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 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.
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.
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 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.
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’.
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.
Dan Evans and Virginia Thorn, live at the Green Note, Camden Town, 22 February 2016: a celebration of the late Jean Ritchie, the Appalachian singer and song-collector who inspired both Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and who traced the links between American ballads and songs from the UK and Ireland.
Square Roots Productions in partnership with New York State Arts celebrates the opening of a Jean Ritchie exhibition at the New York State Library
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.
Photo by George Pickow of a typical Greenwich Village 1950s – and ’60s gathering of folk musicians, including Ritchie (third from right).
One of Jean Ritchie’s many dulcimers and her ‘Wildwood Flower’ autoharp
Memorabilia from the Jean Ritchie collection.
The scroll of Susan Trump’s four-string dulcimer.
Memorabilia from the Jean Ritchie collection.
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.
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’.
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’.
‘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.
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.
For 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’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.
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.’