Lord of Gangsta Trad
by Steve Winick
John Wesley Harding is well known as a singer/songwriter, one whose sharply drawn characters and situations bespeak an acerbic wit while his genuine charm and mischievous grin mitigate its impact. Because of his style's tough-mindedness and humor, Harding has referred to it as "Gangsta Folk." But recently, the English-born, Seattle-based singer has taken a detour, an alternate path to a similar destination. He has begun a serious exploration of traditional English folk songs, a direction reflected on his latest CD, Trad Arr Jones.
In the history of Harding's career, no one looms larger than Bob Dylan. In one of Harding's celebrated songs, he refers to himself as the bastard son of Dylan and Joan Baez. In fact, even his name was partly copped from one of Dylan's albums. He was born Wesley Harding Stace, but when he decided to make a go of it as a singer/songwriter, he thought of the album title that so closely resembled his name. It's therefore appropriate that Dylan should be the one to point the way to traditional folk music, and to a performer named Nic Jones.
"Like a lot of people," Harding explained in an April 1999 interview, "I knew of Nic Jones's album Penguin Eggs, but I hadn't bought it. Then when Bob Dylan recorded 'Canadee-I-O' [on his album Good as I Been to You], I saw Penguin Eggs in a record shop in Berkeley. I said, 'Great, that's that record, it's got that song, I'll pick it up.’“ Harding was hooked, and he scoured the record bins on two continents for Jones' other albums. He found they were all out of print, and in trying to get to the root of their unavailability, he began to learn more about Jones.
A masterful interpreter of traditional songs, a brilliant guitarist, and a good fiddler to boot, Nic Jones was at the forefront of the 1970s English folk scene; as a male solo artist his influence was exceeded only by that of Martin Carthy. In 1982, Jones was on the way home from a concert when his car collided with a truck. He was in a coma, his right side terribly battered, when he reached the hospital. It took nine months before he was stable enough to live at home without constant care. Even then, his body and mind were far from healed; he could no longer play the guitar or even get around without help, and he had large lapses in his memory. Only his own strength and that of his wife, Julia, carried Jones through at all. As it was, he never went back to performing.
That explained why Jones wasn't around and playing, but what about his albums? Harding learned about that, too. "This is a horrible story," he explained to Jonny Meister on the syndicated radio show World Café. "This guy called Bill Leader put out these really great folk records. A lot of stuff that I really like was by Leader. He went out of business, and sold his stock of vinyl to another man, whose name eludes me. I don't know this guy, and he's probably a totally fine, nice guy in his own way, but he obviously has an idea about what should happen to these records and when they should be released." To this day, "the guy," a.k.a. Dave Bulmer, of the company Celtic Music, hasn't released any of Jones' recordings on a format viable to the 1990s.
With perseverance, Harding managed to obtain most of Jones' back catalogue on vinyl. He was stunned by what he heard. "This was obviously a master of his art, and a master of making records, as well. These are remarkable albums. To start with, on Penguin Eggs and From The Devil to a Stranger, there are double vocals, Helen Watson playing the piano, and incredible segues between each song. It's very prog., some of it. The sides of the vinyl are running seamlessly almost, track into track. That's pretty adventurous. There's something really exquisite about those albums."
Listening to Jones' records, Harding suddenly understood the creativity that goes into traditional music. "The arrangement of a traditional song, the rediscovery of a song, is complete creation. There's no difference to me between that and writing a song. You have to know it's the right thing to sing, and then you have to arrange the instruments so it lives in today, and then you have to arrange the bits between the verses, and you have to make it dramatic, and that's an incredible task."
Harding had been exposed to traditional music and song a few times before. He had encountered the ballads in English literature courses, and folk-rock through the likes of Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention. He had also been introduced to the more classical face of folk music by his mother, a singing teacher who used Vaughan Williams' arrangements in her teaching. But nothing had ever given him the urge to play folk music until he heard Nic Jones. "I've heard 'Matty Groves' by Fairport," he explained, "but I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to make it part of my set. But I heard 'Little Musgrave' by Nic Jones, and I did. Probably if I'd heard Christy Moore's version, I'd have gone, 'Wow, that was great.' But it was Nic Jones' version that made me go, 'Fuck! That's something I'm gonna do. I'm gonna do it in front of people, and I'm gonna stand in front of them, and I'm gonna sing them an eight-minute version of 'Little Musgrave.'"
