If I mentioned the phrase folk music, you might think of bearded men with one finger stuck in their ear singing songs about wassailing, with lyrics like ‘Oi ‘ad one lassy in the dewsoaked ‘ay, and we went with a way and a hay ninny nonny…’
Jake Thackray wasn’t like that. Unbearded, fingers focussed on a nylon stringed guitar, Thackray sang songs that were wistful, hilarious, sensitive or acidic. Sometimes all four in one song. He was, in short, one of England’s greatest troubadours.
Originally from Leeds, Thackray spent time in France and discovered the music of Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens. Mixing music with storytelling, Thackray brought inspiration back to England and began to perform his self-penned songs to pubs and various low key venues. He was a musical genius and did things with words you wouldn’t think possible.
The bull, the bull is the biggest of all.
He is the boss, he is, because he’s big and we are small.
But the bigger the bull, bigger the bull, bigger the balls.
The bigger the bull, the bigger and quicker and thicker the bullshite falls.
Thanks to one song, ‘On Again On Again,’ about his wife who won’t stop talking, Thackray was accused of misogyny. The accusation was selectively ignorant because it overlooked Thackray’s canon which included some of the most beautiful exultations to a wife/partner/lover. And the Hair of the Widow of Bridlington is a song about a woman bursting with life and celebration.
She learned to play the violin, she did, did the widow of Brid,
And Saturday night in a drinking shop
She jumped upon the counter top
And fiddled till the dancers dropped,
She did, she did, she did,
Stomping upon the copper top
She did, did the widow of Brid.
By the time Thackray became a household name he had recorded several albums and made regular guest slots on various television programmes where he was almost writing songs to order. And still the standard never dropped. He could churn them out at will, but he never enjoyed this approach to his craft. Thackray wanted to tell stories, not pass comment on the latest issues of the day.
His stories, his yarns, could be anything: an escaped convict hiding in a monastery disguised as a nun (Oh, Sister Josephine, What do all these policemen mean, By coming to the convent in a grim limousine, After Sister Josephine? ); the Swaledale rural bus service (Country bus, north country bus, Clumsy and cumbersome, rumbustious, Country bus, north country bus, Though you’re a slow coach you’re OK for us.); and devil worshipping in The Castleford Ladies’ Magic Circle!
Their husbands potter at snooker down the club,
Unaware of the devilish jiggery-poke and rub-a-dub-dub,
While Elizabeth Jones and Lily O’Grady
And three or four more married ladies
Are frantically dancing naked for Beelzebub.
In one review on Amazon, some halfwit bemoaned Thackray’s ‘affected Yorkshire accent,’ as if a man from Yorkshire could sing with anything other than a Yokshire accent. Thackray’s delivery was precise, accurate, but occasionally eccentric as he spread his words across the metre and rhythm of the music.
When I first heard Thackray in the early 1980s. I laughed like a drain at his rendition of Country Girl and the spreading of the word bicycle over one too many syllables. But over the years I came to learn the strangeness wasn’t strange, it was a unique oral signature that made Thackray unmistakable.
As music tastes shifted and demand for Thackray diminished he retired to Monmouth in Wales and apparently died penniless. Today he has impersonators, the most well known being Fake Thackray; impersonators devoted to keeping his legacy alive. And it is a legacy as rich and varied as any Poet Laureate; a legacy overlooked, which is a shame, because in the history of English music Thackray should be up there at the top table.
Somehow, I can’t imagine the French ignoring the work of Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens. The English should be shouting Jake Thackray’s name from the rooftops.
Salvation Army Girl:
Salvation Army girl,
She plays the bugle in the Sunday street-corner band.
Bright and early girl,
With her shiny face and her bony hands.
But although her nose is cold,
Behind her spectacles her eyes are gold.
And she’s whispered to me that she might
Be all things bright and beautiful tonight.
Learn more about the magical world and magical words of Jake Thackray here – Jake Thackray website and song lyrics
The Hair of the Widow of Bridlington: