His fourth solo album sees Jon Wilks step away from the Birmingham-derived songs that were the mainstays of his last two releases and embrace those from which he’s drawn strength and inspiration during the recent difficult years, a period in which he fell seriously ill, having to spend three months at home. One of his visitors was Martin Simpson, sporting a 5-string banjo which duly takes pride of place on the album’s sprightly backwoods-sounding instrumental closer, ‘Banjo Therapy’. In addition to Simpson’s gift, Before I Knew What Had Begun I Had Already Lost also features regular keyboardist Jon Nice, a reunion with Lukas Drinkwater on double bass and, adding backing vocals and viola on several tracks, Jackie Oates with whom he’s started working as a duo.
While the bulk of the material is traditional, unusually, in addition to the instrumental, there’s two other self-penned tracks, the first being the fingerpicked opener, ‘Tape Machine’, a song for his wife, which, evocative of late 60s British folk, is an autobiographical sketch of his journey as a musician, both metaphorically (“At the age of just 22/I discovered my calling”) and literally (“I’d been given a tape machine/It lived here in my satchel/I’d sneak it out to a cheap café/I’d hide it under the table/From Nagasaki to old Soho….In Jeddah I taped the prayer call/In Porto, Christ on the breeze/In Singapore, well I caught them all/Floating in from the seas”), recording the sounds and voices of early mornings, with their messages of goodwill and love.
Discovered in Cole’s Funniest Song Book in The World, a 19th century book edited by E.W.Cole, and itself comic remake of ‘The Wife Of Kelso’, arranged by Wilks to the tune of ‘The Liverpool Landlady’ with the singalong chorus borrowed from Martin Carthy, ‘Johnny Sands’ is a brief, lolloping, feet and handclaps-backed tale of man who, fed up with his nagging wife, pretends he wants her to help him commit suicide and dupes her into falling into the river and drowning, he declaring he can’t save her as she’d tied his hands behind his back.
The second self-penned number, again autobiographical and from whence the album title comes, is the seven-minute, gently melodic ‘Greek Street’, a McTell-tinged recollection of a Soho morning when he was 19 (“‘Twas there I spied a maiden with glitter in her hair/And it fell in shards of crimson and it lit the morning air/She’s teetered on her platform heels and scaffolded my mind”) and, the brief teenage romance that ensued (“we took a bus to Lewisham where her mother had a place/And against the kitchen sideboard, well I kissed her on the face/And on a Swedish packing bed I kissed her naked breast/And it wasn’t ‘til the midnight moon we stopped to take a rest”), the album version adding Oates’s voice and strings to the original Nice, Drinkwater and Wilks recording.
Oates is also part source for the sprightly two-part, rhythmically complex instrumental ‘Gallons of Brandy / Fox Tell’, learnt from her by way of John Spiers’s recording and here featuring knees and clog-dance percussion and music box. Based on the arrangement by Wilks and the late Paul Sartin and augmented by Oates, ‘Haymaking Song’ is a lively traditional song about making hay, literally and euphemistically, collected in Whitchurch, Hampshire, where he and Sartin were living, the fiddle part being her reconstruction of how Wilks recalled Sartin played it.
With a near one-minute fingerpicked intro, alternatively known as ‘(Young) Henry Martin’, Wilks first encountered ‘Lofty Tall Ship’ on Sam Larner’s 1961 album Now is the Time for Fishing, an account of a high seas encounter between a merchant ship and pirates, the former coming off worst. Larner’s also the source for the melodically robust, swayingly strummed ‘Will Watch’, an early 19th-century song ‘more fully known as ‘Will Watch, the bold Smuggler’, in which our famed rogue promises his lover, Susan, that he’ll do just one more job and then settle down, only to be pursued and shot by the Revenue men (“The Philistians are out”), buried by his crew in an unmarked grave on the beach at the dead of night. Giving rise to at least two melodramas performed in 1819-20, there’s also a sequel, in which his wife also dies, which Wilks has earmarked for his next album.
While generally roaming further afield, there are two songs with Midlands connections. First up is ‘The Old Miner’, collected in the early 60s from an old miner in Nuneaton who traced it back to his home in Durham, the titular figure wondering who’ll take his place once he’s shuffled off this mortal seam. The version here is an interesting cocktail of traditional drone-style singing set to a circling guitar pattern and body-slap percussive beats rhythm influenced by Massive Attack, and a definite album highpoint. The other, the nimbly picked ‘The Boatswain’ with percussion from Tom Gregory, Drinkwater’s bass and a “rally tally tall, oh rally tally tay” refrain, was originally published in New Meeting Street, Birmingham, in the heyday of broadside balladry. Also known as ‘The Boatswain And The Tailor’ (and a version which appears as ‘Tailor In The Tea Chest’ on the recent debut album by George Sansome and Matt Quinn), it’s a familiar tale of a wife playing around while hubbie’s at sea, her lover taking refuge in a tea chest when the boatswain returns unexpectedly and ending being carted off to sea.
Things move to thoughts of Ireland for the sparsely- arranged, migration-themed ‘Erin, Sad Erin’ (“The wrongs of thy injured isle/Thy sons in their thousands deploring do wander/On shores far away in exile/O give me the power to cross o’er the main/America might yield me some comfort from pain”), a restyling of ‘Poor Irish Stranger’ that, collected in 1908 by Cecil Sharp from John Murphy of Tipperary, an inhabitant at St Marylebone Workhouse, he learnt from the singing of Hazel Askew and performed at a concert for refugee aid staged by Sartin. Though not mentioned on the credits, the yearning violin solo is by Akito Goto.
The last of the vocal numbers, again co-arranged with Oates with perhaps a hint of Pentangle’s jazz-folk, is ‘The Fowler’, a retitled version of ‘Polly Vaughan’ (originally ‘The Shooting of His Dear’) learnt from a 1940s Harry Cox recording, a cautionary tale for gun owners in which young Jimmer mistakes his lover, with her apron wrapped around her, for a swan (as you do) and shoots her, her ghost turning up at the trial to explain it was all an honest mistake.
As a performer in his own right as well as founder and editor of Tradfolk.co, a website dedicated to English traditional music and ritualistic culture, the ongoing Grizzly Folk project and presenter of The Old Songs Podcast, Wilks is unquestionably one of the leading and guiding lights on the contemporary traditional folk scene and, judging by the original material here, a highly promising songwriter of as yet untapped potential.
Artist’s website: www.jonwilks.online
‘Lofty Tall Ship’ – live: