An extraordinary thing happened a year ago. People checking the best sellers on Amazon.uk would have found that an English folk album by an artist previously unknown to most of the general public, that had been continually available on LP or later CD for over thirty years, had suddenly jumped from nowhere into the top five. Not the top five folk albums, where it was comfortably No.1, but the actual mainstream album charts, up there with all the hip-hop and X-factor artists. And what had caused this? The broadcast of a BBC4 documentary the night before called The Enigma Of Nic Jones.
In truth, that was an odd title for a film about a very down-to-earth man. But it went a long way to explaining why he had achieved underground cult status over the preceding three decades as legions of current day artists lined up to explain his musical influence and, simply, why they loved him so much. I was very honoured to have briefly been a talking head in that programme…
Nic, who started his musical career in Essex, had emerged among the second generation of 1960s folk revivalists at the end of the decade. His debut album Ballads & Songs was released in 1970 and I clearly remember it arriving in Bristol’s then folk mecca, the Troubadour Club in Clifton, where we nearly wore it out on the club’s elderly Dansette. Suddenly, here was a new performer to rank with other current icons of English folk music like the great Martin Carthy. (As an aside, I only discovered in recent years that Nic and his wife Julia had come very close to buying the Troubadour in 1969 when the original owners sold up and emigrated: what a difference that would have made to many stories, internationally and locally!)
Throughout the 1970s, Nic’s music grew in originality, confidence and stature. While others were falling into impenetrable folkie vocal mannerisms, over-complicated arrangements where the song was secondary to the playing, and disappearing up the cul-de-sac of ‘folk rock’, Nic sang in his own speaking voice and evolved a masterful acoustic guitar style with a rhythmic pulse that suited the shape of the melodies and allowed the voice to roam free. That was surprising and different then: now it’s often the default model, with Nic and the great Shirley Collins the two most quoted influences among the current generation of performers.
This culminated in his final, iconic 1980 album Penguin Eggs where everything came together. This was the album that finally catapulted to mass sales last year, but in the intervening time it not only had a profound effect on that new generation of younger folk musicians like Kate Rusby and Jim Moray who started to make waves from the late1990s onwards, it even worked its influence on his peers like Martin Carthy and Martin Simpson. Even people from Bob Dylan to Marianne Faithful recorded their versions of tracks from it. Nothing would be the same again.
So why was Penguin Eggs his final album, and how come he’s about to appear at St. George’s on what’s rumoured to be among his last few live dates? Well, in February 1982, Nic suffered a terrible car crash that left him in a coma for weeks, broke pretty much every bone in his body and kept him in intensive care for 8 months. The entire folk world was in shock. It was thought that he’d never sing or play again as, nursed by Julia who was also bringing up their two young children, the family moved first to Yorkshire and then to Devon where they now live. And that was thought to be that.
But an extraordinary thing happened. Away from the spotlight, Nic’s son Joe learned to play guitar remarkably like his father and eventually Nic’s original Fylde guitar, smashed in the crash, was restored for Joe to play. And although Nic never regained the digital mobility to play guitar in a way that satisfied his high standards, he could still sing and wanted to. So in 2012, Nic & Joe Jones stepped onto the stages of a number of major folk festivals – as witnessed in the BBC4 film – and there were hardly any dry eyes in all the houses.
This autumn, they’ve announced that their current series of dates are likely to be their last in order to protect Nic’s health. You’d be very foolish to miss this opportunity to see such a genuine legend of 20th century English folk music in action.