers, working in folk, rock, jazz and theatre. They include Isabella Pappas, Glen Strachan, Amanda MacLean and Dorten Yonder, a five piece acoustic band whose North American inflections belie their North London roots. Baritone Syd Maddicott, formerly British High Commissioner to Cameroon and well known for his performances of traditional songs and sea shanties, offers a wonderful a capella performance of “What Hope For Us, O Lord?”

Hold the date: On 3 October at the Green Note, in London’s Camden Town, Square Roots will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Woody Guthrie‘s death with a celebration of his music.

Square Roots Productions: Looking back over 2016

Photographs from gigs in 2016

It’s been an eventful year for Square Roots Productions, which became a charity in October 2015. We have now hosted a series of concerts celebrating the Anglo-American folk tradition featuring both new and legacy artists. Our inaugural gig at London’s Green Note featured Dan Evans and Virginia Thorn in a highly praised tribute to the late Jean Ritchie, widely regarded as ‘the mother of folk music’. It was followed by an evening with legendary Wizz Jones and rising star Dariush Kanani, and then by Bonnie Dobson, who emerged from the Toronto folk scene in the early 1960s to write a rock classic, ‘Morning Dew’. Playing with her was Harry Phillips, a talented young singer-songwriter who has just released his debut album.

Follow these links to read reviews and watch videos

And in the USA, in partnership with New York State Arts, Square Roots Productions presented a concert to mark the opening of an exhibition celebrating the life and work of Jean Ritchie at the New York State Library in Albany. That concert featured Ritchie’s son Peter Pickow, with David Massengill and Susan Trump, two artists heavily influenced by Ritchie, whom they both met.

Square Roots Productions has exciting plans for 2017 and beyond – so please check back for further news. Many thanks for supporting us – and if you like what we’re up to, please feel free to visit the donations page of our website!

In the meantime, we wish you a merry and folk-filled Christmas.

The Boar's Head Carol

‘The Boar’s Head Carol’ is a 15th century English carol that describes the ancient tradition of sacrificing a boar and presenting its head at the Yuletide feast. There are many variants, the most common one based on a version published in Wynkyn de Worde’s Christmasse Carolles (1521).

Leonard Cohen: 1979 interview

Leonard CohenWe mark the passing of the wonderful Leonard Cohen with an interview from the 1979 UK tour for Recent Songs.

‘Cynics and detractors would say that his audience is composed entirely of the depressed, dejected and rejected who find a bottle of wine and a Cohen record the only things to help them make it through the night.’

He’s an unashamed romantic, singer of songs both universal and unique, laced with love and black despair. Leonard Cohen – poet and songwriter – talks to Elizabeth M. Thomson

Bob Dylan at 75

Bob Dylan has turned 75 and he marked the occasion with a record that would have seemed unthinkable when he began his career in the frigid New York winter of 1961: Fallen Angels, which finds the singer dipping once more into the great American songbook.

Dylan’s big break came in September 1961, when the legendary Mike Porco booked him for a season at Gerde’s Folk City, in Greenwich Village, playing support to the Greenbriar Boys, a bluegrass trio. It was New York Times critic Robert Shelton’s now celebrated review that helped win him a recording contract.

On 24 May 2016, Porco’s grandson, Bob Porco, hosted ‘A Subterranean 75th Birthday Salute’ at the Village Underground, a club which stands where the last incarnation of Gerde’s once stood, and where the Rolling Thunder Revue kicked off. Performers included Rob Stoner, Happy Traum, Terre Roche, the New World Singers and Nick Spinetti.

No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob DylanCheck out Shelton’s biography, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, revised in 2011 for Dylan’s 70th birthday. A key chapter is ‘One Foot on the Highway’, based on interviews Dylan gave to Shelton on a plane trip from Lincoln, Nebraska to Denver, and in Denver and Central City the following day.

Listen to a  fragment of this celebrated interview below. This 4-minute item was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 23 May 2011. The presenter is Rebecca Jones.

Some highlights from Bob’s birthday coverage
  • Happy 75th: a letter to Bob Dylan on his birthday by Joseph O’Connor (Irish Times)
  • Bob Dylan unseen: Daniel Kramer discusses rare images from the 1960s (Guardian) 
  • Photos from Dan Kramer’s A Year and a Day will be on display at the Snap Gallery, London, SW1, starting 18 June. The book is published by Taschen and will be a must-buy for Dylan fans, particularly those not lucky enough to own a rare copy of Bob Dylan, Kramer’s 1967 opus (Castle).
  • Blonde at Blonde at 50: Celebrating Bob Dylan’s Greatest Masterpiece (Rolling Stone)
  • Just like a woman: I’m a feminist and I love Bob Dylan—even though I know I shouldn’t (Salon.com)
  •  6 Stops on Dylan’s Rise to the Top (Newscenter/University of Rochester)

