Storyteller, 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 Streetinspired 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’.
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 Schatzhas 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.
In the New York Times of 28 February 1962, music critic Robert Shelton wrote of a new talent, a titian-haired young woman down in New York City from her native Toronto. He was mesmerised by ‘her distinct, true-pitched singing in a firm sweet soprano’ and by her ‘honesty and warmth’ on stage.
The singer was Bonnie Dobson, and she had already toured with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Lightnin’ Hopkins, having been talent-spotted while a student at the University of Toronto. Her first ‘proper gig’ was on 6 May 1960 at the Exodus Club in Denver, Colorado where she was earning $125 a week – a fortune in those days. For a few years, she never looked back, basing herself first in Chicago and then in New York’s Greenwich Village, crucible of the folk revival. It was while playing at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles that a late-night conversation about the horrors of a nuclear winter (it was the height of the cold war) led Bonnie to start scribbling her first song. Unsure as to its qualities, she sang it down the phone to a friend, who pronounced it ‘all right’ so she sang it the next night at the Ash Grove. ‘Morning Dew’ featured in her set at the 1961 Mariposa Folk Festival and she recorded the song for Broadside Magazine in 1962 (it was released in 2000 on The Best of Broadside 1962-1988). It was showcased again when she played Gerde’s Folk City, the Greenwich Village club that was the launch pad for so many talents, not least Bob Dylan, and it featured on the live album Bonnie recorded at the club.
An anti-war classic, ‘Morning Dew’ has since acquired cult status, recorded first by Fred Neil, then by Tim Rose, who changed some of the lyrics and claimed a co-writing credit to which he was not entitled. Eventually Bonnie would fight a legal battle to wrest rights and royalties back. Meanwhile, ‘Morning Dew’ became something of a signature song for the Grateful Dead, who introduced it into their repertoire at the Human Be-In in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967, and it was covered by the Allman Brothers, Jeff Beck, Nazareth, Devo, Lulu and Robert Plant, with whom Bonnie sang it at a Bert Jansch tribute concert in London in 2013.
That night represented a new beginning for Bonnie, who moved to London in 1969, married an Englishman, became a mother and eventually embarked on a degree in politics, philosophy and history, going on to work as an academic administrator at Birkbeck College. Consciously or otherwise, her music career was put on hold, though in 2007 Jarvis Cocker persuaded her to step out for a Meltdown concert, The Lost Ladies of Canadian Folk, at London’s Southbank. Bonnie stole the show but again things went quiet until Guardian music critic Robin Denselow introduced her to Hornbeam Recordings, who signed her as their third act after her old friends Tom Paley and Spider John Koerner. Then Robert Plant called…
The third of three children, Bonnie’s father was a union organiser. She remembers going to see the great Paul Robeson in concert when she was 13 years old and, even earlier, when she was 10, a class teacher introduced her to the Weavers, further piquing her interest in folk music. ‘I guess I was about 12 and Pete Seeger came up to Toronto to give a concert,’ she told Rock and Reel. ‘That was the first time I’d heard him. I’ve never known anyone connect with an audience like he did. At the end he asked for requests and I said could you sing “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens”? He looked at me and said “You’re too young to know about that!”’ Adding a couple of years to her age, she managed to get a job at Camp Beaver, a summer camp for kids which was next door to an adult camp where, every Saturday, folk singers, including Seeger, would come up from the States to give a concert. By the time Bonnie was into her teens, she was steeped in folk music and it was folk music promoter Marty Bochner, whose kids she babysat, who made the introductions which led to that first US tour.
The Anglo-American folk revival was in full swing. In banning Pete Seeger and his confrères from the airwaves, Senator McCarthy had driven them into the summer camp, where a whole generation of kids had – like Bonnie – discovered folk music, many learning to play guitar and five-string banjo (the latter Seeger’s special mission). The Village – always ‘the Village’, never Greenwich Village to those who lived there – was a perennial bohemia but in the early sixties when Bonnie arrived it was very special. As Janis Ian has said: ‘The musicians and artists who gravitated toward Greenwich Village through the sixties and even into the seventies formed a group as diverse, eclectic and talented as the artists who gravitated to Paris in the early 20th century. Their influence on our culture, and that of the world, cannot be over-estimated’.
Bonnie’s extraordinary voice was captured on a small handful of albums which have long been sought after by collectors. The first two, She’s Like a Swallow and Dear Companion, have now been reissued on CD by ACE Records and it’s hoped the others will follow, including the seminal At Folk City. Her new album, Take Me For a Walk in the Morning Due, released by Hornbeam in 2014, reveals a voice as magnificent and exciting as ever, undimmed by the passing years. Small wonder it was hailed as the comeback of the year. This time she’s here to stay.
Virginia Thorn is a singer-songwriter from South-East London with Argentine roots. She is influenced by music from North and South America, as well as the British indie pop scene.
Virginia was classically trained at the Blackheath Conservatoire and later studied the bel canto technique with Sandra Scott. In her late teens she became captivated by the music of the 1960s folk revival and set out on a pilgrimage to New York’s Greenwich Village to visit the streets which, nearly half a century earlier, reverberated to the sounds of ‘music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air’. Bob Dylan (who wrote those words in ‘Tangled Up in Blue’), Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell were among the formative influences on her music. Martha Wainwright is a contemporary inspiration, particularly for the passion and vulnerability she channels in her live performance. Pressed to choose one musician above all others, she concedes it would be Tom Waits, admiring his gift to ‘weave a story through song that distils the longing of the human heart’.
Like the artists she admires, Virginia has ‘a love of storytelling, and values the human connection that can take place through music’. She explains: ‘This can happen through rhythm or melody in a place beyond words, but also through lyrics and poetic ideas which might resonate a universal truth. A song which we connect with can translate our individual feeling to the universal plain. Joy is amplified, sorrow is shared – and for me this is the magic of writing and receiving music.’
Melanchly and longing are common themes in her writing. She reflects that songs are her primary answer in times of existential crisis.
Virginia, who is poised to release her debut CD, How Shall We Say Goodbye?, also works with children and adults as an arts psychotherapist. She plays music in gig settings and less common environments, such as movement workshops and meditation spaces and is artist in residence with the Freemind Project which uses live improvised music to allow greater relaxation and insight. She has appeared on stages across the country, playing solo and in collaboration with others including classical French horn player Thomas Allard and pianist Hara Kostogianni who feature on her album. At a festival last summer, her set was billed as heart-centred acoustic music and this fits, if one includes the fiery expressions of the heart as well as the softer edges.
When not performing as a ‘Girl with a Guitar,’ Virginia has also given classical concerts and is currently working on an electro-synth project with tracks to be released later in the year. In 2014 she appeared at the Royal Festival Hall as part of Maurice Onejah’s reggae collective at the Changing Britain Festival.
One of the few buskers last year of the hundreds who auditioned to be awarded a TFL Licence, she can also be found brightening the journey of London’s commuters on the Tube. When the sun is shining, Borough Market is a favourite spot which means those out for a lunch break can feast all their senses!
Harry Phillips is a 23-year-old singer-songwriter from Hertfordshire, who started playing guitar at the age of 11. He grew up listening to Bob Dylan (his father is a big fan) and was soon also into Jimi Hendrix and Thin Lizzy. Throughout his school years he played in bands and it was while he was a student in Worcester that he started to write songs.
‘That naturally led me to become fixated on players like John Martyn, James Taylor and of course Dylan,’ Harry recalls. ‘After a couple of years at university and with a lot of free time to write, I started recording an acoustic EP with keyboard player Alex Tinlin.’
‘Summer Swells’ was released in December 2014 and, since he graduated, Harry has been living in Buckinghamshire and writing with a band, many of whom – like him – are musicians in their own right.
Early 2016 finds Harry finishing his first album, English Americana, recorded with Tinlin on keyboards again, Matt Edwards on bass, Dan Brown on sax and Simon Treasure on drums.
‘I consider myself a guitar player above all, and that is where my passion lies,’ says Harry, who’s been loaned a Vintage Gibson B25 to record with. ‘But writing plays an extremely important role in my life now as a means to extract the various ideas I would struggle to articulate otherwise. I’ve been taking a break from regular live shows in order to work on improving the quality of my songs and I’m looking forward to going back on the road in 2016, which will hopefully see a tour of the UK with some festival dates in the summer.’
