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17 October 2023

Bridget St John and the power of folk memory

At a magical gig in east London, I feel transported to Greenwich Village in the Sixties.

By Tracey Thorn

Back in 1982, during my first year at university and separated from the other members of my band Marine Girls, I recorded some demos – seven songs performed solo, just me and my semi-acoustic guitar. I’d written them in my student bedroom, looking out at the grey Hull skies, watching the icy east-coast wind send autumn leaves scudding across the campus car park. The songs were stark and reflective, explorations of the troubled beginning of my relationship with Ben (troubled because, in true student fashion, he had a “girlfriend back home”).

I was listening to Billie Holiday and John Martyn and the Velvet Underground, and included a cover of their “Femme Fatale”. It was all quite sombre, and heart-on-the-sleeve, and rawly emotional. Classic late-night listening. When I played the demos to my record label, Cherry Red, they said, “These aren’t demos, this is an album – let’s release it just as it is!” So we did. A Distant Shore, only 23 minutes long, came out in 1982 and was something of an indie hit.

[See also: In The Last Waltz it’s Joni Mitchell who mesmerises]

During an interview, a journalist from Melody Maker said to me, “Your album really reminds me of Bridget St John.” “WHO’S THAT?” I squawked ungraciously. “I’VE NEVER EVEN HEARD OF HER.” He explained to me that she was a folk singer from the late Sixties and early Seventies, and I think the comparison made me anxious. Still feeling very much part of the post-punk mood, I was allergic to the word “folk” – which meant “hippie” to me – and so I brushed off his comments, making no effort to find out more about an artist I might have liked. In my defence, I was only 19 years old, and unsure of my identity.

Years passed. The internet was invented. We started listening to music via Spotify, and one day I looked up Bridget St John and played her 1969 album Ask Me No Questions. I don’t think it’s possible to feel more chastened than I felt in that moment. Because, of course, the journalist had been extremely perceptive and accurate in his comparison. The mood of her music sounded like a template for my early solo work. The tone and register of her voice was similar to mine, but it was more than that – something about her low-key, deadpan style of delivery, a kind of unflamboyant but unapologetic emotion. I had loved Nico’s 1967 Chelsea Girl album, and Bridget’s work was like a less chilly version of the same vibe.

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I felt I owed both the journalist– and, in some vague way, Bridget herself – an apology. He’d been spot-on when he identified the connection, and it made me think hard about the way that you can be “influenced” by someone you have never heard. There was coincidence involved – our voices having a similar timbre – but it’s also a sort of folk memory. She had been part of inventing a sound which then became part of the canon of music, and I had absorbed it from the general musical ether, if not directly from her.

More years pass, and it is October 2023. I am standing in the crowd at Cafe Oto in Dalston watching Bridget, now 77 years old, play those very songs live, and it is utterly magical. I wish I could fully convey the atmosphere in the room; I wish I could bottle the atmosphere in the room. It is like being transported to another place in time, maybe Greenwich Village in the Sixties. I feel I ought to be wearing a black turtleneck and sitting cross-legged in front of her smoking a Gitane.

Her voice is as warm and resonant as ever, still with that resolutely unshowy hint of vibrato. She sings a good six inches back from the mic, willing us to lean in close to hear her, and lean in we do. It reminds me of Peggy Lee who used to say that in noisy clubs she would sing more and more quietly to force attention. There’s no forcing needed tonight, though: pin-drop silence reigns throughout.

Eyes mostly closed, she plays with a calm stillness, a kind of composure and gentleness that reminds me how compelling understatement can be. She mentions two of her musical “brothers” – Nick Drake and John Martyn, who she knew back in the day – and plays a song by each of them. And I’m standing here with one of my musical “sisters”, my friend Beth Orton, both of us moved beyond words. As we walk back through the chilly autumn air to Dalston Kingsland station we are both aware that we’ve just been in the presence of someone unique and precious, to whom we owe a great debt. And for that, many thanks, Bridget.

[See also: Two nights in Manchester, and my summer is complete]

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts