“One of the best of the New Wave of Folk Blokes,” says fRoots Mag, adding, “As a guitar player and arranger of traditional songs, Jon Wilks already deserves speaking of in the same breath as your Simpsons and your Morays.”
That’s quite a lot to try and live up to, but I've given it another go with this new EP, The Trial Of Bill Burn Under Martin’s Act.
This collection features four songs, three of which are a departure from the heavier instrumentation on my previous album, Midlife (2018), returning instead to the straightforward fingerpicking and raw vocal style that I last used on my debut solo album, Songs From the Attic (2017).
Two of the songs included continue my exploration of old songs from Birmingham and the surrounding Midlands. The title track, ‘The Trial of Bill Burn Under Martin’s Act’, was a satirical broadside from the 1820s dealing with the introduction of Martin’s Act, an early piece of legislation that attempted to put a stop to animal cruelty, specifically cattle. The song was written and published in Dudley after six men were acquitted following their trial under Martin’s Act for bull-baiting. It seems that bulls had been accidentally left off the list of sacrosanct cattle, and so the men went free.
I found the song in an old book of Midlands pieces, where it was printed only as a set of lyrics. The story was so ripe with humour and so well told, I couldn’t believe it when I found no other versions or recordings of it. I added a tune and performed it in Birmingham in June, 2019 – quite possibly the first time it had been sung in a public setting for nearly 200 years.
The second of the Midlands songs included here is ‘Holly Ho’, which I've been singing at gigs since January this year. It’s a great example of an organic folk song. All that we know about it is that it was collected from a chap called Joe Mallen at the Cross Guns pub in Halesowen in 1958. The notes left by the collector, Elizabeth Thomson, suggest that the regulars would add new verses each week. It seems to have grown from nowhere and developed according to the whim of the people singing it. I have the wonderful Pam Bishop, also a Midlands folk collector, to thank for her help with my research on this song. I’ll be publishing everything I’ve learnt about it on my blog in the coming weeks.
'Holly Ho’ is the only song on the EP that features musicians other than myself. For the recording, I asked my friends Nick Hart (melodeon) and Mikey Kenney (fiddle). I loved the patchwork nature of the song’s origins, so I asked them to record bits and pieces in their own studio setups. Then they sent me what they had come up with and I knitted it all together into what you hear on the EP. Interestingly, Nick told me he’d heard a similar song with other verses collected down South. I think I may have learnt the final verse that I sing here via Nick. He’s a good man to know.
Elsewhere on the EP, you’ll find ‘Who Hung the Monkey?’, a song from Hartlepool that I previously recorded on my Youtube channel. (You can find the research on my blog.) You’ll also find a version of the time-worn sea shanty classic, ‘Leave Her, Johnny’, which I've arranged as something a little more world-weary than the boisterous versions most people would recognise. When I first read the lyrics I assumed it was about people abandoning and saying farewell to a sinking ship. It wasn’t until much later that I heard recordings of it that suggested it might be a celebratory song! So I’m afraid this version is dripping with melancholy. My apologies to anyone expecting a knees-up.
For more information on Jon, and to read the research he does on the songs he sings, head to www.jonwilks.online
. Photos by Shaun Duke. Arranged, produced and performed by Jon Wilks, with help on track 2 from Nick Hart (melodeon) and Mikey Kenney (fiddle). All songs traditional. Melody to track 1 by Jon Wilks, all rights reserved. Copyright 2019.