‘Wizz Jones was a watched man.’ So writes Keith Richards in his memoir Life. Richards remembers him as a ‘Great folk picker, great guitar picker…’ The soon-to-be Rolling Stone learned ‘Cocaine’ from Wizz and recalled that ‘Nobody, but nobody, played that South Carolina style. He got “Cocaine” from Jack Elliott, but a long time before anyone else… Wizz Jones was a watched man, watched by Clapton and Jimmy Page…’
Ralph McTell, whose ‘Streets of London’ is sadly as topical today as when it was written almost fifty years ago, remembers Wizz in 1961, ‘already a legend’. It was Wizz who suggested the younger man change his name to McTell, in honour of Blind Willie McTell. It was Ralph who persuaded Wizz to splash out on the Epiphone dreadnought-style guitar he plays to this day.
As a would-be bluesman, Rod Stewart ‘watched him from a distance and admired his guitar playing.’ And in 2012, Bruce Springsteen opened a show at Berlin’s Olympiastadion with ‘When I Leave Berlin’ , written by Wizz in the early Seventies, when the city was still divided. Sadly, the Boss neglected to publicly credit the composer, who heard about the performance only several weeks after the show.
Wizz learned from the masters. He was taught banjo by Peggy Seeger and Ralph Rinzler , and grew up playing guitar with Davey Graham and Long John Baldry. In the great tradition of blues and folk, he shared what he’d learned with guys many of whom went on to be more famous and much richer than he.
Like many of his contemporaries, Wizz developed his first callouses playing in a country and skiffle band named the Wranglers, formed in his home town of Croydon in 1957. He’d been inspired to pick up a guitar having heard Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters playing in Soho clubs as the folk revival crossed the Atlantic. Soon he too was playing those same clubs.
Just as hip New Yorkers headed to the bars and coffee houses of Greenwich Village, so their British counterparts gravitated to the folk clubs that sprang up in pubs across the country, replacing the skiffle old clubs. Peggy Seeger (who by 1960 had settled in Britain) was at the heart of the movement with Ewan MacColl – his Ballads and Blues Club, established in Soho in 1953, laid the foundations for the British folk revival. Pete Seeger, Peggy’s half-brother, visited from the US where he was blacklisted, to tour and a stream of now revered musicians followed in his wake: Carolyn Hester and Richard Fariña, the Reverend Gary Davis, and of course a callow Bob Dylan, whose performance at the fiercely traditional Pindar of Wakefield drew the ire of Peggy and Ewan. (The pub is now the Water Rats – a blue plaque commemorates the occasion. Dylan went down better at the King and Queen, over which Martin Carthy presided, and at the Troubadour.)
Wizz and his confrères – among them Carthy, Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn – were part of a rich and vibrant scene, a golden age of acoustic folk and blues, and their influence can be heard in the work of countless of today’s young musicians. Carthy joined the Watersons. Jansch and Renbourn found fame and commercial success with Pentangle. Wizz continued to do his own thing, touring widely in Britain and abroad, along the way recording a score of albums.
‘People like Davey Graham and Bert Jansch took it way beyond the stars,’ he told journalist and broadcaster Peter Paphides. ‘When Bert and I met, I could see we had the same roots, but he had added this extra thing… he was a genius. Davy was way ahead, I used to follow him around, and to this day, the handful of clichéd licks I do are from watching and listening to him.’
A handful of clichéd licks. That’s typical Wizz: always self-deprecating, always happy to stand back and let others take the credit. Jansch thought him ‘the most under-rated guitarist ever’. Many would agree with that judgment.
In an interview with Acoustic for the 2015 tour with Renbourn, Wizz confided: ‘I’m lazy about everything which is why I don’t practise guitar. I’m just not a dedicated musician. People like Bert Jansch got up in the morning and played all day, but I’ve never been like that. When you’re young and starting out, you chase fame, but if it doesn’t happen you have to get over all that, get into middle age and think, “Well, that’s alright, I’ve hardly written any songs but it works.” You get star struck at the beginning, and you really want to do it, but the people you admired had just as many problems as you. I used to sit at the feet of people like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and long to play the way he did, but years later when I could and was hooked doing it for a living, I met people like Jack, got to know them and record with them, and realised that they were just the same as me.’
Ralph McTell for one disagrees: Wizz, he told J P Bean in Singing from the Floor, was ‘the real article. He plays blues like those old black guys do. He misses bars out and he plays riffs as long as he wants to. He’s almost impossible to play with, he just does his own thing.’
In 1960, a BBC TV Tonight report on the troublesome new phenomenon of ‘the beatniks’ in Cornwall caught Wizz on a beach singing ‘Hard Times in Newquay if You’ve Got Long Hair’. He told Alan Whicker: ‘I’m only interested in playing the guitar and travelling.’
With a career spanning 60 years and counting, Wizz has fulfilled his ambitions. He remains a stalwart of the folk and blues circuit, offering up his unique style and eclectic repertoire to audiences across Britain and lending a hand at summer schools at the John Renbourn Memorial Workshops. These days, the man with ‘a right hand worthy of Broonzy’ often works with son Simeon on sax and blues harmonica.
‘Survival, just trucking on in the same old way, Wizz explained in a Radio 4 interview while on the road for what would be Renbourn’s final tour. ‘I keep doing it… I’m a songster, a troubadour… It’s a personality thing. You do what you do.’
There’s a coals-to-Newcastle element in the idea of an Englishman going to the United States to teach students the mountain dulcimer at workshops across the country, but that’s what Dan Evans has been doing for the last couple of decades. With 15 international tours and five CDs under his belt, Dan is one of a small handful of international dulcimer players and his skilful, original playing and engaging performances have won the hearts of audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, and in France.
Music is in fact his second career but his engagement with the dulcimer in fact began at 16, when he made his first instrument. What attracted him was the beauty and simplicity. ‘I wanted to play an instrument but didn’t want to get bogged down in something that would be complicated to learn,’ he has said. ‘I was always good at woodwork and with the help of a book and a few basic geometry principles I was able to build a mahogany dulcimer.’ He played the instrument for many years, though it has now been retired to his loft. These days, his dulcimers are custom-made for him. The latest is currently under construction by Doug Berch from Michigan, who like Dan is also a finger style player.
Dan was originally inspired by Kentucky’s Jean Ritchie, the folklorist and singer-songwriter credited with single-handedly reviving the dulcimer and who, with husband George Pickow, was herself an instrument-maker. Ritchie, who died last year age 92, was regarded as “the mother of folk music”, the voice of Appalachia, and Dan was privileged to meet her on his first trip to Kentucky in 2000. Ritchie was very approachable and Dan had a backstage dialogue with her about the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, which Jean would typically sing a capella to end her concerts. Like many folk singers, she thought that ‘Amazing Grace’ was a deep-south gospel song, when in fact it comes from Olney in England, where Dan now lives. He told Ritchie the story of the song and, on his return to England sent her a booklet about it from the local church.
Roger Nicholson, a fellow-Englishman, who fell in love with the dulcimer when he heard one being played at a folk festival in the 1960s, was another influence on Dan. The two first met in the 1970s and, two decades later their fruitful friendship resulted in a tour to Boston and the Adirondacks. Dan’s second album, Spirit Dancing (1997) featured two duets with Nicholson, who sadly died in 2009. Dan still honours Roger by playing one of his compositions in concerts.
Originally called the Appalachian dulcimer and now more commonly known as the mountain dulcimer, the instrument featured on many folk-rock recordings in the 1960s and ‘70s, including albums by Richard and Mimi Fariña, Joni Mitchell, Steeleye Span and Pentangle. Brian Jones played the dulcimer on the Rolling Stones’ recording of ‘Lady Jane’ and over the years it has featured prominently in Dolly Parton’s work, on disc and on stage.
Dan’s instrument is tuned to Ionian tuning, commonly referred to as DAA today, and is fretted the same as the original dulcimers played by Ritchie and Nicholson, though that is not the case for most dulcimers today. The dulcimer also lends itself to modal music and, in the footsteps of Roger Nicholson, Dan retunes the dulcimer to create atmospheric and medieval-sounding modal music.