Watch Harry Phillips Live at the Green Note, Camden

Square Roots Productions presents

Harry Phillips Live at the Green Note, Camden, on 13 April 2016, with Alex Tinlin (keyboard) and Simon Treasure (percussion)

‘Back Around’, ‘Coming Home’, ‘White Mountain, ‘Time Out Don’t Phase Me’, ‘Little Love’, ‘Bold As Brass’ and ‘Half Light’ (all by Harry Phillips); and ‘Trying To Get To Heaven’ (Bob Dylan)


Filmed and edited by Laurence Leonard

Check out Harry’s debut album, English Americana, and join the guys for its official launch on 4 June with a gig at Haresfoot Brewery, Berkhamsted

See videos and keep up-to-date with Harry Phillips at www.harryphillipsmusic.com

We are well and truly launched . . .

Read the reviews and watch the videos.

Virginia Thorn at Tamesis Dock

Virginia Thorn, who played at Square Roots’ inaugural gig, takes to the water on 9 May for a gig aboard Tamesis, a charming 1930s Dutch barge moored permanently between Lambeth and Vauxhall bridges – a pub with a difference. The concert begins at 8.30pm, see details below. Check Virginia’s new album, How Shall We say Goodbye.Virginia Thorn Gig Poster

REVIEW: Bonnie Dobson with Harry Phillips

Square Roots Productions’ debut spring season at the Green Note in Camden Town ended on a high note with an evening of outstanding music which exemplified the charity’s mission: to showcase both legacy artists while also offering a platform to new talent.

Bonnie Dobson

Bonnie Dobson and Harry Phillips were the perfect fit. And as a Canadian singer-songwriter whose recent forebears hailed from Scotland and Ireland and who played the folk clubs of Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago and, of course, New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1960s before settling in London more than 40 years ago, Bonnie is also the most perfect exemplar of SRP’s Bringing It All Back Home project, as this recent interview for the Ham & High shows. The project celebrates the music which left these islands in centuries past and fetched up on the shores of Canada and America, toing and froing across the Atlantic ever since. Our ‘special relationship’ is a musical one.

The concert, on 13 April, was a sell-out – Green Note’s intimacy is great but demand for tickets way exceeded supply – and the atmosphere was electric, attracting fans from as far afield as Belgium.

Harry Phillips Singer-songwriter Harry Phillips opened the show, offering a preview of his debut album, English Americana. As on the album, he was backed by Alex Tinlin on keyboards and Simon Treasure on drums and percussion: a talented trio who surely made new fans. Harry’s set included ‘Back Around’, ‘Time Out Don’t Phase Me’, ‘Half Light’ and ‘Coming Home’, a beautiful and touching song written for his mother. Acknowledging the roots of Bringing It All Back Home, he closed his 45-minute set with ‘Trying to Get to Heaven’ by Bob Dylan, a song from his acclaimed 1997 album Time Out of Mind.

Harry Phillips

The performance (the band was pared down for the occasion) revealed a talented singer and guitarist, Harry swapping between his beloved Martin and Fender and perfectly in sync with his fellow musicians. The three can also be heard on the new Tinlin CD, Strangely Blue.

Catch Harry now and see him on the way up: English Americana is officially launched on 4 June with a concert at Haresfoot Brewery in Berkhamsted.

Bonnie DobsonBonnie opened her set with a tipping of her metaphorical hat to the sixties solo years, ‘before I acquired my Bens’, a reference to guitarist Ben Phillipson and fiddle player Ben Paley, whose father Tom Paley (folk royalty) was in the audience. She offered three songs: ‘Long River’, a Canadian song; ‘Dear Companion’, from among the songs collected in the Appalachians by Cecil Sharp; and ‘The Klan’, an extraordinarily chilling song from the early 1950s, featured in Sing Out, variously credited to Alan Grey and Alan Arkin. The songs showed off her magnificent voice to perfection and it didn’t take much imagination to be transported back to another time and another place.

Then it was time for her ‘Boys’ to join Bonnie on Green Note’s tiny stage – those two Bens, plus bassist Tali Trow – for a musical journey (replete with anecdotes) that spanned her remarkable career and revealed the breadth of her skills as a songwriter. The set included ‘Peter Amberley’, a traditional song from Canada’s Maritime Provinces which, in the early 1960s, inspired a young Bob Dylan when he came to write the melody for ‘The Ballad of Donald White’, as well ‘V’ Le Bon Vent’, an Acadian song learned when the teenage Bonnie was a camp counsellor working children’s camps in Ontario and Quebec. It was an utterly captivating performance of light and shade, including many of her own songs: the fun and flighty ‘Come on Dancing’, the powerful and poignant ‘Who Are These Men?’, the ‘gently psychotic’ ‘Winter’s Going’, a favourite of Jarvis Cocker; and, of course, ‘Morning Dew’, written back in 1961, her first song, widely covered, and sadly still all too relevant.

