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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.

Looking ahead

NYSA Egg logoOther events this year include a conference in the UK on the importance of journalism in launching the 1960s folk revivalists and, in the US, an exhibition and concert in partnership with New York State Arts at the Egg, in New York State Plaza.

The aim is to engage fully with the folk music community, old and young, across the country and Square Roots Productions welcomes suggestions and proposals, particularly for innovative regional activity.

Events in Spring 2016

Square Roots made its public debut this spring with three concerts at Time Out’s award-winning Green Note in Camden Town, London. Each focused on a legacy musician or theme. Scroll on to find out more about the venue and read reviews of the events.

Square Roots at Green Note

Green Note exterior shotGreen Note is a little patch of Greenwich Village in Camden Town.

Founded in 2005 by two North London school friends who shared a love of American folk music and 1960s singer-songwriters, Green Note has hosted Amy Winehouse and Ed Sheeran early in their careers. Leonard Cohen once dropped in for a private gig. Last year, Green Note beat off competition from larger and more established venues such as the Union Chapel, the Brixton Academy and the Royal Albert Hall to be voted London’s Favourite Music Venue 2015 in a poll by Time Out.

The club is cosy and intimate, a place to enjoy a drink while listening to first-rate music – not a place where music plays second fiddle to booze and musicians struggle to be heard over the hubbub. Folk, blues and world music is what Green Note showcases – essentially, Immy and Risa preside over the kind of place in which they themselves want to hang out. The sense of community is palpable.

‘Our dream was to create the kind of place where we would want to go to hear the music that we love,’ says Immy. ‘Somewhere friendly, comfortable, intimate, and with the best music on offer every night of the week.’ Green Note has been a hit with all ages, but Risa has noted with pleasure that ‘many of the older generation say it reminds them of New York’s Greenwich Village in the sixties. From the wooden floors to the exposed brick walls, to the paintings on the walls of sixties legends and our musical heroes to the mismatched cushions and worn wooden furniture, it’s not hard to see why. It’s got a real living room feel. It feels like the kind of place Bob Dylan or Joan Baez would have cut their teeth.’

Immy and Rasa at Green Note
Immy and Rasa at Green Note

Square Roots Productions is honoured to be ‘bringing it all back home’ to Green Note.

Come join us at our inaugural gig on 22 February with Dan Evans and Virginia Thorn, who will tip their hats to American singer and folklorist Jean Ritchie. On 23 March it’s an evening of the very best of acoustic folk and blues guitar with Wizz Jones and son Simeon, plus Dariush Kanani. And on 13 April, folk legend Bonnie Dobson – a veteran of those Greenwich Village clubs – takes the stage, with support by Harry Phillips.

Bonnie Dobson

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.

Bonnie Dobson - photo Ruth Tidmarsh
Bonnie Dobson – photo Ruth Tidmarsh

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…

Bonnie Dobson & Her Boys - photo Laurie Lewis
Bonnie Dobson & Her Boys – photo Laurie Lewis

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 settled in to an apartment (shared with folk and blues singer Judy Roderick) on St Marks’s Place, a few blocks from Washington Square Park and the surrounding clubs which together formed the crucible of the folk revival. Everyone passed through Gerde’s, but other clubs included the Gaslight, the Kettle of Fish, the Café Wha?  and the Bitter End. A few more blocks west, near the Hudson, the White Horse Tavern (immortalised in the song ‘Those Were the Days’) was a late-night gathering place, an old longshoreman’s bar where the Clancy Brothers hung out and to where Robert Shelton would lead late-night drinking parties that (as Suze Rotolo recalls in her memoir A Freewheelin’ Time) often ended up back at his apartment on Waverly Place. Further along that street the Hotel Earle (now the Washington Square Hotel) was at various times home not just to Dylan and Joan Baez (who immortalised it in ‘Diamonds and Rust’ ) but to Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn  and John Phillips who, on a frigid New York day, wrote ‘California Dreamin’’ in his room there. It was, Bonnie recalls, ‘an extraordinary time’.

Bonnie Dobson 1963
Bonnie Dobson 1963

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.

Square Roots Productions presents a concert with Bonnie Dobson at Green Note on 13th April 2016

Virginia Thorn

Virginia Thorn 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 Thorn at Hobgoblin
Virginia Thorn at Hobgoblin

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!

Square Roots Productions presents a concert with Virginia Thorn at Green Note on 22nd February 2016

Harry Phillips

Harry Phillips by Vanessa Champion
Harry Phillips by Vanessa Champion

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.’

Square Roots Productions presents a concert with Harry Phillips at Green Note on 13th April 2016

A celebration of the music of Jean Ritchie: 22 February 2016

Read a review of this event >>

A celebration of the late Jean Ritchie, the Appalachian singer and song-collector who inspired both Baez and Dylan. Regarded as ‘the mother of folk music’, she came to Britain on a Fulbright Scholarship to trace the links between American ballads and songs from the UK and Ireland.

The gig features acclaimed dulcimer player Dan Evans and singer-guitarist Virginia Thorn, a rising star.

Wizz Jones

Wizz JonesWizz 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.’

Wizz Jones & Simeon
Wizz Jones & Simeon

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.’

Just like all the great old bluesmen.

Square Roots Productions presents a concert with Wizz Jones at Green Note on 23rd March 2016

Dan Evans

Dan EvansThere’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 Evans 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…

Square Roots Productions presents a concert with Dan Evans at Green Note on 22nd February 2016

Joan Baez at 75

Joan Baez, Cambridge 2007
Joan Baez, Cambridge 2007

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.

We chatted in a suite at the Fitzpatrick Manhattan the day after the second show.

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.

Mary Wharton’s 2009 American Masters documentary, How Sweet the Sound, tells the story of Joan Baez’ remarkable career.

Liz Thomson

Winter 2015

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.

Liz Thomson with (from left) Bill Samuel, Dave Laing, Anthony Keates and Michael Brocken (Photo: Vivienne Wordley)
Meet on the ledge: Square Roots Productions’ trustees, together for the first time:
Liz Thomson with (from left) Bill Samuel, Dave Laing, Anthony Keates and Michael Brocken (Photo: Vivienne Wordley)

Robert Shelton Anniversary

Robert Shelton
Robert Shelton looking very much ‘a metropolitan critic’ in 1960s New York

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).

Two of the many tributes:

Ewan MacColl Anniversary

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.

The Halloween Concert That Reinvented Bob Dylan

‘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…

‘The Halloween Concert That Reinvented Bob Dylan’

Bob Dylan’s UK Tour

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…

Conclusions on the Wall: New Essays on Bob Dylan by Liz Thomson

And from the archives: ‘Struck by the sounds before the sun: Dylan as composer’ by Liz Thomson, from Conclusions on the Wall: New Essays on Bob Dylan (Thin Man, 1980)

No Direction Home by Robert SheltonRead 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. . . .

Buy it here: UK and US

Judy Collins in Britain

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 Judy Collins 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.