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Johnny Sands – Jon Wilks

Jon Wilks discusses the origins of his new single and video, the traditional song, 'Johnny Sands'.

‘Johnny Sands’ [Roud 184] is the second track off Before I Knew What Had Begun I Had Already Lost, the soon-to-be-released album by Jon Wilks. As the accompanying video, made by Jon Nice, gets its premiere here on Tradfolk today, Jon Wilks explains the history of this traditional song and how his recorded version came about.

About ‘Johnny Sands’

How did you come across ‘Johnny Sands’?

I found the lyrics in a book called The Funniest Song Book in the World, published by Cole’s Book Arcade in 1890, which I bought from Abe Books or some site like that. I wouldn’t advise looking for it – the majority of the songs dabbled in the kind of humour Nigel Farage might be attracted to. ‘Johnny Sands’ was one of very few songs that didn’t make me turn the page hurriedly in disgust, but I’m glad I stuck with it because it led to a delightful occasion a few months later which I’ll tell you about in a moment.

The lyrics in the book didn’t indicate any tune, so I began looking around to see if anyone else had recorded it. Inevitably, Martin Carthy had, albeit not officially. It didn’t appear on any of his studio albums, but it was included on a bootleg called Martin Carthy, Live in St Albans, 1973. He sings it unaccompanied in a strident voice, and he has the crowd in on the choruses pretty much immediately. Other people had recorded versions with similar or completely different tunes – John Kirkpatrick, The London Critics Group – but none caught my ear in quite the same way. It was clearly a strong part of his set, so I was surprised that he never got it down on vinyl.

It’s a wonderful little song, and I can see why he liked it. The husband and wife at the centre of the story – Johnny Sands and Betsy Hague – have quite the tussle. Neither really wins. They both outdo the other. I think that’s what makes it so special. One ends up in the river, and the other ends up stuck with their hands tied permanently behind their back. It reminds me of that old adage: can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

Martin grinned, closed his eyes, fumbled around in some long-forgotten memory closet, and then sang the song pretty much in its entirety.

Scroll forward to August, 2022, and I bumped into Martin backstage at FolkEast festival. I mentioned that I had this song going around in my head and that I intended to record it, and I asked him what he remembered of it and why it had slipped his discography. He told me that he, too, had found the lyrics without a tune, so he nabbed something called ‘The Liverpool Landlady’ and made up his own fol-de-rol chorus. I don’t think he had a reason for not recording it – it just hadn’t come to pass. He hadn’t really sung it since the mid-70s, some 45 years earlier.

And then he did that mind-blowing thing that anyone who has spent time with Martin Carthy will know he can do. He grinned, closed his eyes, fumbled around in some long-forgotten memory closet, and then sang the song pretty much in its entirety. Here’s me, barely able to recall three verses without having to dig out a lyrics sheet, and this 81-year-old legend is summoning whole ballads from his distant youth. For him, it seemed as though he was pleased to be reacquainted with an old song – an old friend, perhaps. For me, it was a moment of Carthy magic.

I’ll be out on tour with Martin this coming autumn in a show that will be part music, part conversation. More details on that at a later date.

Did you do much to the original song in order to create your arrangement?

Yes, loads. I played it for the longest time as a straightforward fingerpicking thing, with the guitar following the main vocal melody, but it seemed to lack any power. Listening to Martin’s live recording from 1973 just goes to show that the most powerful format is often the single, unaccompanied voice belting the song out.

Oddly enough, the key to getting my arrangement right came when I was listening to the latest remix of ‘Taxman’ by The Beatles, re-released last summer. Having heard that song at least a million times, I was struck once again by the power of Paul McCartney’s bass – how it seemed to be doing something independent of either the song itself or the other instruments, and yet how it drove the entire thing forward. I’m lucky enough to own a Hofner Violin Bass, so I plugged it in and started doing my best Macca impersonation. Sure enough, the song sprang into life. The rest of it fell into place from there. It’s mostly just me playing whatever instruments I had to hand. The whole album is like that – handclaps, knee slaps, there’s even a steel drum in there somewhere. To round this one off I asked Jackie Oates to come and overdub some fiddle playing. That was the icing on the cake, as Jackie so often is.

I’m acutely aware of having shot myself in the foot when it comes to live performances, though. I’m not planning on taking a band anywhere with me, so I think ‘Johnny Sands’ will have to return to the form in which I first heard it: a good, honest, unaccompanied singalong. Which, to be honest, I don’t mind in the slightest.

Tell us about the video.

The video is the creation of my dear old friend, Jon Nice. We’ve played music together ever since we first met in Fukuoka, Japan, back in 2007. He plays keyboards on all my albums, and we’ve recorded stuff together many times in many different situations. He’s a whizz at all things digital and technological, but he’s a wonderfully creative artist, too. He made the videos in the squash court at FolkEast last year – some of you may have seen them. His musicianship is wonderfully understated, but always exactly what is required. Listen to what he did on the Nick Drake covers with Katherine Priddy and Lukas Drinkwater a few years ago. You barely notice he’s there, but if you took his contribution away you’d be left with a massive gap.

I explained to him that the song had three characters – Johnny, Betsy, and the narrator. Initially, I had the idea of acting it out quite literally – hurling myself in the river while dressed as Betsy – but Jon pointed out that it was still winter and I might die if I did that. So he constructed this idea of doing it as a kind of amateur dramatics thing with me playing all the parts, which is what you see in the video. His sister, Miriam, designed a bottle of ‘Caprice & Whim’ liquor to go with the line, “She’s full of caprice and whim”. I love those little touches.

We put the video together in a single day, raiding the Andover charity shops in the morning, and then filming it in the local Parish Hall during the afternoon. Cheap and cheerful, but a pleasing highlight of my time with this song so far.

Before I Knew What Had Begun I Had Already Lost, the new album by Jon Wilks, is out on May 5th and is available for pre-order now from his Bandcamp page. It features 12 songs, eight of which are traditional. In the interests of transparency, we note here that Jon is also the founder and editor of this website.