Bonnie Dobson and Her Boys

It was a mesmerising performance which left the audience calling for more, despite the 11pm curfew. Check out Bonnie Dobson and Her Boys at their 8 May gig at the Apple Tree in Clerkenwell, London and on 10 June at the Kalamazoo Klub at the King’s Head in Crouch End. And don’t forget the new album, Take Me For a Walk in the Morning Dew, now also available as a limited edition LP.

REVIEW: Wizz Jones with Simeon Jones and Dariush Kanani

Wizz and Simeon Jones
Wizz Jones and Simeon Jones

Guitarist Wizz Jones and son Simeon, a multi-instrumentalist, drew their usual loyal following to Green Note on 23 March. Opening for them was Dariush Kanani, young guitarists who’s won the respect and admiration of players with many more miles on their belt – among them Stefan Grossman and Gordon Giltrap, who has noted that he ‘somehow captures the spirit of great players like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn and makes it his own’. Indeed, his album, Mr Troubadour, is dedicated to Renbourn, ‘friend and mentor’.

Dariush Kanani
Dariush Kanani

Both guitarists honoured the great bluesmen who provided their first inspiration, with Dariush also paying musical tribute to Jones. In addition to his celebrated hommage to the great Mississippi John Hurt, a musical father if you will, Wizz also performed ‘Burma Star’, his touching song to his late father. He returned home one evening when Wizz was six, in his pyjamas and ready for bed – his mother had to explain that the strange man was his father, who never spoke of his ordeal. Other numbers from a songbag stretching back over more than a half century  included ‘Night Ferry’ and ‘When I Leave Berlin’.

A foot-stomping evening by an old pro and a new talent who’s got a lifetime ahead of him on the road.

Catch Wizz Jones at a gig near you  and Dariush Kanani.

REVIEW: From Harlan County, Kentucky to Brooklyn: Martha Redbone raises the roof at National Sawdust

The spirit of Jean Ritchie – recently celebrated with a Square Roots concert at London’s Green Note  with Dan Evans and Virginia Thorn and in Albany, New York with Peter Pickow, Susan Trump and David Massengill – hovered benevolently over another event this week: a concert by Martha Redbone at National Sawdust, opened six months ago in Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s hottest locale. One of three evenings curated by Redbone but the only one at which she actually performed, it featured the singer’s settings of William Blake inspired by the music of her Appalachain heritage in Harlan County, Kentucky.

Martha RedboneFeaturing Aaron Whitby on keyboards, John Caban on guitar, Charlie Burnham on fiddle, Fred Cash on acoustic bass, and Tony Mason on drums, the concert raised the roof, Redbone exhorting the audience to ‘make this our church’. Evoking the life lived by her Cherokee forebears in Black Mountain, where strip mining disfigured the landscape and poisoned the water, she offered rousing and powerful performances not only of the Blake settings (written with Whitby and recorded as The Garden of Love) but also by pioneering Carolina-born bluegrass pioneer Ola Belle Reed (‘Undone in Sorrow’), Peter La Farge (‘Drums’) and Johnny Cash (a remarkable reworking of ‘Ring of Fire’).

Martha RedboneRedbone talked passionately about the fate of the Native Americans, taken from their parents and sent to boarding schools  established by the American government in the 19th and 20th centuries to ‘civilise and christianise’ the young charges – ‘kill the Indian, save the man’ was the grim philosophy. La Farge, a Cherokee like Redbone, was a contemporary of Bob Dylan in 1960s Greenwich Village and wrote songs on Native American issues. He died young in 1965 and in 2010 the Smithsonian issued a tribute album, Rare Breed, on which Redbone featured.

The movement for Native American rights and recognition grew out of the black civil rights movement so it was fitting that Redbone closed the concert with a performance of ‘Keep Your Eyes On the Prize’, singer and audience engaging in exhilarating call and response.

Martha Redbone with (left to right) Aarton Whitby, Charlie Burnham, Tony Mason, Fred Cash and John Caban
Martha Redbone with (left to right) Aarton Whitby, Charlie Burnham, Tony Mason, Fred Cash and John Caban

*Bone Hill, described by Redbone as ‘the true account of my ancestors, of post-slavery, and people of colour working in the coal mines of Appalachia amid the laws of Jim Crow and our survival as the original people of that land as the world changes around us through the generations’, is at Lincoln Center NYC on 28 April.

Bone Hill – The Concert: Music and lyrics by Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby; written by Martha Redbone, Roberta Uno, and Aaron Whitby, directed by Roberta Uno.

REVIEW: Bringing It All Back Home to Albany

Square Roots Productions in partnership with New York State Arts celebrates the opening of a Jean Ritchie exhibition at the New York State Library

On-stage at Square Roots/New York State Arts' celebration of Jean Ritchie's legacy: Peter Pickow (right) with David Massengill and Susan Trump
On-stage at Square Roots/New York State Arts’ celebration of Jean Ritchie’s legacy: Peter Pickow (right) with David Massengill and Susan Trump.
Peter Pickhow
Peter Pickhow

Peter Pickow, son of the late Jean Ritchie and George Pickow, was part of a celebration of the life, music and legacy of the woman known as ‘the Mother of Folk Music’ held at the Egg on New York State Plaza on 6 March.

The concert – which also showcased David Massengill and Susan Trump, musicians who were both heavily influenced by Ritchie, whom they met – marked the opening of an exhibition of Ritchie memorabilia drawn from the State Library’s vast collection which was donated by the Ritchie family following Jean’s death in June 2015. Paul Mercer, Senior Librarian, Manuscripts and Special Collections and himself a singer and songwriter, is still cataloguing the collection, which includes hundreds of photographs and records, as well as more than 20 dulcimers owned and played by Ritchie, many of them made by her husband George Pickow, also a photographer and filmmaker.

Ritchie was born in Kentucky in 1947 and moved to New York city to teach music to under-privileged children at the Henry Street Settlement. Her own musical heritage dated back to her 18th-century forebears and in New York she became friends with folk singers and songwriters Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and with celebrated song collector Alan Lomax. Ritchie too collected songs and came to Britain and Ireland in the 1950s on a Fulbright Scholarship to trace the roots and branches of the folk music that crossed the Atlantic and became part of her own Appalachian heritage.

The memorabilia on display drew an appreciative audience, some of them from the recent Albany dulcimer festival.

David Massengill
David Massengill

The concert featured both songs associated with Jean Ritchie and others that fit well with the Ritchie style and tradition. The musicians – Pickow on guitar, Trump on dulcimer and banjo, Massingell on dulcimer – played solo and in ensemble, adding harmony lines and instrumental fills in the way folk musicians have done for centuries, beginning with ‘Shady Grove’, a Ritchie perennial. Also featured were ‘Black Waters’, about the strip mining that disfigured the Appalachians, ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Any More’, a favourite with Johnny Cash, and ‘Now is the Cool of the Day’.

Susan Trump
Susan Trump

Among Trump’s solo offerings was a notably affecting a capella rendition of  ‘The West Virginia Mine Disaster’, Relatively unusually, the song is written from the woman’s point of view, Ritchie having set out to reflect the anguished feelings of the wives who wave goodbye to their loved ones every day as they ‘go down the black hole’.

Massengill, who hails from Bristol, Tennessee and ‘emigrated’ to Greenwich Village in the 1970s, recalled how his mother had bought a three-string dulcimer for her young children. He taught himself from one of Ritchie’s celebrated books, though he finger-picked in a way he felt she would not approve. However when he met her many years later, she seemed to appreciate his style. The highlight of his performance was ‘Rider On An Orphan Train’, written after Massengill had received a letter from a man asking if he was his long-lost brother: ‘It was so sad to read I wrote a song for him’.

The concert closed with all three performers trading lines and harmonising on ‘The Last Old Train’s a-Leavin’.

Peter Pickow (right), son of Jean Ritchie and George Pickow, with David Massengill and Susan Trump
Peter Pickow (right), son of Jean Ritchie and George Pickow, with David Massengill and Susan Trump.

REVIEW: A celebration of the music of Jean Ritchie

‘Two brilliant artists… an exceptionally fitting venue… Square Roots look set to make a real impact in preserving and promoting the people, the places, and the history of the British/American folk relationship’

Well I’ll be damned, to coin a phrase – from ‘Diamonds and Rust’ actually! Square Roots Productions made its official debut on 22 February with a concert showcasing Dan Evans and Virginia Thorn that had Folk & Honey reaching for superlatives.

Virginia-Thorne-Dan-Evans-Green-Note-22-Feb-2016

The gig, at Camden’s award-winning Green Note, was a sell-out – indeed, there was a waiting list for tickets. The evening was a tribute to folksinger and song collector Jean Ritchie, who died last summer: to her songs, to the folk revivalists of the 1960s who brought them to a vast new international audience and to the instrument she made her own – the dulcimer, now the official instrument of her home state of Kentucky.

Dan EvansFor many in the audience, it was the first time they had heard it played live and the capacity crowd was both charmed and intrigued. Dan Evans, Britain’s leading dulcimer player who has toured the US and played with Jean Ritchie, introduced the instrument itself, explaining something of its history, its construction and tuning, and the styles of playing. (He plucks the strings whereas Ritchie used a quill, the equivalent of the guitarist’s plectrum.)

The evening was bookended by performances of ‘Amazing Grace’,  perhaps the most celebrated song to have criss-crossed the Atlantic and which was written by English poet and clergyman John Newton from Olney, Buckinghamshire. A favourite of Ritchie’s, who frequently featured it in her concerts, it was presented first as a dulcimer instrumental and, at the end, a capella by Virginia Thorn. Many in the audience picked up the melody and sang along.

