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.
‘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.’
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.
My 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/
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 Dancing and 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…