Making of a Masterpiece
A quarter-century after the release of Penguin Eggs, Ken Hunt looks back at
the all-too-brief but brilliant career of Nic Jones
in, issue out, our masthead has explained the inspirational connection.
Now it is time to talk about Nic Jones. Folk music’s favourite
tense must be the past continuous. One of the most influential people
to wrest the past into my continuous was the Kent-born singer, guitarist
and fiddler Nic Jones. Twenty-five years ago on 1 June 1980, Topic
Records officially released 12TS411, better known as Penguin Eggs,
a nine-track masterpiece that took the British scene by storm, much
like Dick Gaughan’s Handful of Earth did in 1981.
Even though Nic Jones hasn’t played professionally for decades, those
in the know with attuned ears will hear a lot of him about. Martin Carthy sourced
him for the tune of Sir Patrick Spens on Signs of Life (1998), Kate Rusby his
Drowned Lovers on 10 (2002) and Dylan regurgitated Jones’ Canadee-I-O
uncredited hook, pillaged line and dishonourable stinker on Good As I Been
To You (1992). His Annachie Gordon has been the starting block for most subsequent
versions as well as inspiring John Hegley’s 1980 poem about first getting
turned on to folk music.
The press release that accompanied the 1980 album release, written anonymously,
as was the custom – but by Topic’s Tony Russell (the spare-time
editor of Old Time Music) – was a model of concision and clarity. He
did not ‘descend to panegyrics’. “Nic Jones is one of the
most remarkable musicians in the country, in any field of music – a deeply
accomplished singer and guitarist, whose music revives the almost lost art
of the song-as-story. Getting the tale across is his first concern. As he says, ‘the
real thing should be you standing up there singing and people listening to
the song.’ And as one reviewer has said, ‘he has always selected
his songs with an unerring taste…he is one of the very few really outstanding
singers and stylists of his generation.’”
Nicolas Paul Jones, the youngest of three children, was born on 9 January 1947
in Orpington, England. As far as folk music was concerned, he never got his
rightful Damascene conversion. It just slipped into his consciousness. “I
never knew anything about this sort of music until about four years ago,” he
told Melody Maker’s Andrew Means in November 1970, “when I joined
a group that was partly traditional. I actually got to know about traditional
music through that.”
The group to which he was referring, The Halliard – “a lurid chapter
in my life,” he joked in the liner notes to Banddogs (1978) – was
also the resident act at the Chelmsford Folk Club in Chelmsford, Essex. The
group’s name was a variant of ‘halyard’, a nautical term
for the rope or tackle used for raising a sail. By 1966 Jones had taken the
plunge and become a full-time musician, replacing Geoff Harris in the group.
Together with Dave Moran (“always the driving force”) and Nigel
Paterson, he stayed until the group’s end in late 1968. Talking to Jerry
Gilbert for Sounds two years later, he said, “The Halliard split because
we didn’t get on together musically any more. We’d gone through
a period of about six months when our ideas didn’t conflict but eventually
we started having ideas that the others didn’t like.”
For Jones, The Halliard remains more than a footnote, no matter how uneventful
their recording career. The one album that came out on Saga, one of the period’s
budget labels found in all good Woolworth’s, set them up as mock-Dubliners
to exploit their massive UK hit with Seven Drunken Nights. The real significance
of the group was their reassembling songs in the old ‘trad. arr.’ way. “We’d
beef doing a lot of broadside material,” he told Gilbert. But what they
really did was beef up material.
Their failing was twofold: too little business savvy and too much modesty.
They reset and remoulded Boys of Bedlam, Calico Printer’s Clerk and Lancashire
Lads, without bothering with the paperwork, an oversight since remedied. (And
a Halliard songbook is imminent.) Jones’ reworkings from this period
include his 9/8 setting of Billy Don’t You Weep For Me. He chortles remembering
how deviations from 3/4 and 4/4 were designed to increase the likelihood of
him getting to sing.
1968 was a year of massive changes for our hero. The Halliard split; he went
solo; he wed Julia Seymour; and the newly weds settled in Chelmsford. What
is too often overlooked in the British folk scene narrative is that significant
folk acts – witness Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, Louis Killen and the
High Level Ranters, the Spinners and the Watersons – ran folk clubs too;
in 1968 the Joneses took over the running of the Chelmsford Folk Club as a
professional business too.
Jones made his solo debut album, Ballads and Songs (1970), for Trailer. It
and its successor Nic Jones (1971) crystallise Jones’ contemporary
folk club act. Ultimately they amount to signposts to things to come, portents
of his signature guitar style – a composite of percussive, rhythmic
playing with ringing snaps, tastefully deployed melodic ornamentations and,
above all, economy. By 1971, Peter Bellamy, an early champion (“a great
character”) made the observation, in my mind’s eye with a sardonic
squint, “Have you noticed that all the people who used to sound like
Martin Carthy have started to sound like Nic Jones?” Jones became one
of England’s most distinguished stylist gurus for the acoustic guitar,
having sopped up Charlie Byrd, Hank Marvin, Wes Montgomery, Martin Carthy,
Bert Jansch and Davey Graham.
