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.