Spring 2017

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)”.

Billy Bragg and Tom Paley
Billy Bragg and Tom Paley

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 Times suggested 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.

Alan Franks
Alan Franks

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.