I’ve been reading a lot of pretty grim stuff about war recently, in connection with a book that I’m working on. This is in addition to the routine 21st century carnage that has been unfolding back and forth across the world over the last week. So it was a welcome and refreshing antidote from the daily dose of poison to watch Michael Proudfoot’s magnificent and deeply affecting BBC documentary on the folksinger Nic Jones last night, which is currently doing the rounds of the independent cinemas as well.
For those that don’t know, Nic Jones was one of the best guitarists and songwriters on the British folk scene in the early 70s, before his career was suddenly cut short by a head-on road collision in 1982, while driving home from a gig in Glossop, Derbyshire. The accident was so bad that Jones’s car radio ended up in the boot, almost every bone in his body was broken, his teeth ended up in his lungs and much of his body had to be reconstructed.
Incredibly, his guitar survived the crash, though his neurological and physical injuries meant that he couldn’t play or sing. As a guitar player myself, I cannot listen to Jones without feeling dizzy with envy, curiosity and admiration at the effortlessly springy, melodic and percussive style that he developed using open tunings, which really sounds like no one else even though it influenced many other musicians.
Jones also has a fantastically warm, pure and rich English singing voice. So his accident was a terrible blow for him and his family, and it was also a great loss to British folk music, since his injuries left him unable to play guitar for many years, and even then without the rhythm and swing that he had before his accident.
Incredibly, his son Joe learned to play guitar as an adult, and copied his father’s style with such startling accuracy that he became almost a musical avatar of Jones himself. Last year the two of them played at the Warwick folk festival in Jones’s first public gig since his accident, accompanied by the pianist Belinda Tooley.
This comeback is the focal point of Proudfoot’s film, which explores Jones’s music and his influences, through interviews with his guitar maker, members of his family, as well as musicians and fans who include Martin Carthy, the folk journalist Ian Anderson, the comedian Stuart Lee, younger musicians like Anais Mitchell and Sam Carter, and poet John Hegley.
Jones comes across as a remarkably optimistic, gentle and modest man, self-deprecating and good-humoured about the formidable talent that was so abruptly shut down, and that he has clearly only been able to recover through an immense effort of will.
His performance at Warwick was awesome. Even at 65 years old, his voice still had the richness and tenderness of his youth, and the rapt and mesmerised expressions of even the younger members of the audience showed that his songs still had the power to reach across the generations.
But what made these extracts even more powerful was the knowledge of what had come before them, and the long and difficult recuperation that had made it possible for Jones to get back on stage and make these songs available once again. So the film was on one hand a film about that process of recovery, about the courage, resilience and creativity of Jones himself, and the family and friends who helped him, and the relationships that he formed.
In one of its most moving moments, one of Jones’s former bandmembers – a childhood friend who he once defended against the school bully and lost his teeth as a result – nearly cries as he describes how Jones saw him for the first time in nearly forty years and held his hands and sang his song ‘Now’.
The film looked in some detail at the various components of Jones’s music, his guitar technique, his voice, the origins of his songs. But it was also a film about the communicative power of music in general, about how music is made, about the ripples, tributaries and connections that it forms, between musicians and musicians, between musicians and their audience, about its ability to touch the emotions of the most disparate people and create small but indispensable moments of beauty, solace, excitement, poetry, and humor that make life worth living.
Such moments are often obscured by the march of history and the din of great events, and – nowadays, by the constant and unceasing flow of virtual events and secondhand information into our globalised, plugged-in brains. Posterity is unlikely to record the fact that a folksinger called Nic Jones performed in front of a few hundred people in a tent in Warwick in 2012, for the first time after recovering from a terrible accident.
But none of those who were present are likely to forget it, and thanks to Proudfoot’s great film those of who were not there can get a glimpse of that moment too, and rediscover the beautifully-crafted songs that Jones brought into the world.
At the end of the film, the singer/songwriter Sam Carter tells a great story about how he once played a Nic Jones song in a primary school, and found to his amazement that the kids knew the lyrics and sang them. In the last scene of the film, kids from the same school sing ‘Now’ – with its invitation ‘ to live each moment aware/ that the now is here so simple and clear.’
That is an idea that has often been expressed, but Jones and Proudfoot make it fresh again and remind us how true it is. And if you can watch that scene without feeling a little tingle down your spine reader, then there is probably nothing that I or anyone else can do for you