Almanac Music: Not Quite Bob – Vital Brits and a Non Brit – Nick Drake, John Martyn, Billy Bragg, Joe Henry



Not Quite Bob – Vital Brits and a Non Brit – Nick Drake, John Martyn, Billy Bragg, Joe Henry


Over past Dover, folk and it’s offshoots were popular around the time it took hold in the US.  These artists played a part in that and, looking for a place for him in this series, I’ve added in Joe Henry, most definitely not a Brit.




Nick Drake


It strikes a bit of a bum note to lead with another tragic early demise but Nick Drake is an almost prototypical NQB artist.  7 years younger but dead at 26, Drake is a sweeter voiced, more melancholy singer than Bob but still very much in the same vein.  He’s a late breaking news artist for me because I really wasn’t aware of him until a song of his featured in the soundtrack for a film called Garden State in 2004.  The song is called ‘One of These Things First’ and it appears on his second album called Bryter Layter, in 1970.



If you want to follow up the soundtrack for the film it’s got songs from The Shins, Iron and Wine, Simon & Garfunkel, Coldplay (for the record: not a fan), Colin Hay and the Thievery Corporation and other lesser knowns and it works really well with the film.  Not all of them do.  The film is an ode to the travails of yoof and stands up pretty well I think.


There’s only 3 Nick Drake albums to pick from and I think the best of those is 1972’s Pink Moon.



Sadly he’s dead two years later a victim of his own depression but his legacy prevails.  Paul Weller, Aimee Mann, Kate Bush, Beck and Robyn Hitchcock claim him as an influence amongst many others.






John Martyn


And among the many others is a contemporary and friend in John Martyn.  Also a troubled soul, Martyn created his own unique brand of folk inflected music which featured blues, rock and jazz elements wound into a particular John Martyn sound.  Also born in 1948 Martyn becomes active around the same time as Drake in 1967 and initially records with his wife Beverley on Stormbringer and The Road To Ruin both in 1970.  His label Island decides he will be more marketable as a solo act although his wife continues to appear both on record and live.  His most famous early album is Solid Air in 1973 and from there here is ‘May You Never’.



Like another contemporary in Richard Thompson his guitar skill is already evident and through the rest of his career he experiments with guitar sound playing acoustic instruments through various electronic gadgets to create a John Martyn sound.


In 1977 on One World here is ‘Big Muff’ as an example.




He records on Island until 1980 (and once later in the 90’s) and those albums are his best known work.  I’m going to have to admit that my constant decrying of Best Ofs may in fact be disingenuous because a terrific comp called Sweet Little Mysteries sits nestled after Aimee Mann and before J Mascis in the CD drawer.  I can’t find it as released on the streamers but this one is an expanded version for you to sample.  Lots of gems here.



Martyn records until his death in 2009.  Acute respiratory distress gets him in the end after years of drug and alcohol abuse.   The music survives though as a reminder of the talent.  Near the end of his life he is monstrously overweight and ravaged by diabetes but in better days here at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1985.







Billy Bragg


Born in Essex in 1957 Billy cites his influences as the Faces and the Stones but also, yes, Bobby D.  And it shows in the songs and the stance he takes in them.  He’s also influenced by the times he found himself in in England in the 80’s.  The rise of Thatcherism gives Billy a pulpit for his songs as a clearly aligns himself with the causes of the left and I ‘m sure I’m on safe ground suggesting that he’d happily cop to the ‘political songwriter’ tag.


His early albums from the 1980’s are like hearing your favorite busker on the street corner with a bit of spit and snarl at the Tories.  But mixed in are youthful songs of love and loss as he laments missed opportunities with the girls in the village.  From his 1st album in 1983 Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy, ‘A New England’, a song he’s performed throughout his entire career.



As he develops as a songwriter the original angry political songs are still there as in the call to arms of ‘There Is Power In The Union’ from 1986’s Talking With The Taxman About Poetry.