Harding's sudden passion for singing Jones' folk songs, and the unavailability of 80 percent of Jones' catalog, gave Harding another idea: a tribute album of traditional songs in Jones' settings. He decided in October of 1998 to do the album, and the finished project was released in February 1999; this was a quick turn-around time for Harding. "If I do what I normally do, which is think of an idea, think of it again, spend six months thinking about it, and finally persuade someone to make an album, it's out two years later. But this was the only time in my life I said 'I want to do this, I want to do it now. I don't care if someone's paying for it, I just want to get the thing out. I don't care if it's career suicide or the best thing that's ever happened, I'm just doing it cause I want to do it.'
"Really, it's the only album I've ever made 'cause I had to make it," he continued. "My other ones I make 'cause I write songs and that's what I do, but this one I was just obsessed with making it. I just really wanted to make this record. I wanted my fans to hear this kind of music. I was originally going to do it as a fan club album. Then Zero Hour, my record company, got wind of it and said, 'We'll put that out. Sounds like an interesting project.’“
Although Jones' accident and his unfortunate dealings with record companies did play a part in Harding's decision to record, they were not the crucial factors. "There's no aspect of the album that really makes it a charity release," Harding stated firmly. "Obviously, Nic gets money for publishing, but I did it because I love the songs. Nic's story gets so much featured in the reviews and stuff. It's another way to get someone to read because it's a sad story. But to me, that's all irrelevant. What is relevant is the fact that he's not around right now playing them. Therefore, these versions of these songs are not being heard. Therefore, I was pleased to be able to do the album, because I think they're great."
Another factor in Harding's recording schedule was an opportunity to meet Nic and Julia Jones last summer. He had been toying with the idea of an album of Jones' songs when he took a vacation in England. While there, he found a copy of Jones' self-released album of archive tapes, In Search of Nic Jones. "It had an address to buy the album from. What I didn't know was that it was his home address. So I wrote to him and I said, "If this is Nic Jones, or if he's around, I'd just like to say hi. My name is John Wesley Harding, and I'm going to make this album of traditional songs as previously done by Nic as kind of a reminder to people of his music.'" The next week Harding, an avid reader of Laurence Sterne, found himself in York, staying at Sterne's house, which can be rented for holidays. On a whim, he rang up the Joneses, who live in York. He was invited over for tea. "I went over and met them and spoke and played guitar a little, because he plays guitar again. He had to teach himself from scratch."
How good is Jones' guitar playing these days? "He's better than me," Harding chuckled. "Let's leave it there!"
Fired up by unexpected support from both the Joneses and his record company, Harding entered the studio with longtime musical collaborator Robert Lloyd, a multi-instrumentalist who plays mandolin, guitar, pump organ, accordion, and several other instruments. "It was just a very relaxing feeling making this album," he said. "When I record one of my songs, I pretty much have to do the definitive version of it, because Mariah Carey is unlikely to have a hit with one of my songs. The great thing about these songs is they've been done before, they're gonna be done again. My version in the great scheme of things doesn't matter very much. And that's a very relaxing feeling when you're making a record, not to have to make the perfect version. It's just your interpretation of something. And I pretty much did what I set out to do, which was put my foot in the river of tradition as it just flows by."
Harding described the creative process that led to the disc. First, he explained, "I just picked the songs that I thought I'd be good at singing." Then, he learned the songs, and took them to Lloyd for consultation. "Having said that they were arranged by Nic, I then didn't really mind about sticking to the arrangements," Harding explained. "I just thought that was the credit that it deserved. So I just played them, and Robert played along with me. We just let it be whatever it would be between the two of us. 'Little Musgrave' I just played on my own, and 'William Glenn' I was going to play on my own, but Robert came up with a cool little pump organ part. On songs like 'William and Nancy,' I just cut the guitar part in two, so I did half and Robert did the other half. I'm not proud! I just want to get the songs out there.
"Robert and I've been playing with one another for the best part of 10 years," he continued. "I know what he's good at, he knows what I'm good at. Anything I had an idea on, I'd say, and anything I didn't, he'd suggest. Like there wasn't really any pump organs on Nic's stuff, there was maybe a melodeon. There's not too many accordions, either, on Nic's stuff. So I was quite keen for there to be some accordion. But really I didn't want to have two songs on the album with similar instrumentation. When there was pump organ and voice, which is on 'Isle of France' and 'Master Kilby,' I was aware of that, so I doubled the voice on 'Isle of France' to give it a completely different sonic ambience and register, which is a very pop thing to do of course. That was why we brought electric guitar into a couple of things, just to have it vary from track to track."
