Jake Thackray was a writer, singer and guitarist. I’ll start that again – Jake Thackray was a remarkable writer, singer and guitarist; far more remarkable, I think, than most of his audience realised. Few people can write with the grace and wit he displayed, and hardly any of them are half the guitarist he was. Respect didn’t translate into financial security – does it ever? – and his career didn’t end well; he was declared bankrupt at the age of 61 and died two years later.
Most of his material was funny, but this isn’t; it’s a story about another woman herding of her ewes together, told from a very different perspective. (I got it from a recording by Tony Capstick, who knew a good song when he heard one.) The facility – and often the superficiality – of Jake Thackray’s work can lead him to be lumped together with the likes of Miles Kington and Richard Stilgoe, instead of more substantial writers like his hero Georges Brassens. Certainly there wasn’t any radicalism or anger in his songs – except when there was.
This is a maritime ballad dating back to the eighteenth century and sung more recently by Sam Larner, among others. I learned it from a recording by the late Tony Capstick, who was a consistently great interpreter of songs and a very variable comedian; it’s a great shame that he’s now remembered (when he’s remembered at all) as a comic rather than a singer.
The drum-and-drone arrangement just grew, as they tend to. One of these days I’ll probably get a guitar and just use that for chords and rhythm, like most people do. But where would the fun be in that?
Into double figures with my favourite Napoleon song, and one of my favourite traditional songs on any subject.
I learned it from Nic Jones’s recording, although it took a while to work out what the time signature was supposed to be. I tend to be quite tight in terms of timekeeping, which isn’t always a good thing; the more free-floating approach Nic Jones took to this song showed me how effective it could be to mess with the rhythm a bit, as in the extra beat I throw in to the last line of the first verse (“Conversing with young Napoleon…”)
“Young Napoleon” was Napoleon II, although he was never really Napoleon II of anywhere; in theory he was the King of Rome, among other things, but I don’t think Rome knew much about it. He died of TB at the age of 21. You can see his portrait at the Bandcamp page for this song. There’s something childlike about the way the singer tells the terrible story of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, and promises to succeed where he failed “in spite of all the universe”. And then that awful last verse – there can’t be many situations more heartbreaking than a young man talking to his mother from his deathbed (she was only 40 when he died). I’m particularly fond of a line that was probably only put in for the sake of the rhyme:
Had I lived I might have been clever
I find this incredibly poignant – the idea that Napoleon II died thinking that he’d been a bit of an idiot, and if only he’d had a few more years he could have sorted himself out. Not everyone agrees; Tony Capstick changed the line to “I could have been brave”. It seems in character – I don’t get the feeling Capstick had much admiration for clever people. (His version is also very good, and uses a completely different tune. Maybe later in the year.)
Time for a tribute to one of my very favourite singers of traditional songs, and one who’s generally overlooked these days: Tony Capstick. He’s remembered, when he’s remembered at all, as a comedy-folkie from the Billy Connolly/Jasper Carrott/Mike Harding school, who (like them) eventually hung up the guitar and found stardom in comedy. This is half-true, but I think Capstick was a real loss to the folk scene – not least as an interpreter of traditional songs. This is a case in point; it appears as the last track on his second album Punch and Judy Man, in an arrangement that could pass for Horslips – all weird time signatures and electric guitar solos.
I haven’t emulated that arrangement – to put it another way, it’s taken me two years to stop emulating it – but what I have tried to take from Capstick’s singing is his timekeeping. Accompanying himself, he would let the guitar keep the beat and sing all around it, but unaccompanied he would nail every bar. There are worse ways to sing.
The song’s a terrific, defiant gallows speech, carrying on from Lord Allenwater last week. Again, I’ve skipped some of the more outlandish parts of the lyric – if you want Hughie the Graeme jumping fifteen feet from a standing start, I’m afraid you’ll have to sing it yourself. These lyrics are partly Child, partly Burns, partly MacColl and probably part Capstick. It doesn’t make much odds; there are lots of variants of this one, but they don’t fall very far from the tree.
Unaccompanied again – could have done with a drone, perhaps, or a bit of variation? Maybe next week.