But the love songs are there too and he writes some rippers like this.



I could link dozens of songs here, it’s a really good songbook is that of William Bloke, his own self descriptor.  A highlight is in the collaboration with Wilco on the Mermaid Avenue albums they made covering as yet unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs.  I’ve done a bit on this in an earlier epistle about Wilco but it’s hard to resist another track.  So here goes with ‘All You Fascists’ from the second set.



Little wonder he jumped at the chance when offered access to the songs in lyric form only by Woody’s daughter.


Billy has slight gaps in his recorded output as he remains active in various political causes that lead to some downtime in the studio and on-stage but he’s kept at it and keeps making really good albums right up to now.  Last year he produced one of his best in The Million Things That Never Happened.



It’s an encouraging antidote to the turbulent lives of the last two artists to note that Billy has stayed in top form and, it seems, health and has lead a largely untarnished life.  Good for him.





Joe Henry


And so to the decidedly not a Brit, Joe Henry.  Joe is slightly younger than Billy and hails from Charlotte, North Carolina home to Republicans and great College basketball teams.  As I look through the CD’s in the cabinet I note that I’ve got 4 albums covering a long period from 1990 (Shuffletown) to 2014 (Invisible Hour).  I like ‘em.  They’re good.  Not my favourites but good.  Not a bum note on them, everything where it should be.  Nice.


Here is the title track from 1996’s Trampoline.



There are lots of songs like that on his albums.  Classy, considered, brilliantly produced.  Lest you think I’m damning him with faint praise though its that last term (producer) that signifies Joe’s biggest achievements in the business.  He’s produced dozens of records by artists like Bonnie Raitt, Rosanne Cash, Joan Baez, Rodney Crowell, Loudon Wainwright and Rhiannon Giddens.  Nearly everyone is a standout in the career of those artists.  A particular favorite is The River In Reverse by Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint.  For space reasons I won’t link it here but it’s a beauty and you should have a listen.


The reason though that I added Joe in this piece is because of an album he not only produced but performed with Billy Bragg called Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad.  It’s a brilliant chronicle of train related songs from the early part of the 20th century and it’s here to sample.



And a small sample in a Tiny Desk set featuring a few of those songs.



Splendid stuff.  The Brit and the non-Brit, perfectly in sync, harmony and singing from the Book of Bob.  NQB but pretty darn close.


You can read more from Trevor Blainey HERE.



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  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I don’t cry very often, but I was a blubbering wreck a few years ago when I was recovering from a major operation. The reason was my revisiting some of Billy’s early videos, Levi Stubbs’ Tears especially. Big time Billy fan here, had tickets to all three nights of his most recently postponed concert series. Hope he makes it back next year.

    The latter part of his output goes largely unnoticed – I’d recommend Mr Love And Justice, even if only for the Johnny Carcinogenic Show. Saw him with Joe Henry in 2017, didn’t know much about Joe, but he is worthy of inclusion here.

    As I once said to JTH, how can you lie there and think of Wynnum when you don’t even know who’s in the team?

    thanks Trev.

  2. Trevor Blainey says

    A pleasure ‘Swish’. When I do these I have the artists songs on and when you get to Billy’s there’s a living proverbial of great songs many of which invoke in me what they did for you. That line you quote is one of dozens of quotables in his songs. I like this.

    “The temptation to take the precious things we love apart, to see how they work
    Must be resisted, for they never fit together again.”

    A master.

  3. Rick Kane says

    Seeing Billy when he confirms his twice postponed tour. Last saw him in 87 at Canterbury Court Ballroom in Perth. Two small faves, Honey I’m a Big Boy Now and Handyman Blues. Joe Henry is a brilliant songwriter. Check out Ohio Air Show Plane Crash and Wave to start with. Jayhawks are his backing band on 90s album, Kindness of the World.

  4. Rick Kane says

    And yes, his CV as a producer is not too shabby.

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