John Wesley Harding - Keeping up with the (Nic) Joneses
On the evening of February 26, 1982, returning home from a club gig in Manchester, England, folk singer Nic Jones' car was involved in a horrific collision with a truck. Breaking almost every bone in his body, the accident also left Jones in a coma from which he would not emerge for several months. And though Jones would, eventually, recover, and even return to occasional live work around his hometown, York, he has not recorded a single note since then. Yet, across the 15 years leading up to the accident, and the 17 years since, Jones has been acclaimed among the greatest folk musicians England has ever produced. Track back to his earliest recordings, as a member of English folk-rock pioneers the Halliard; delve into the wealth of sessions he appeared on, with Richard and Linda Thompson, Shirley and Dolly Collins, June Tabor and Maddy Prior; range across the five solo albums he released between 1970 and 1980; and some of the most familiar arrangements in the modern folk-rock idiom turn out to be his -- Christy Moore's "Annan Water", Mary Black's "Annachie Gordon", Fairport Convention's "Bonnie Bunch Of Roses"... Today, only one of Jones' own records remains readily available, 1980's Penguin Eggs, with most of the rest tied up in indie record-label nonsense of one sort or another. Nevertheless, recent months have seen an enormous groundswell of interest in Jones and his music. Both Mojo and Folk Roots magazines have offered up fulsome profiles; Martin Carthy's latest album includes both a written tribute to Jones and a musical one; and Jones himself has a song featured on Rhino's acclaimed three-volume Troubadours Of British Folk collection. Oh, and gangster folkie John Wesley Harding's latest album is comprised entirely of Jones' songs and arrangements. Appropriately, he calls it Trad. Arr. Jones. "Nic Jones is not really a familiar name," Harding acknowledges, "but I think in fact most people know at least a couple of songs by him, or associated with him, people into folk-rock, or maybe into Dylan, or Christy Moore, or Mary Black. All these people have sung songs which are heavily associated with Nic, even if they don't necessarily spell it out." Dylan's version of the traditional "Canadee-i-o," from 1992's Good As I Been To You album, for example, lifts Jones' Penguin Eggs arrangement wholesale, albeit without so much as a nod to its source. Harding, however, acknowledges that Dylan is hardly alone in doing that. "When someone covers one of his songs, they don't think, 'Ah, that's a Nic Jones song.' A lot of these folk songs go back a long way, a lot of the great tunes as well. But he rearranged a lot of them for his own records, and those rearrangements are the ones people know now. So that's why I wanted the name of the record to be Trad. Arr. Jones, so there's no doubt that this album is somebody else's songs." Harding's own introduction to Jones' music came surprisingly late in the day -- the English born singer-songwriter was already living in San Francisco when the crucial discovery came about. "I met someone who said, 'Oh, you're into folk music, you should hear this album Penguin Eggs, it's so good.' So, finally I picked it up and...it's very difficult to find the other records, but I persisted, and in fact, I had to go and visit Nic himself to get copies of his first two. But I just fell in love with the albums, I became totally obsessed with them, and slowly the idea of doing this record came to me." Musically and stylistically, Trad. Arr. Jones is a considerable departure from past Harding opuses. For starters, for a long time he didn't even like English folk music. "I was always very standoffish about the English stuff, it really didn't appeal to me. I started with Dylan, I learned to play acoustic guitar, then I discovered John Prine and Steve Goodman. It was only later, after I started collecting the literature, being in love with the literature of the English ballads, that I started wanting to hear musical versions of the songs." At the same time, though, the album does maintain at least one of Harding's own strongest traditions. "What I like doing best of all is telling stories in my songs. Although only about 15 percent, 20 percent, of the songs that I write have a good storyline, they're my favorite ones. I just can't come up with good stories every day. But these songs are full of great stories, so for me to plunder this fantastic treasure trove, this museum of terrific stories, it was paradise." And what stories they are. "Little Musgrave" (familiar to some as Fairport Convention's "Matty Groves") is a rip-roaring saga of ancient adultery and medieval murder. "Annachie Gordon" is a timeless tale of forbidden love; "The Flandyke Shore" is a virgin soldier's lament; "Isle Of France" documents a shipwreck and the lone convict who survives it. They really don't write them like that anymore. "The good thing about folk songs is, it was a very low panic situation for me. Folk songs are very durable, and whether I record 'Little Musgrave' or whether I don't, it's going to make very little difference to the song itself. I could do a great version, or a bad one, it doesn't matter. This song is going to live forever regardless. It's already been around since at least 1611. "So that knowledge made the making of this album a huge, huge pleasure, because when I do my songs, there's way too many dead bodies and cum in them for a lot of people to be taking them to the top of the hit parade, so I'm really the only person who's ever going to do the 'definitive' version of them. And that's a much more pressured situation, for me to take a song like -- the ones on my last album say -- I want to do the version which will stand as the version, because no one else will. "But with these songs, there's none of that. You do your version, someone else does theirs, someone else does theirs. And nothing any one of you do is going to make those songs any better, or any worse." That much is true. At the same time, however, the zeal with which the last century or so has seen English folk songs pursued and preserved has caused a degree of fossilization, with certain arrangements becoming so well established that any attempt to deviate from them brings the purists howling for blood. Fairport Convention's electrification of the Scots ballad "Tam Lin", for example, has been more or less seamlessly duplicated by everyone from Steeleye Span to Tempest; Fairport, in turn, based their own reading of "Sir Patrick Spens" on a Nic Jones interpretation; and Led Zeppelin's "In My Time Of Dying" owes a lot more to the version on Dylan's first album than the Page/Plant/Jones/Bonham writing credit might lead one to believe. And that, of course, does raise an interesting point: namely, when does a rearrangement become a fresh composition? It's an impossible riddle, as Harding explains. "Nic's from that school where it was kind of bad to write your own songs, where it was better to say, 'It's traditional,' and claim not to have written it. Now, this may seem really strange today, when some idiot will write three seconds of crap on a commercial, and make a million out of it, but this is a whole different culture, and these people were very into folk music. So, I think Nic wrote stuff, which he then claimed was traditional, because that was the style he wrote it in, but also because that was the world he lived in. "It's all very well for him to say, 'Well, "Canadee-i-o" was my tune,' which he did say to me, but I think the bottom line is, not only could he have claimed to have written some of those folk songs, as Bob Dylan has, as Led Zeppelin have, but Nic actually did write them. And another thought behind Trad. Arr. Jones was to actually give him back some of the credit which he didn't take, maybe even didn't want, in the first place." Harding met Jones for the first time last summer. Jones had finally broken his 17-year silence a short while before, with the release -- on his own Mollie label -- of a live retrospective, the aptly titled In Search Of Nic Jones. It's a haunting album; recorded at various dates through the 1970s and early 1980s, the tapes themselves were gathered together by fans and friends in the weeks following his car accident, for Jones' wife Julia to play at his bedside, in hopes of bringing her stricken husband back to consciousness. The record was available only from the Joneses themselves, so when Harding sent away for a copy, he included a little note with his check: "I was going to England on holiday, staying in Yorkshire, and I wrote to Nic and his wife, 'My name's John Wesley Harding, there's no way you'll ever have heard of me, but I'm a huge fan, and I'm coming up to Yorkshire next week.' And Julia wrote back and said, 'Please stop by for a cup of coffee, and as it happens, we have heard of you, through some friends of ours.' "So my girlfriend and I went for coffee, and we hung with them for three or four hours, and it was that which decided me to make the record. Then I moved up to Seattle to live on an island, and all I do is sit around waiting for ferries, or sitting in my house, and that was the real dawn of this album, just having all this time to listen to music. So I was playing Nic's albums, getting more and more into them, listening to them, wanting to think about what the songs meant, listening to them closer and closer, and finally, it all just fit together." Choosing the songs was relatively easy. Across his five studio albums, Jones recorded a total of 48 songs; there's another dozen, including a take on that most surreal and sinister of childrens' songs, "Teddy Bear's Picnic", on In Search Of Nic Jones. "I picked my favorites," Harding says, "but I also picked the songs which I thought I could add something to." He wound up with a career-spanning selection that draws two tracks apiece from Jones' first two albums, Ballads And Songs and Nic Jones; three each from Noah's Ark Trap and 1978's oft-overlooked From The Devil A Stranger; and just one from Penguin Eggs. Another track from Noah's Ark Trap (titled, incidentally, for a particularly extravagant chess move), is featured in Harding's live set: "I do 'The Wanton Seed', but that was totally inappropriate to this album," he explains. Initially, Harding intended to release Trad. Arr. Jones as the next installment of his now semi-legendary Dynablob series. "I have this little thing in my contract, every contract I sign, which allows me to do these little things called Dynablob, these collections of songs for fans. Record companies move very slowly, but people who like your music move very fast, and you want to try and find a nice middle line, where you can say, 'OK, these are the real albums, and they look nice and you can find them in record stores, and there's these things which I put out myself, and they're for you.' I think they're beautiful things, and I did this as one of those. "But then the record company [Zero Hour] heard about it through my manager, and they said, 'We'd like to put it out -- we're hardly a folk label, but it sounds like an interesting project.' And somebody who works there was actually a Nic Jones fan, so it just fell into place, because the moment they said that, suddenly I was looking at a budget to go into the studio, to bring in a producer [Kurt Bloch of Seattle bands the Fastbacks and the Young Fresh Fellows], to have a nice cover, and to know it's going to get out there and be heard by people who maybe wouldn't want to buy something called Dynablob. "And so far, it's been really interesting because I went out on tour just before Christmas, and of course my fans don't know these songs, they haven't heard this album, but I played a lot of the songs and they went down really well." One night in particular stands out -- or at least it did once Harding received a CD-R of the show from a fan. "People send me these CDs which they've burned of my shows, and I was looking at one of them, at the track listing, and suddenly I saw 'Annachie Gordon', and the time next to it is 10 minutes 41. [on Trad. Arr. Jones, the tune clocks in at 6:43.] And I just thought, 'Fucking hell, how did that go on so long?' But all I did was sing the song, I didn't have a long speech in the middle of it, I just sung it, and people seemed to be as caught up in it as I was...I mean, I got an encore immediately after it. "So the thing is, most of my fans don't listen to Nic Jones, they've never heard of him. But that's what I like about music, it's a long stream, a big river of tradition, and it's good to dabble your toe in there and see if the people who like you like the other things you like. And with Nic Jones, it seems like they do." Seattle based journalist Dave Thompson is the author of Better To Burn Out, a newly published guide to rock'n'roll's greatest corpses.