Jon Wilks: Songs From The Attic
Self-Released – 9 October 2017
On discovering that his grandparents first hooked up at Cecil Sharp House, Hampshire-based musician and journalist Jon Wilks decided to look into the traditional music that drew them there. The result is Songs from the Attic, a digital-only album that, featuring just vocals and acoustic guitar, brings together seven traditional English folk songs and two of his own making.
One of these, the six-minute fingerpicked Durham Fair, began life as a conversation with his gran about how she met her husband, a morris dancer, but has transformed into the story of a courtship, a marriage and a long life. The other is The Girl On A Kemble Train, which is set to a Brubeck-styled jazzy raggy waltz. While he initially thought this to be from a personal memory, he later realised it was actually from ‘Not Adlestrop’, a poem he’d read by Dannie Abse.
Strictly speaking the opening track, nursery lullaby The Sandgate Dandling, isn’t really traditional. Penned by Liverpool writer Stan Kelly and set to a traditional fiddle tune adapted by Robert Nunn, it’s probably better known as Liverpool Lullaby, a 60s hit for Cilla Black and also recorded by Ian Campbell and Shirley Collins, though Wilks’ sprightly picked version leans heavily on Nunn’s considerably darker lyrics about the kid’s drunken brute of a father.
Recently collected from Martin Carthy for Stick In The Wheel’s album of field recordings, The Bedmaking (Roud 1631) is a time-honoured tale of a servant girl abused by her master. Wilks taking the Carthy arrangement and giving it more strident rhythms and some extra percussive clout.
Originating from Nova Scotia, a song of homesickness and drowning heartache in brandy, When First I Came To Caledonia comes with a verse about apples rotting as a metaphor for love that’s often omitted from other versions, presumably because, unlike the others, it’s sung in the voice of a woman.
Describing it as the folk version of Wild Thing, in that everyone takes a crack at it sooner or later, the lyrics of Hard Times of Old England about economic depression are as resonant now as when written in the 18th century, and Wilks gives his slow-rolling arrangement a bluesy tinge. Again taken at a slower pace than many a version, Ye Mariners All (A Jug of This) channels the guitar work through impressions of how Bert Jansch might have approached it.
Another number that more often trades under a different name, My Old Hat That I Got On is far better known as All For Me Grog and is probably best associated with the version by The Dubliners. Though no less jaunty, armed with bottleneck style playing, Wilks dispenses with the customary shanty setting for what might be better described as a music hall reading, tapping the guitar box for percussion.
The album ends with another from the Roud canon (although the lyrics are amalgam of different versions), a hymnal weary take on slave lament Shallow Brown and, like the other material here, underscores that, while Wilks may not have the strongest voice in folk circles, he most certainly has a feeling for the genre, one which firmly manifests itself here.
Songs from the Attic is available now via Bandcamp: https://jonwilks.bandcamp.com/album/songs-from-the-attic
You can read more about Jon’s folk explorations via his website: https://www.grizzlyfolk.com