Working in the Ionian mode, and more recently Bagpipe tuning (AAA), he has developed several styles of dulcimer playing that are uniquely his own, including a method of accompanying songs using chord inversions and finger-picking. ‘Few performers sing with the mountain dulcimer today,’ he explains. ‘It’s great to hear music on the dulcimer and I delight in the virtuosity of the great players – but accompanying songs is good fun too. The dulcimer’s sweet sound is an ideal accompaniment for many folk songs, and it’s surprising what can be done in Ionian tuning with just three strings and no half-frets.
‘When I started playing the dulcimer, I followed the traditional principle of tuning the dulcimer to suit my voice. Typically I’d be in (or near) the key of C. I like the organic nature of this approach but it had two main disadvantages: You can’t play with other instruments and the strings were never optimised, sometimes being over-slack and limiting the tone of the instrument. As my voice developed it became higher and I started using D and later E as typical keys to sing and play in. As I played with other musicians more it became important to tune the instrument to a fixed key so we were in tune.’
Dan’s skills as a performer have been enhanced by his long experience as a teacher, of dulcimer and voice. A once reluctant singer himself, he approaches the voice classes as a psychologist as much as a musician, emphasising the benefits of singing not just for musicians but for all of us. For 23 years, he has run a voice workshop, Everyone Can Sing, for all levels and styles of singer – including those who feel they can’t sing. Over 5,000 students have come from all over Europe and beyond to attend Dan’s voice class, including professional opera singers and eminent voice coaches.
Dan’s CD albums enjoy international distribution and have received critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Following his first, largely guitar-based CD, Guardian Spirit (1993), his subsequent two albums (Spirit Dancingand Autumn Dance, 1997 and 2002) are a mixture of guitar and dulcimer pieces with accompaniments on guitar, bass, violin and vocals from leading exponents in the fields of jazz and classical music. His last two, Let It Be Me and Au Vieux Moulin (2010 and 2014), are dulcimer-based and feature classical guitar and string bass from jazz musician Andy Crowdy.
As well as eagerly awaiting his new Dough Berch dulcimer, Dan is planning a big tour of Connecticut, Vermont and New York states in spring 2017. He recently made the brave decision to close down a number of well-paid income streams, like his voice workshops, to focus more on the dulcimer and developing his own music.
Having recorded with Roger Nicholson and more recently on Au Vieux Moulin with Stephen Seifert, the leading American dulcimer player, Dan is keen to record duets with more of work with other inspirational dulcimer players and hope to add to this collection on his next US tour. Watch this space…
2016 is a year of big birthdays and 9 January marked the 75th birthday of Joan Baez, who began her career singing at the celebrated Club 47 in Harvard Yard and went on to take Newport 1959 by storm, writes Liz Thomson. By the close of 1962, she’d been on the cover of Time Magazine and was playing a key role in introducing Bob Dylan, ‘the unwashed phenomenon’ as she sang in ‘Diamonds and Rust’, to public attention. More than half a century on, she is still touring and making records and her influence can be heard in the work of innumerable singer-songwriters – and even in a couple of unlikely HM acts!
In 1995, I was privileged to report for Mojo on two of the four sessions at the Bottom Line in New York’s Greenwich Village – concerts captured on the album Ring Them Bells. It was a ‘bringing it all back home moment’ for Baez, as she played with old friends and new, among them Janis Ian, Mary Black and Mary Chapin Carpenter, as well as her sister, Mimi Fariña, who died too young in 2001.
By that time, I’d met her on several occasions, orchestrating a press call at Greenham Common in 1984 and interviewing her a couple of times, but this was different – a ringside seat at events that would prove a turning point in her long career. I was privileged to sit in on a rehearsal and watch Joan and Janis lark around, watch Baez and Black sing together for the very first time. How quickly – how magnificently – it all came together.
In December 2000, I was invited by Britain’s Open University – where Dr Alberto Baez, the singer’s father, had been the first professor of physics – to give a lecture on Joan Baez as social activist to the Sixties Research Group, of which I was then a visiting fellow.