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)”.
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 Timessuggested 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.
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.
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 byBonnie 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’ 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).
We 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 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.
Check 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)
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).
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.
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.
Featuring 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’).
Redbone 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.
*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.
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.’
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 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.
Coincidentally, 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.
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
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.
We now have the dates for Square Roots’ first UK events, each of them taking place at the Green Note in Parkway, Camden Town, winner of the Time Out Award for London’s Favourite Music Venue 2015. The London dates are 22 February, 23 March and 13 April 2016. Dates in New York City and Albany in early March will be confirmed shortly.
Twenty years ago, on 11 December 1995, New York Times critic Robert Shelton died in Brighton aged 69. Shelton is today remembered principally as ‘the man who discovered Bob Dylan’, and it’s true he wrote the celebrated review of his performance at Gerde’s Folk City which ran on 29 September 1961 and is credited with landing the 20-year-old with his Columbia recording contract. He went on, of course, to write the core text on Dylan, No Direction Home.
But Shelton also played a key role in bringing to national and international attention innumerable 1960s talents, among them Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Buffy Ste Marie, José Feliciano, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa and many more besides. A ‘metropolitan critic’ and ‘a taste-maker’ according to Dave Laing, who came to know him at Let It Rock in the 1970s, after Shelton’s relocation to Britain, he was also ‘the father of rock journalism’ according to Janis Ian, another of the era’s giants, who has always acknowledged her debt to him.
How he came to spend his last years on a regional paper on Britain’s south coast – where few of his colleagues knew his pedigree – is a whole other story. The Editors’ Introduction to the 2011 ‘author’s cut’ of No Direction Home, together with Shelton’s own Prelude, offers a sense of the man who is one of the under-sung figures in popular music history. Read the Introduction and Prelude here (PDF file).
Another anniversary: the centenary of the birth of Ewan MacColl (who famously condemned Dylan as ‘a youth of mediocre talent’) has been celebrated with a series of magnificent concerts and a tribute album – plus a folk music scholarship at Newcastle University. An actor-turned singer, MacColl was married to Peggy Seeger, she of the great Seeger clan, the first family of American folk music, who sang in the concerts along with the couple’s children.
‘It’s Halloween and I’ve got my Bob Dylan mask on’, said the singer-songwriter as he stepped out at New York’s Philharmonic Hall on 31 October 1964. Joan Baez, who had introduced Dylan on stage at so many of her own concerts, joined him after intermission for a handful of songs. She had on a plaid Glengarry cap. Sean Wilentz was fortunate enough to be there…
Bob Dylan kicks off his UK tour this week (21 October 2015), with London dates at the Royal Albert Hall, which he first played back in 1965 – remember those scenes in Pennebaker’s peerless documentary Don’t Look Back? To get in the mood, a flick through a few of his back pages…
Read the definitive biography of Bob Dylan in his prime by Robert Shelton, the New York Times critic who wrote the celebrated review credited with launching Dylan’s career – No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, which takes you back, down the smoky ruins of time, to Greenwich Village in the 1960s. . . .
Judy Collins, who shared many a beer and a bill with Dylan back in the day – and who remembers waking up in the middle of the night at Albert Grossman’s house in Woodstock and hearing him at work on ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ – has also been playing in Britain. She was in in good voice at London’s Cadogan Hall, playing songs from a career spanning 56 years.
Collins reminded the audience that it was she who put Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell on the map, the first artist to record their songs. She recounted being at a Democrats Abroad bash in Norway last year when a woman introduced herself: ‘I’m Marianne’. Collins held out her hand, as the woman continued: ‘Leonard Cohen’s Marianne.’ Apparently, she and Cohen had been living their Greek idyll when the poet woke her in the middle of the night and explained: ‘I’m going to New York to sing my songs to Judy Collins’. Marianne hadn’t even known he was writing songs! Cohen knocked on Collins’ Upper West Side apartment door, introduced by a mutual friend, and sang to her. She was in the midst of recording her ground-breaking 1966 album In My Life and the very next day she cut ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’. Beguiled as she was, ‘I never had an affair with him,’ she said, ‘he was much too dangerous for me’.
She sang ‘Diamonds and Rust’, Joan Baez’ ‘bad boy song’ to Bob Dylan, whom she introduced in so many of her concerts – Baez’ own career was well established by the time he, ‘the unwashed phenomenon’ emerged from Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village.