The musicians, together on stage for the whole evening, alternated songs and instrumentals, Virginia adding vocal effects to Dan’s solos, which included the medieval ‘Wind Among the Heather’ and ‘Columbine’, played in the dulcimer’s natural Dorian mode, ‘Spring Season’ by the late Roger Nicholson, a friend and mentor, and his own ‘The Spider’s Dance’. Virginia also joined him on ‘The Water is Wide’, recalling its links to Ritchie’s ‘Love is Teasing’, and added harmonies on the chorus of ‘The Grey Funnel Line’, written by Cyril Tawney, a sailor in the British Navy in the 1950s who was inspired by Alan Lomax, like Ritchie an American song collector who spent time in Britain.

Virginia ThornVirginia’s contributions included ‘Old Virginny’, a Ritchie favourite with links to ‘Silver Dagger’, a song covered by innumerable folk revivalists including Judy Collins and Joan Baez. The latter’s ‘Diamonds and Rust’, written in recollection of her romance with Bob Dylan, was an undoubted highlight among her solos, along with Tom Waits’ ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, an anti-war song – written in the form of a letter home – which is all the more powerful for being so understated. And there were heartfelt performances of songs from the Canadian folk revival: Joni Mitchell’s ‘All I Want’ and Kate McGarrigle’s ‘Talk to Me of Mendocino’.

Throughout, both musicians introduced each item with comments as to its origins and performance practice, linking past and present and teasing out the links between Jean Ritchie – described by Baez as ‘the mother of folk’ – and the generations of musicians she has inspired and continues to inspire.

Virginia Thorn and Dan Evans

As one member of the audience wrote the next day: ‘It might not have been Washington Square but it was a fabulous buzzy and intimate venue with a fantastic atmosphere and brilliant music. It would have been no leap of imagination to walk out into Greenwich Village in search of a cab rather than on to Camden Parkway to find a taxi.’

Watch the Gig

 

*The life and legacy of Jean Ritchie was be celebrated with a concert and exhibition at The Egg on New York State Plaza on Sunday 6 March, a joint project with New York State Arts/Square Roots Productions.  Read a review.

Tickets are selling fast for SRP’s next two concerts at Green Note:

Wizz Jones: 23 March 2016

A celebration of the life and work of guitarist Wizz Jones, whose career began in the coffee bars of 1950s London, a man to whom both Clapton and Springsteen pay homage.

With Simeon Jones and Dariush Kanani.

Bonnie Dobson: 13 April 2016

New York folk legend Bonnie Dobson, a key figure in the 1960s’ revival whose song ‘Morning Dew’ is now a classic, covered by Fred Neil, the Grateful Dead, Jeff Beck and Robert Plant among others.

She is supported by Harry Phillips, another new talent to watch.

REVIEW: Bonnie Dobson and Jim Kweskin at the Old Queen’s Head

Alchemy took place at the Old Queen’s Head in Islington’s Essex Road last night (24 February) when Bonnie Dobson joined Jim Kweskin  for a Sam Lee Nest Collective   special showcasing Hornbeam Recordings’ burgeoning catalogue. You didn’t need to close your eyes to be transported to Greenwich Village   – or perhaps Harvard Square   ­– in the 1960s. Wasn’t that a time!

Dobson-Kweskin-Gig-24-Feb-16

How fortunate, for those of us who were the wrong age and in the wrong place to experience the rich fruits of the American folk revival first time round that both artists are in such fine form, happy to josh about their long-ago exploits and allude modestly to their own illustrious pasts while sounding so fresh and of the moment. To see two performers so totally at ease with themselves and with their audience and who wear their talents so lightly makes for a very special evening indeed.

Bonnie DobsonBonnie apologised for any limitations, explaining that she had the flu, which she treated with a cocktail of port and brandy, ‘a north country remedy’ apparently which you feared might send once-remembered lyrics floating off into the ether. Not a bit of it! In the first couple of songs –  ‘I Got Stung’ and ‘Southern Bound’, both from her new album – she seemed to be holding back a little vocally but soon her voice unfurled in all its glory. Undiminished by the passage of time, Bonnie’s range embraces both a warm alto and an exhilarating soprano. A thrilling instrument indeed.

Backed by ‘Her Boys’, Ben Paley on fiddle and Ben Phillipson on guitar, she treated the audience to an hour-long set of songs from across continents and across years, interspersing them with vignettes from her life in Canada, in the United States and in Britain, where she’s lived since 1969: ‘V’la L’Bon Vent’, ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’ and ‘Dreams’, in which she sings ‘you can always go home again but you can never go back’. There was gentle humour (‘Squadron Leader’, written during the 1970s, when she toured British bases with the likes of Mike Harding and Wally Whyton) and understated wisdom (‘Don’t Look Down’ and ‘Sing Your Song’) and, of course, ‘Morning Dew’, the first song she wrote way back in the early 1960s and which was effectively stolen from her. ‘It hasn’t got any better, has it?’ she observed, before singing this gentlest of songs about the horrors of a nuclear winter.

