By Billy Rough
As a researcher and performer of folk songs, especially those of his native Black Country, Jon Wilks has a keen eye for history and Up The Cut is a fine selection of traditional folk songs, all from the collection of Child and Roud. Several of the songs, ‘unheard in 180 years’, come from Birmingham and the Midlands and provide a fascinating introduction to the rich musical legacy of the area along with, as all good folks songs do, a telling insight into the lives and loves of the time.
Up The Cut is Wilks second release of such material following his debut Midlife in late 2018. In contrast to the larger sound of Midlife though, here is a much snugger and more immediate album. No keyboards here, only Wilks and his guitar. And effective it is too.
Wilks’ confidence as a tunesmith is well demonstrated throughout. ‘Pretty Girls of Brummagem’ came to Wilks from the notes of Roy Palmer, but no tune existed. For the track, Wilks creates a sweet little tune, which feels thoroughly authentic. The lyrics too provide valuable historic insight into the Birmingham of the 1830s, with tales of the dandy ‘up New Street he struts so gay, smokes his Havannah on the way’ alongside other characters such as the chimney sweep, the shopman and the ‘old gentlemen of sixty-four’.
‘The Stowaway’ is hard to resist. It’s an old music hall song, but Wilks’ guitar plays loose with its the mawkish elements of the song and provides it with a simple, yet melancholic attraction.
‘John Riley’ is a beautiful track. Wilks version comes from Palmer’s recording of Staffordshire singer George Dunn back in 1971. In his notes, Wilks says he’d love to hear a great singer tackle this song; they’ll have some way to go to better Wilks’ version, however.
‘The Jovial Hunter of Bromsgrove’ has an echo of the Halliards for me, with Wilks’ pleasing guitar reminiscent of the nimble finger work of Nic Jones. Probably more familiar as ‘Bold Sir Rylas’ the song has quite a legacy, yet Wilks provide a refreshing new interpretation.
‘How Five And Twenty Shillings Were Expended In A Week’ almost tells you all you need to know about the song in its title. Brummie words are a joy here, with talk of a ‘bonny cock of wax’, ‘swipes’, and ‘strings’. None of these meaning what you initially think they do! For illumination, you’ll need to buy the album! ‘The Lover’s Ghost’ on the other hand is a fetching bit of folklore, a lament dripping in mood and foreboding. It’s a dark song with a strikingly haunting melody.
The album is filled with songs of work, class, joy, and pain, hopes, dreams and fears. They are universal songs with the timeless concerns of us all. The unused subtitle to the release “hawkers and ballad singers – sworn foes to dull sobriety and care’ (title for the third album there I say Jon!) taken from a comment by the poet George Davis in 1790, gives an idea of the history at play here. Wilks’ sleeve notes on each song’s background and the Birmingham of the 18th and early 19th centuries is extensive, with some nice personal comments on how he worked on each song too. Eight of the ten songs on the album came to Wilks via the research of Roy Palmer and there is certainly an echo of Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd here too.
Up The Cut is a beautiful album. Affecting, simple guitar, exquisitely accompanied by Wilks’ authentic, honest voice. A raw, but entirely seductive, performance. One for all lovers of traditional songs delivered with minimal frills. More please Jon! Up The Cut is released on 12 February 2021.