The Time of Nic

Alan Murray goes in search of Nic Jones
From an article in fRoots magazine

So who is this fellow Nic Jones? Folk diva Kate Rusby cites him as a big influence. He’s credited, alongside Eliza’s Dad, with developing styles of “British” guitar accompaniment that moved outside the Travis-picking method that was prevalent in the ’70s and before. His CD Penguin Eggs topped the Folk Roots Critics’ Poll as reissue of 1992, whilst in 1998 In Search of Nic Jones ran a close third in the same category, just behind a certain Bob Dylan, who is not unfamiliar with Nic’s work. Folk enthusiasts everywhere get very agitated over the contentious issue of non-existent royalties on his early albums and the Observer printed an investigative feature about it. Fans of a certain age get very misty eyed and nostalgic about him, and guitarists everywhere mangle their fingers trying to play-along-a-Nic. The new generation of roots music fans may be forgiven for being puzzled by all the fuss about this mythical figure. So let’s bring things up to date, while reviewing a hugely influential and innovative career in folk music.

Whilst almost home after a gig in Glossop in February 1982, Nic’s car decided to have an argument with a brick lorry. Nic’s guitar came off best and was repaired without too much difficulty. The car was a write-off and the repair job on Nic was a substantial one. His right side was pretty comprehensively shattered and he was left in a coma. So far, so bad. Happily, Nic is blessed with a strong will to live, an impish sense of humour, a liking for pretty women and good music... and in Julia Jones, a strong wife. Over the next few months he was subjected to extensive structural work (he’s a bit of a nuisance at the airport, when the metal detector has a look at him!). He was also treated to tapes of himself that Julia had begged and borrowed in an attempt to drag his battered brain back into the world. As Nic’s brain had decided, quite reasonably, that the world was not a nice place to be, this took time and patience. Was it the tapes? Was it the attractive nurses on the ward? Who knows?

In any event, Nic re-joined the world after six months in hospital and three as an outpatient. Then the real struggle began. In 1983, picking up the pieces of a glittering career on the ascendant in folk music was not a possibility. Nic’s right hand, from whence most of his cleverness came, was in bad shape. His memory was scrambled and finding a way to function as a human being was the first priority. Friends and fellow performers rallied round initially to help out, honour bookings, etc, and eventually, Nic and Julia moved to York to make a fresh start on things.

Nic released a sequence of much-praised albums, so perhaps these would help to pay the bills while he and Julia restructure their lives? Thereby hangs tale. First let’s take a happy stroll through the Jones career – concentrating on those five legendary albums and picking up linking threads along the way.

Ballads and Songs – 1970

First album – Nic and guitar only. He had developed a delicate, fingerpicked guitar style and had a light, neat-sounding baritone voice. He had also established, very early on, an ability to take a traditional song without a tune (or with a tune that he didn’t like) and set it to another tune that was either partly or entirely of his own making. Here we already have two of the songs that are most often cited now as among Nic’s most lasting contributions to the tradition – Annan Water and Sir Patrick Spens. Listening to Ballads and Songs in the context of what was to come from Nic, it sounds very much a thing of its time, with the tightly-controlled singing, scholarly sleeve notes and carefully arranged guitar. It’s very, very good – but read on...

Nic Jones – 1971

One year on, and more or less a continuation of the style and approach of Ballads and Songs. It sounds a little more relaxed and the guitar style’s beginning to sound a little more distinctive – some more percussive touches are creeping in. Here we have beautiful versions of The Bonny Bunch of Roses and Lord Bateman, alongside a reworking of The Outlandish Knight – also on Ballads and Songs. Nic obviously thought that his 1970 version needed work. Again, many of the songs are set to tunes that Nic has adapted, assembled or invented. Like others of his musical stature and ability, Nic Jones had become part of a living tradition – allowing folk songs to evolve through him, noting the evolution and his own contributions all the while.