Jim KweskinCoincidentally, it was almost 50 years to the day since Bonnie and Jim Kweskin last shared a stage, at the Ontario College of Art for a recording of the TV show Let’s Sing Out, Canada’s version of Hootenanny. Backed by Ben Paley with Talli Trow on string bass, Jim too was in fine form, though he joked endlessly about the creakiness of older age and observed that the folk revivalists played for ‘old people and their parents’. Now 75 and on his first ever visit to Britain, he offered a set that dug deep into Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, with songs such as ‘Down on Penny’s Farm’, ‘The Coo-Coo Bird’ and ‘The Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train’, a song from the 1930s about how bankers and politicians wrecked the economy that remains as topical today as when Uncle Dave Macon recorded it in 1930. In a set laced with irony and humour, Pat Donahue’s reworking of the old Bing Crosby classic caused particular merriment: ‘Do you like to play the guitar/Take your money home in a jar/From a coffeehouse or a bar/Or would you rather get a job?’ Each song was carried aloft by expert fingerpicking on guitar and, occasionally, a banjo borrowed from Tom Paley, who was in the audience.  There were moments when Jim’s voice recalled Willie Nelson.

Bonnie Dobson with Tom Paley. Joe Boyd (left)
Bonnie Dobson with Tom Paley. Joe Boyd (right)

To close, he brought Bonnie back on stage for what he called ‘one of yours’. It turned out to be Donovan’s    ‘Colours’, with which the audience – which also included Joe Boyd – seemed entirely familiar. Bonnie’s harmonies floated bell-like above it all.

Forget the Brits, happening across town – this was real music by real musicians. It was a magical evening. 

Liz Thomson is co-founder of Square Roots Productions, a charity which promotes and celebrates Anglo-American folk music heritage: www.folktracks.org    

This review first appeared at Folk & Honey 

David Massengill

David MassengillStoryteller, songwriter and picture-book maker David Massengill ‘emigrated’ from Tennessee to the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1976 with a dulcimer and a dream of bohemian nirvana. Forty years later, he’s still walking the streets around Washington Square, playing the same many-storied coffee houses as Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk – whose memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street inspired the movie Inside Llewyn Davis – and, crucially, keeping the American folk tradition alive as both performer and teacher.

A participant in the songwriting circle begun by the late Jack Hardy, with whom he sang as the Folk Brothers, Massengill also takes his song and picture-book workshops on the road to schools and family centres, an inspirational artist-in-residence sharing a great tradition.

Massengill’s songwriting style ranges from tragic mountain ballads to tender love songs and iconic political narratives. He sees himself following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie, explaining: ‘Sometimes I write songs that don’t have a narrative, but my favourite songs to write are the ones that tell a story.’ At once new but seemingly also ancient, those songs include ‘On the Road to Fairfax County’, recorded by Joan Baez and the Roches. David Bromberg, Chad Mitchell, Lucy Kaplansky, Tom Russell and Nanci Griffith have also recorded Massingill songs, as did his mentor, Dave Van Ronk, who once said David ‘took the dull out of dulcimer’.

Massengill’s catalogue includes a score for Ken Russell’s as-yet-unreleased film Boudica Bites Back, 15 books, 11 bootlegs and six CDs, among them Coming Up for Air, his studio debut, Return, My Home Must Be a Special Place, We Will Be Together  and Dave on Dave: A Tribute to Dave Van Ronk.

Concert

NYSA Egg logoOn Sunday 6 March 2016 at 2pm, David Massengill will feature in a concert to celebrate the life and legacy of Jean Ritchie, when he will share the stage with Peter Pickow, son of Jean Ritchie and George Pickow, and Susan Trump.

The concert takes place at The Egg on New York State Plaza in Albany, and it marks the opening of an exhibition featuring instruments, photographs and memorabilia from the Jean Ritchie Estate. Both are part of an ongoing exploration of the New York folk revival, celebrated in the Egg’s Living Legacy series. The concert and the exhibition is in partnership with Bringing It All Back Home, a project of Square Roots Productions.

Dan Schatz: Jean Ritchie and the Cool of the Day

Dan Schatz with autoharp
Dan Schatz with autoharp

Dan Schatz has been playing folk music since he was a child in Kensington, Maryland, and he is now a Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist and producer. He co-produced and performed on the internationally acclaimed double album Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie, featuring among others Janis Ian, Judy Collins, Peggy Seeger, Archie Fisher and Kathy Mattea, as well as Ritchie herself.