In the end, the album featured 11 of Jones' best arrangements of traditional English and Scottish songs, adapted by Harding and Lloyd. "I really hate to analyze these songs," Harding told me, "because I think they're exactly the way they should be, and full of these stunning images." Still, he's been living with them for some time, and has a lot to say about individual tracks on the album. " 'Annachie Gordon' is all about sex," he explained. "I mean, I love the way Lord Saltoun's 'towers stand high.' It's very threatening. And there's the whole rather horrible realm of parentally controlled rape. That to me is chilling, you know, 'loosen off her gown.' It has a very Victorian ending in which everybody turns to stone, but the reality of that song is intense and horrible. It's a song about how women have been treated for years, which hardly makes it a feminist anthem, but it is a horror story."
The song 'William Glenn' is particularly important to Harding's vision of the album within his larger body of work. "If you ever look for a key little reason why I did this album of these songs, and you compare it to my songs like 'Ordinary Weekend,' which is a tough song about a moral choice, or 'Red Rose and the Briar,' I think it would be the fact that in 'William Glenn,' the person who says 'never go sailing with a murderer,' has just murdered his captain. Obviously [the comment] is meant to refer to the captain, because the captain's the one that's brought all that misery on the ship. But the person that's singing that last line just killed him. And to me, that's it. Because I can't tell you if that's meant, or if that's good or if it's bad. But that doesn't matter to me. The fact is, it's there. And it gives that song this edge of weirdness."
Sometimes, Harding's gut feelings about a song were proved wrong. "I thought really 'Flandyke Shore' was probably an example of what a great songwriter Nic was," Harding said. "The tune seems to me so beautiful and modern, and the words are so mystical, like he's fiddled around with them. So I always thought, 'Wow, what a great songwriter he must be.' Then Julia sent me a photocopy of a page from the Journal of English Folk Song from about 1962, and there it was note for note and word for word on the page!" Other times, gut feelings were all that mattered. " 'Master Kilby' has the classic folk story: There's some totally irrelevant bloke walking along who's only there to set up Master Kilby telling about a girl. There may be a story and there might not, but to me there's something so beautiful and mysterious about that girl by the seashore."
Given his attachment to the songs, Harding is gratified that so far Trad Arr Jones has been a modest success, both commercially and critically. "I've been really pleased with the response," he offered. "The few people among my regular fans who would probably not want to buy a bunch of folk songs are probably counteracted by the folk people who wanted a bunch of Nic Jones songs." And as far as the press goes, Harding has few complaints. "The only thing that annoys me about the coverage is, I got a review in one of the folk mags that said, 'Albums like this are pointless.' That's true, and I agree with that, but only if you know the originals. But I think it's a very insular attitude to assume that most people reading the magazines know the originals of these songs, let alone know them well, let alone have the records of them, and let alone that the people buying this album or coming to this gig tonight have even heard of Nic Jones. Or even folk music!
"I can see anyone having aesthetic problems with something," he continued. "Well, I might do and anybody else might do. For instance, I very much like Kate Rusby's album, but I don't like that guitar that's very modern that folkies do going CHUNG-chung chicka-ching, CHUNG-chung chicka-ching. But I can say that without you thinking that everything she does is invalid. I mean, she sings so beautifully, and she sings in a real English accent, and she's singing 'Sir Eglamore,' and she's doing it with some popular success! So to me, there can be nothing wrong with that. There can literally be nothing wrong with that."
Harding thinks the same standards ought to apply to his album. "I think Martin Carthy (or whoever!) might listen to my album and say, 'I don't like his voice,' or 'The guitar sounds funny in that amp,' but I don't think too many people are going to say, 'This should not be done! This is stupid!’“
Finally, what about the inevitable comparison between Jones' originals and Harding's copies? "I can see someone saying, 'This isn't as good as the original,'" Harding allowed. "Guess what? I agree! I've got no problem with that! But the record's out there, and I'm playing these songs in concert every night. I'm doing 200 gigs a year upwards, and there are a lot of people who know 'Little Musgrave' now who didn't know that song before."
On the subject of his live shows of traditional songs mixed with his own material, he was also very enthusiastic. "It's been my best ever tour. I don't know if it's linked to the album or not, but it's been really good. I get a lot of interesting reactions from people. It's fascinating to hear what people think of these songs, and how they link them to my songs." While Harding admits that some of his fans want him to give up the weird folk songs and get back to writing, he feels the positive response has been far more common. And anyway, he pointed out, "I don't think there's such a thing as a bad career move, because I don't think making music is about having a career. I think it's about doing exactly what you want to do, when you want to do it. Unless you’re doing what you want to do there's no real reason to be a musician at all, is there? It's not compulsory!"
