In 1979, aged 27, Jemima James, whose distant relatives include 19th-century philosopher William James and novelist Henry James, left her home at the artists’ community in Provincetown, Cape Cod, to spend the next three years living and working at Longview Farm, a residential recording studio in Worcester County, Mass. Already signed to Famous Music as a songwriter, while she was there, in-between helping look after the likes of Arlo Guthrie, the Stones and the J Geils Band, Jemima James recorded a folk album of her own. However, it was never released, and the tapes were left to gather dust.
Over the ensuing years, Jemima James continued to write, gig and record, some of the Longview songs cropping up on her 1997, 2004 and 2014 albums. In 2015, at 63, she recorded When You Get Old and Willy Mason, who also happens to be her son, persuaded Team Love Records to release both it and that long lost debut as a double set.
As you might imagine, At Longview Farm is very much of its era, an often dreamily waltzing set of folksy songs, at others reflecting the continuing influence of Guthrie and Dylan, with lyrics that range from the personal to the political. That said, it’s stood the test of time well, the piano accompanied opener Sensible Shoes is a rather lovely song about learning the heart’s lessons, it could have been recorded yesterday.
The album has a strong storytelling approach, many of the songs are sung from the narrator’s perspective, particular highlights being Havana Cigar, the jangling upbeat Easy Come Easy Go, Esperate’s Texicana shuffle and the hard scrabble family tragedy documented in Jackson County.
The first disc ends with the slow waltzing homeless and forgotten story of Waiter at the Station, which, co-penned with Michael Mason, might well have come from an Emmylou album. The story then picks up 36 years later with the new recordings, James’ voice deeper and more seasoned, but still warm and affective. With a backup that includes Willy on banjo, percussion and vocals and brother Sam on drums it kicks off with the good times New Orleans jazzy vibe of the self-penned title track featuring Nina Violet on clarinet.
It’s a mix of James originals and four covers including an achingly romantic version of Blaze Foley’s If I Could Only Fly, Bobby Charles’ forlorn Tennessee Blues, Gillian Welch’s scuffed country One and Only. Finally, with a harmonica solo by Geordie Gude and, keeping it family, Willy’s own upbeat bluesy lope If It’s The End.
Two songs are revisited from the belated debut, a slightly more world-weary, brushed drums Sensible Shoes and Easy Come Easy Go that, now featuring viola, changes the ill-fated character’s gender from Paddy to Sally. There’s also a new stripped back version of the title track from 2014’s Nothing New, although, given it was recorded in 2011 in Ludlow, strictly speaking, this is the original.
The others are all new, ranging from the quirky, almost vaudeville styled Beaver Moon to Golden Boy’s south of the border shades and, again featuring clarinet, the deliberately skewed off-melody notes of Bats In The Belfry.
Featuring a booklet with all the lyrics, it’s been packaged as a sort of career bookends, but now that Jemima James’ is back in the swing and the spotlight, hopefully, there’ll be further chapters yet to come.
At Longview Farm / When You Get Old is out now on Team Love