The Noah’s Ark Trap – 1977:

I listened to these albums again in date order before writing this feature and my jaw dropped when I put this on immediately after the Nic Jones album. It just sounds like someone else – and a quick look at the release dates will tell you why. Six years on, Nic sounds like someone has oiled all his moving parts and his musical engine is well run in. He’s got so laid back that he hasn’t bothered to write sleeve notes at all and it all sounds like he’s not trying so hard. However – and it’s a huge however – what we have here is a Nic Jones that sounds like no-one else and sounds amazing. Gone are the intricately-picked accompaniments, to be replaced by a loping, less busy guitar style. There are fewer notes, but by God they’re good ones! One writer has commented that his accompaniments were technically easy and I agree that playing the notes that Nic created in the right order is not beyond the skills of any good fingerpicker. Getting the rhythm, the gentle swing and the bloody feel of them is another matter altogether. Nic had, by this stage, developed the frailed “flick” that marks out his work from this time on and has influenced so many – the sharp and firm offbeat “ping” on the strings that gives his playing its unmistakable sound. In parallel, his voice had also loosened up remarkably. The tone had rounded and Nic had fallen into that lovely way of singing around the guitar rhythm, rather than in strict time with it. Unlike Martin Carthy, Nic didn’t actually alter the guitar rhythm much to adjust to the phrasing of words. He allowed the guitar to carry on regardless and stretched the song over that framework loosely. The effect is very easy on the ear and kind to the meaning of the words.

Nic was now playing slightly bashful, but very innovative fiddle. If you want to hear where some of the stylistic quirks that make up Eliza Carthy’s very English fiddle style – look no further. Here, Nic was probably one of the first of the revival singers to emulate a truly English style and the echoes continue to reverberate through the new breed of young performers. The Noah’s Ark Trap gave us the achingly beautiful Ten Thousand Miles – since recorded twice by the aforementioned ’Liza and used as the theme tune to the successful film Fly Away Home. Liza gave credit where it was due – but did the film? What do you think? My other highlights on this one would be The Indian Lass, since sung in folk clubs everywhere, and a lovely bouncy version of The Wanton Seed, a “rude” song that tells the politically-incorrect story with such humour and delicacy that it’s impossible to be offended even now. Finally, there’s an extraordinary rhythmic Miles Weatherhill that I challenge any aspiring Jones copyist to get right, and a storming version of Annachie Gordon that made its way into Mary Black’s repertoire via her brother, Shay, and thus into the mouths of many others.

From a Devil To A Stranger – 1978

Simply getting better and better... this was a cheeky “continuous” album without breaks between the tracks. Every song’s a love song and there are little, almost imperceptible link sections that glue them all together. A concept album it’s not – but it was an interesting and new way to present folk music. This time, someone had badgered Nic into writing some minimalist sleeve notes. Really, this album and the previous one represent a continuum. It’s the same deceptively relaxed-sounding playing and singing as Nic beds down into the new musical persona that accounts for his continued fame and our continued frustration at the non-availability of this hugely influential material. The instrumental Little Heathy Hill is a stunner and there are definitive versions of Master Kilby, The Green Mossy Banks of the Lea and a posthumous collaboration between Nic and Sir Walter Scott on The Singer’s Request. On these 1977/78 albums, Nic has added Helen Watson’s tasteful piano and harmonium and the sweet brown voice of Dave Burland.

Bandoggs – 1978

Bandoggs was an example of what was then a rare phenomenon – a folk supergroup. Nic was joined by Pete and Chris Coe and Tony Rose – and they released this one album – trying to present both song and instrumental material in balance. Bandoggs achieved that aim, but never planned for longevity and only toured twice. The album sounds like a good time was had by all – and the most distinctive Jones contribution was his version of the Coppers’ Rose of Allendale, which he still cites as one of his favourite songs and has included on the 1998 In Search of... CD. This traditional song contains extreme romantic imagery that could, in less skillful hands, become maudlin and slushy. “And when my fevered lips were parched on Africa’s burning sands...” indeed. Nic’s unaffected, direct reading of the song draws out the sad-but-hopeful theme and the singer’s love for his lady very movingly and with crystal clarity. This is yet another definitive version, this time of an oft-murdered song.