In addition to Trad Arr Jones and the tour with which he's been supporting it, Harding has one other passion in the traditional music world: classic folk-rock from the 1970s. "I'm really into Steeleye Span, really into Fairport, really into Shirley and Dolly Collins, really into the Albion Band. If I was to plunk down my money on the best folk rock album ever, it'd be No Roses by Shirley Collins and the Albion Band. Awesome. Awesome." This great love has manifested itself in Harding's folk-rock group The Minstrel in the Galleries, which he has called "the electric flip side of Trad Arr Jones." Asked what he thought of the group, he called it "One of the best bands I've ever seen. Or been in.”
"'The Minstrel in the Galleries featuring Lord John Wesley Harding' is the actual name of the band," he continued. "The point is that it's an incredible rock 'n' roll band. Kurt Bloch from the Fastbacks and the Young Fresh Fellows, best guitar player I've ever played with. Mike Musberger, the drummer from the Posies, Peter Buck from R.E.M., Jim Sangster, the bass player from the Young Fresh Fellows, Alison Levy from the Loud Family, and a guy named Jed Critter who was in Jimmy Silver's band, The Goats." Together, this motley array of rockers play essentially folk-rock covers, including "The Hills of Greenmore" and "Hard Times of Old England" (Steeleye Span's arrangements), "Percy's Song" (Fairport's) and "The Murder of Maria Marten" (the Albion Band's). Occasionally, they create their own settings; Harding raved about their "Famous Flower of Serving Men," calling it "awesome; about a 12- minute version of that."
Harding explained the origins of the band: "I was asked to play a benefit when a friend of mine broke his ankle. It was called 'Cover Me,' cause it was to cover his expenses, and it was cover bands. So I thought, 'Great, let's play some folk-rock.' Well, the idea just totally snowballed. By the time the gig came round, I had grown a beard, and we were wearing medieval and renaissance garb! It was just a great show." That first concert occurred on January 29th, 1999. After word got out about the band, there was a demand for more, and on June 20th they played again, at the Fremont Fayre. "We added to our set 'The Humpback Whale' as a power ballad, and we were doing 'Sovay' and a very, very heavy version of 'Jack Orion.’“
What's the next step for the Minstrel? "Now we have to decide whether we want to make a record. Because they're good musicians, it's a great band, but at the moment we're a rather absurd thing, which is a traditional folk-rock cover band. If we were to put out an album we would want it to be some kind of original statement rather than just doing covers. Our version of 'Jack Orion' qualifies as original, and our version of 'Famous Flower' qualifies as original, and 'The Humpback Whale' would. But the other numbers, they're just covers of Steeleye Span doing 'Hills of Greenmore.'"
On the other hand, they might do a limited tour. "We might take it on the road sometime. We thought what we might do was to tour with me and the Young Fresh Fellows, which would be kind of a nucleus of The Minstrel in the Galleries, as well. So that might be a good tour to do."
Ironically, soon after the release of Trad Arr Jones, Zero Hour Records, the company that released it, closed up shop. For a brief time, Harding had visions of a bitter irony: The album that he recorded because Nic Jones' were unavailable might itself go out of print in similar circumstances. He later characterized this feeling: "It's gonna end up like the third and fourth Nic Jones records, nobody's going to be able to get it.
"But in fact," he reversed himself cheerfully, "the album is available and probably will be for quite some time, because it's actually a distributor who has all the copies of the record, and they'll be continuing to put it in record stores."
Indeed, Harding feels the whole incident shows just how different his situation is from Jones' in 1982. "The good thing about the record company going bankrupt is it means I own the record. Nic had a handshake with a friend. And what happened was, when his friend's company went bankrupt, that handshake became useless because suddenly it wasn't his friend anymore who owned his stuff. Nowadays we have a contract that spells all this out, and because I have a good lawyer and a good manager, the rights revert to me." What this means practically is that Harding won't let Trad Arr Jones go out of print. He will either license it to whatever label puts out his next traditional album, or else he'll put it out again as a fan club release.
And yes, Harding confirmed, there will be another album of traditional songs along shortly. "I'm not done with traditional music by any means," he promised. "My next album is going to be an album of my own songs. But then the one after that I'm thinking of making traditional songs, ones that I've cobbled together the tunes or found the tunes for." Harding says he doesn't know for sure if this will be a solo album, or a Minstrel in the Galleries project, whether it will be on a major label or released by his fan club. The only certain thing is that it will contain Harding's own vision of traditional folk. "I want it to be songs that I've kind of discovered," he explained. "Stuff that I can rightfully say: 'Traditional Arranged Wes.'"