Listen to Dan Schatz’ recording of ‘Now is the Cool of the Day’ from his Folk-Legacy album The Promise of Sowing, Schatz (lead vocal and banjo) performs with Kim and Reggie Harris, Mara Levine, Geeta Shivde, George Stephens and Kathy Westra. www.folk-legacy.com

Full article Huffington Post, 4 June 2015

Janis Ian remembers Jean Ritchie

I was lucky enough to sing with Jean and her sons in the 1970s, visiting with her and husband George Pickow at their beautiful home. More recently, I was able to introduce Jean to my long-time friend Kathy Mattea, who was unaccountably shy to meet her. I was again fortunate to guest on the tribute CD, Dear Jean – Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie. In working up her song ‘Mariah’s Gone’, I really came to understand what a stunning interpreter and writer she was. My version is light years different from hers, but I’m told she liked mine a lot, even so – a true artist, to acknowledge her art in another’s heart, and see it as an act of homage rather than ego.

I guess what I’m saying is that her thread ran through my life. She came from a world without record players, without CDs, without the constant hum and noise of speakers everywhere. A world where families made music together, both to entertain and to educate. A world that is sadly dying in this country, and one I greatly miss. The handing down of music is the handing down of culture and history, both personal and global. Jean epitomized that world, and we are poorer for this loss.

Janis Ian Jean Ritchie by Susan Hamburger
Janis Ian (left) with Jean Ritchie at the 2008 Philadelphia Folk Festival. Photo: Susan Hamburger

Janis Ian was barely into her teens when she received her first Grammy nomination for ‘Society’s Child’, a brave and controversial song from her debut album. Since then, there have been 10 nominations and three Grammys, most recently for Best Spoken Word for Society’s Child: My Autobiography, as well as countless other awards. Her many celebrated songs include ‘At Seventeen’ and ‘Jesse’. In February 2016, Janis Ian was honoured with a concert in Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series.

Memories of Jean Ritchie
by Elwood Donnelly and Aubrey Atwater

Elwood Donnelly and Aubrey Atwater are traditional folk musicians who perform as Atwater – Donnelly

Although Aubrey and I learned lots of Jean’s songs from her books or from musician friends, here is a short list of some of the ones we learned knee-to-knee with Jean herself during Appalachian Family Folk Week at the Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky: ‘Jenny Jenkins’; ‘Four Marys’; ‘The Devil’s Nine Questions’; ‘I Wonder When I Shall Be Married’; ‘Morning’s Come, Mariah’s Gone’; and ‘Pretty Saro’.

Aubrey and I had been doing research and performing traditional folk songs for a while already, including the songs of Jean Ritchie, the youngest of 14 from a mountain family in eastern Kentucky. But when Aubrey saw a small ad in Sing Out! Magazine in the late winter of 1992 which read ‘Appalachian Folk Week, with Jean Ritchie and others’ she was determined to go and meet Jean in person. So, off she went, that following June, to the Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky.

Not only did Aubrey meet Jean, who took her to the family cabin in Viper, Kentucky, but she met three other people who would become lifelong friends as well: Chris Bischoff of Louisville, who taught Aubrey her first clogging steps, right up to the Tennessee Walking Step, and who taught me to call contra and square dances; Dan Dutton, of Somerset, Kentucky, who is a multi-talented artist, songwriter, painter, dance choreographer and sculptor, and who engaged Aubrey in some of his folk operas; and Cari Norris, the granddaughter of Lily May Ledford, part of a trio who were among the first all-female group of performers during radio days in the 1930s. Cari taught Aubrey to play claw-hammer-style banjo.

Starting with that fateful visit to Hindman, Kentucky, we have all become the best of friends, visiting each other’s homes between Kentucky, Long Island, New York, and Rhode Island, where Aubrey and I live.

A conversation about Jean would be remiss without mentioning George Pickow, her husband for sixty years. Jean met George Pickow when she came to New York City in 1947 to follow her college degree in social work to the Henry Street Settlement School. George, a photo-journalist, subsequently documented Jean’s career, making her one of the most chronicled female folk singers in history.

Jean Ritchie & George Pickow with Elwood Donnelly & Aubrey Atwater
Jean Ritchie and George Pickow (seated) at one of the annual Jean Ritchie concerts in the Port Washington Library, New York, with Elwood Donnelly and Aubrey Atwater

Atwater – Donnelly performed with Jean on many occasions throughout the 22-year relationship, and Jean visited Rhode Island too, to participate in an annual festival that Aubrey organized, Mountain Music in the Ocean State. We also held Concerts in the Barn on our property in Foster, Rhode Island, during that period, bringing such luminaries as Dave Para and Cathy Barton, Tracy Schwarz and Ginny Hawker, Sheila Kay Adams, and, of course, Jean Ritchie.

Aubrey and I were also thrilled to perform twice for the annual Jean Ritchie concert at the library near Jean and George’s home in Port Washington on Long Island.

There were other occasions when we were privileged to visit and perform with Jean, but the greatest memories come from our times together at the Hindman Settlement School, during their Appalachian Family Folk Week in June, learning the history of the Ritchie family, singing together, and meeting Jean’s extended family, including her nieces Judy Hudson, Joy Powers, Susie Ritchie and Patty Tarter. Katie Tarter German, daughter of Patty and Joe Tarter, took a huge interest in the family history, songs and play-party games and dance, and is a principal teacher of the same.

Because of our friendships with members of the Ritchie family, Aubrey and I also have had the honour to be on staff several times over these years for the Christmas County Dance School in Berea, Kentucky. This event is held every year, starting the day after Christmas and ending on New Year’s Day.

If you want to get a strong introduction to Jean and the family that has brought so many songs to the ears of faithful traditional music fans, read Jean’s book, The Singing Family of the Cumberlands. It’s an honest and well-written appraisal of growing up in the Ritchie home, from the viewpoint of the youngest child, Jean Ritchie.

The way in which Aubrey and I are always on the lookout for alternate versions of familiar folk songs is due to the path on which Jean set us, with anecdotes from her decades of touring and performing and learning from others. These lessons learned, and the smiles shared, are just the tip of the warmth-berg of our 22-year friendship with Jean. It seems almost ironic now to look back across the years and recall that this friendship started with a classified ad.

Husband-wife duo Aubrey Atwater and Elwood Donnelly www.atwater-donnelly.com  present programmes of traditional American and Celtic folk songs, a capella pieces, old-time gospel songs, dance tunes, and original works.

Backstage with Jean Ritchie
by Dan Evans

Dan EvansMy musical education started at school, when I built two dulcimers. I was good at woodwork but had no training whatsoever in music. There were but two guiding lights for me at that time: the iconic Nonsuch for Dulcimer album by London-based Roger Nicholson and the book Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians by the popular US folk singer Jean Ritchie. Between these two I somehow managed to make a start as a dulcimer player and was later to develop my own approach and styles of playing.

As a wide-eyed teenager, new to music, I inevitably had vague dreams of visiting London and America and seeing Roger and Jean perform. Little did I know then that I was later to meet them both and even to perform with them. The story of how I met and worked with Roger is documented here but this article is about Jean…

It was upon my third tour in the United States that I met Jean. It was my first visit to Kentucky and the trip was magical, as you can see from my tour dairy. I met many of the leading lights in the dulcimer world and made new friends and had a thoroughly fun time to boot. One of the festivals was in a pleasant park in the north Kentucky city of Louisville, in and around the Uroquois Amphitheatre. The festival ran for several days and on the last night I gave a performance on dulcimer and guitar to a large, warm and appreciative audience.

Two of the performers that night were US folk legends Bill Staines and Jean Ritchie and I had the privilege to meet them in person backstage and, in particular, to chat to Jean a little. We talked about Roger Nicholson and ‘Amazing Grace’. I knew that Jean frequently performed ‘Amazing Grace’ a capella to end her concerts and I’d seen her be unclear in a film interview about the song’s origins, which I have documented here.

Upon my return to England I made a point of visiting St Peter and St Paul’s Church in Olney, Buckinghamshire, and sent Jean a small booklet on the song that the church published. Therein pursued a short email dialogue with her. In our brief encounters Jean was very gracious, as you might imagine from such a warmly loved performer.

Shortly after our brief meeting I watched Jean perform from behind the stage. At one point I remember her standing, silhouetted by the stage lights with her arms slightly open. She was so relaxed and seemed angelic. Meanwhile, backstage, master song-smith Bill was busy crafting the song ‘Beneath Kentucky Skies’ for all the performers that night to present as finale. So I can literally say, I’ve sung on stage with Jean Ritchie and Bill Staines.

Dan Evans is the leading British (mountain) dulcimer player with five CDs and 15 international tours to his credit http://www.english-dulcimer.com/

Jean Ritchie

Jean Ritchie and Janis Ian
Jean Ritchie (left) and Janis Ian

What a stunning interpreter and writer she was — Janis Ian

Jean Ritchie represents a living connection to a heritage of song, spanning an ocean and several generations — Fiona Ritchie, NPR’s Thistle & Shamrock

As the ‘Mother of Folk’, Jean is a living museum of impeccably rendered songs passed down from singer to singer, influencing and inspiring generations  — Joan Baez

When I grow up I want to write just like Jean Ritchie. Seriously, I love every song she’s ever written. I love her simple yet beautiful melodies and the honest, heartfelt truth in them — Dolly Parton

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Discography

SQUARE ROOTS PRODUCTIONS
is a major new folk music charity to promote Anglo-American folk music heritage.

Square Roots Productions is a UK-based charity whose objective is to curate events and projects that celebrate the folk music heritage shared by Britain and the United States: the people, the places, the history and the music itself. In so doing, it will help secure a vital musical legacy while at the same time nurturing a new generation of folk musicians.

For centuries music has criss-crossed the Atlantic, changed and enriched by each journey and reaching a creative peak in the 1950s and ‘60s. We are now approaching a critical juncture. In 2016, folk legends Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Martin Carthy all turn 75. They play on – but many equally influential contemporaries are now sadly neglected. These unsung folk musicians need urgently to be rediscovered, given a platform, in order that their legacy can be shared with today’s audience and preserved for future generations.