In June 1971 he had the
experience of working on Shirley Collins’ No Roses (1971). It telegraphed
the word about him around the world. He only appears on two tracks, singing and
playing fiddle on The White Hare and, most notably of all, the album’s
The Murder of Maria Marten. “Shirley was one of the most perfect singers,” he
exclaims, “because she sang what she felt. She felt the words. She wasn’t
one for flash settings. She found the beauty within the songs. The words meant
a lot to her. She inspired me in many ways. She made me realise how important
the words were: they’re more important than the accompaniments. I used
to play flash things and people would go, ‘Wowee!’ Blokes especially
can ‘do flash’, do a few riffs here, a few flash notes there. Everyone
admires them. People don’t listen to the words; and that’s a bad
thing. Shirley Collins showed me how important the words were. That was the key
thing. That affected me a lot.”
To this day, he gets animated – and competitive – about games
such as Go, Othello and checkers – going so far as to get a guide to checkers
strategies – but his passion for chess remains paramount. His third solo
album, The Noah’s Ark Trap (1977), named after a chess ploy, and From The
Devil To A Stranger (1978) made it plain that he was a major interpreter. Yet
in January 1979, he told Colin Irwin: “My first two records were hideous
and the last two have been less hideous.” Half-truths make great copy.
A project with Pete & Chris Coe and Tony Rose called Bandoggs led to the
one-off Banddogs and two promotional tours.
Next, Jones signed to Topic for what turned into a one-album deal. Belying
the polished fluency of Penguin Eggs, much of it was pure spontaneity from
the assembled team of Dave Burland (vocals), Bridget Danby (vocals/ recorder)
and Tony Hall (melodeon). Burland had received a phone call the day before
and went into the studio without knowing what the material was. Whatever they
did, it soared. In 1998, the US songwriter Peter Case declared it “one
of the finest acoustic albums ever made” to me. It is one of the ten
definitive British folk albums of all time.
One of the mysteries of Nic Jones’ career is how he found two of
his most important repertoire items, The Humpback Whale and The Little Pot Stove – the
latter the source of Penguin Eggs. Now, Jones was irrevocably secretive about
his sources – “All the songs on this record have been learned from
books, tapes, records and scraps of paper, all sent to me by friends that I have
made around the folk club scene,” was his penny-pinching, ‘official’ low-down
on his reworkings. He treated raw material as a vehicle to take him somewhere
else. Over and over again Jones displayed an enviable ability to take a handful
of musical motifs or lyrical cues and turn them into something inevitable in
musical terms. Thus, initial pressings identified Humpback Whale as traditional
and Stove as copyright control. Later, it emerged that they were by Harry Robertson
(1923-1995), an Australian songwriter who sluiced true-life experiences into
fact-and-fiction songs, especially from his days aboard whalers. Two such were
Wee Pot Stove (sometimes called Wee Dark Engine Room) and The Ballina Whalers
(Jones’ Humpback Whale). Penguin Eggs has several antipodean flavours,
most likely picked up on tour in Australia. Robertson’s own Whale Chasing
Men (1971), now reissued on ScreenSound Australia, was available – as was
a songbook. But Nic Jones can no longer be definite… On 26 February 1982,
driving home late from Glossop, he received massive injuries in his “argument
with a brick lorry”. It robbed him of much of his memory of events prior
to the accident; he fondly remembers tobogganing with his children, Heather and
Joe that winter around the December. The crash itself is something that happened
to somebody else almost.
Despite guesting on albums by Gerry Hallom, for example, effectively Jones’ professional
musical career went on infinite hold. Compounding the family’s enormous
distress, his albums prior to Penguin Eggs sank into a moral and legal quagmire – a
tragedy they feel no desire to rehash. That Penguin Eggs remains one of Topic’s
best-sellers is only partial consolation. Likewise the fact that Jones benefits
from two anthologies of club, concert and studio performances, In Search of
Nic Jones (1998) and Unearthed (2001) on their own Mollie Music label.
The Mollie Music releases remind how singular he was with their covers of
Jeff Deitchmann’s The Jukebox As She Turned, John W. Bratton’s Teddy
Bears’ Picnic and Ivor Cutler’s I’m Going In A Field and
his own songs Green To Grey, Ruins By The Shore and Rapunzel. In 2004 three
additions to the historical record from 1980 appeared on the Sidmouth International
Festival compilation, Folk Festival on Gott Discs.
Thankfully, music still remains a constant, though. “There are things
I like now,” he grins, “that I wouldn’t have liked then.
I used to go for folksongs a lot. Now I tend to write pop songs and jazz things
more. Radiohead’s my favourite group. I still keep in touch with old
colleagues. I’m looking forward to hearing Barry Dransfield’s new
album [Unruly]. If Robin or Barry Dransfield make a record, I want to hear
I am of an age to have seen Nic Jones perform at the height of his powers.
It pains me to say that in both cases, the visual images are stronger than
the musical. Since my contemporaneous notes are lost, my musical memories are
certainly contaminated by accretions of memory and too many hours of listening
pleasure/sorrow. Each time I revisit Penguin Eggs, my mind’s ear hears
Jones playing most if not all of Penguin Eggs in the back function room of
Sutton’s Red Lion (where the Rolling Stones played and Pentangle formed).
The word matchlessness comes to mind.
particular thanks to Nic and Julia Jones, Jerry Gilbert and Phil
Wilson. Visit www.nicjones.net for
information about obtaining his recordings in Europe and North America.
read a review of Penguin Eggs here.