Penguin Eggs – 1980

Here, thanks to Topic records, is the only example of Nic’s studio output that you can buy on CD. For the first time, Nic recorded a modern song (Paul Metser’s Farewell to the Gold) and he gave up on sleeve notes again. He also laid his claim to The Humpbacked Whale, The Drowned Lovers, Barrack Street and The Little Pot Stove and put his stamp on them. Most spectacularly for me, he produced one of the most perfect marriages of guitar accompaniment and song in Canadee-i-o – the version later covered by Bob Dylan. This one brings tears to my eyes as I hear the rhythmic, rising sequence of broken chords carrying a version of the tune – and the riskily bent note (in a folk song? Shock, horror!). Nic’s singing weaves around the accompaniment in a loose way that he had by now perfected and I defy anyone to better this treatment of this song. T’was not for nothing that this won the Folk Roots’ Critics’ Poll as the album of the year in 1980 and as the reissue of 1992. It’s a classic that would be joined by The Noah’s Ark Trap and From The Devil To A Stranger in that category if they were to be exhumed from the vaults and allowed to breathe again.

In Search of Nic Jones – 1998

After much heart-searching and worrying, Julia and Nic released this collection of recordings, made at concerts and at live studio sessions in the early 1980’s – just before the crash. All of these were made with Nic’s full permission and the quality is not that of a bootleg – it’s much, much better. This is classic, Penguin Eggs era Nic Jones, for which we also owe a huge debt to studio guru Dave Emery, who pulled it together lovingly. Intriguingly, by this time, Nic was starting to widen his repertoire to include not only “trad. arr. Jones”, but more contemporary songs and a small number of his own. There are clearer views of Nic’s perky sense of humour in Loudon Wainwright’s Swimming Song and an instrumental of Teddy Bears’ Picnic(!). His treatment of Seven Yellow Gypsies echoes Canadee-i-o and his romantic nature is confirmed by another take on The Rose of Allendale. Nic’s own songs are well-crafted and intelligent pieces of writing that leaves us wondering what might have come next.

Unearthed – 2001

After further digging, tape-cleaning-up and agonizing and a deal of coercion by their son, Joseph, Nic and Julia released this blockbuster double CD produced by Ralph Jordan who, like Dave Emery, had long been a custodian of cherished live recordings of Nic’s. All the features of Nic’s music that make him a loved, respected and much-missed superstar are here again in spades. There’s the rhythmic picked-and-frailed guitar – working a steady “backbeat” against the deceptively lazy singing, draping the words over an often-irregular song like The Warlike lads of Russia over the framework of the accompaniment. Nobody did that better and nobody does now. There’s the eclectic choice of song, from standards like Annachie Gordon that have become strongly associated with Nic to relatively unknown gems like Jeff Deitchman’s The Jukebod as She Turned. There’s Nic having a distinctive pop at Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather, and a splendidly alternate take on Rufford Park Poachers that’s about as different from a certain Mr. Carthy’s mighty version as anyone could get! There’s an alternative version of Nic’s greatest hit, the achingly beautiful Ten Thousand Miles, some cheeky perkiness in The Wanton Seed and a fragment of unannounced daftness on the final “hidden” track (buy it to find out!).

The recording quality, particularly on the first CD is excellent, despite varied sources. The second has a couple of live tracks that include a few extraneous noises – losing audio quality but gaining “atmosphere”. There is, however, not a single track I would have left out. This is yet another affectionate and affecting collection from a true giant of folk song and guitar. I’d buy a CD of Nic singing in the bath – but this is by any standards a real gem.

So – buy Unearthed, In Search of Nic Jones (and Penguin Eggs too, if by some terrible lapse you don’t already own it) and wonder at the skill and commitment in the man’s music. Speculate as to where he was heading, musically, when the brick lorry got in his way. Be inspired by one of the true innovators in British music and enjoy that voice, that guitar and that gently innovative approach that added to the tradition without distorting it.