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.
Virginia Thorn is a singer-songwriter from South-East London with Argentine roots. She is influenced by music from North and South America, as well as the British indie pop scene.
Virginia was classically trained at the Blackheath Conservatoire and later studied the bel canto technique with Sandra Scott. In her late teens she became captivated by the music of the 1960s folk revival and set out on a pilgrimage to New York’s Greenwich Village to visit the streets which, nearly half a century earlier, reverberated to the sounds of ‘music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air’. Bob Dylan (who wrote those words in ‘Tangled Up in Blue’), Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell were among the formative influences on her music. Martha Wainwright is a contemporary inspiration, particularly for the passion and vulnerability she channels in her live performance. Pressed to choose one musician above all others, she concedes it would be Tom Waits, admiring his gift to ‘weave a story through song that distils the longing of the human heart’.
Like the artists she admires, Virginia has ‘a love of storytelling, and values the human connection that can take place through music’. She explains: ‘This can happen through rhythm or melody in a place beyond words, but also through lyrics and poetic ideas which might resonate a universal truth. A song which we connect with can translate our individual feeling to the universal plain. Joy is amplified, sorrow is shared – and for me this is the magic of writing and receiving music.’
Melanchly and longing are common themes in her writing. She reflects that songs are her primary answer in times of existential crisis.
Virginia, who is poised to release her debut CD, How Shall We Say Goodbye?, also works with children and adults as an arts psychotherapist. She plays music in gig settings and less common environments, such as movement workshops and meditation spaces and is artist in residence with the Freemind Project which uses live improvised music to allow greater relaxation and insight. She has appeared on stages across the country, playing solo and in collaboration with others including classical French horn player Thomas Allard and pianist Hara Kostogianni who feature on her album. At a festival last summer, her set was billed as heart-centred acoustic music and this fits, if one includes the fiery expressions of the heart as well as the softer edges.
When not performing as a ‘Girl with a Guitar,’ Virginia has also given classical concerts and is currently working on an electro-synth project with tracks to be released later in the year. In 2014 she appeared at the Royal Festival Hall as part of Maurice Onejah’s reggae collective at the Changing Britain Festival.
One of the few buskers last year of the hundreds who auditioned to be awarded a TFL Licence, she can also be found brightening the journey of London’s commuters on the Tube. When the sun is shining, Borough Market is a favourite spot which means those out for a lunch break can feast all their senses!