Listen to this track by traditional song enthusiast, singer, and guitarist Nic Jones. It’s “Canadee – I – O”, the lead track as taken from his acclaimed 1980 album Penguin Eggs, a work that is commonly cited as a touchstone that would inspire a whole new generation of traditional folk singers, particularly in Britain. This is to be expected considering how emotionally connected the performances are to the traditional material found on it, rendered not as a scholarly exercise but rather as a labour of love. This is not even mentioning the sound of Jones’ guitar work, which is delicately virtuosic and vital, but also warmly rendered as a recorded element to match his authoritative vocals.
With all of that behind it, this song in particular is lent quite a backdrop for the tale of a maiden at sea with her wayward sailor lover, kept in the hold of a ship so that she can sail away with him. As it may be assumed of an English folk song that takes place at sea, all does not go according to plan, at least not in the way the poor maiden initially hoped.
As it happened, this very same sense of things not going according to plan would run in parallel to the career path of Nic Jones only a few years after this song was recorded.
The song had been covered by many by the time Nic Jones got a hold of it for this album. This may be because it holds unexpected charms that not every folk song that takes place at sea has, starting with the fact that it pulls the rug out from under listeners in an important respect; it has a happy ending! When the sailors find out about the presence of a woman in their ranks, they threaten to throw her overboard. Her sailor lover doesn’t have the courage to defend her, and all looks bleak. This is all but for the Captain, who decrees that she shall see the port town in Canada, all the while continuing to be clad in a sailor’s uniform and kept safe from the crew by the Captain who takes her as his own. And, curtain! This song contains the most important elements that make traditional music so compelling, including the call to adventure, and the human foibles that often keep us from the prize. Nic Jones would certainly come to understand this in a very personal way not long after this song and the Penguin Eggs record was released.
After coming up as a session musician and being on the scene of the British folk revival of the 1960s and through the 1970s, Penguin Eggs was the product of many years of experience in working with some of the greats that emerged from that scene including Richard Thompson, June Tabor, and many others. But it would be his last record before a 1982 car crash that caused him serious injury. Even though he survived the accident, those injuries ended his career as a professional musician. That was at least for a while. By the early 2010s, after many years living in the west country of England, he was back playing folk festivals in England again, accompanied by his son and scoring a gold badge award from the English Folk Dance & Song Society while he was at it. By 2013 and after a number of appearances at festivals, it was announced that his performing career had come to an end of his own choosing.
Maybe retroactively, that’s why this song in particular is such an extra powerful listen. It’s a story about hope, and about a sense of betrayal. But it’s also a song about courage, and how even if life throws us all kinds of unpleasant curve balls, it sometimes leads us down paths where we can find a sense of contentment anyway, even if things don’t always work out the way that we’d always envisioned them. Once again too, traditional songs show us that human beings have always been basically the same. We seek love, we dare to hope for happiness, and we often find both in the most unexpected places even after terrible turns of events. Perhaps that’s yet another reason that traditional music has endured. Among all the dangers at sea, cowardly paramours, and betrayed lovers comes the idea that whatever we’re going through in our lives in the twenty-first century and whatever we’re headed toward, there have been many who have gone on before us. We grapple with the same demons and angels, are driven by similar expectations, and are hampered by some of the same tragic flaws. Even when we are tossed on a sea of trouble in our lives, there is a certain comfort in that.
As mentioned, Nic Jones has retired as a touring musician. But in his three-decade hiatus period from the early eighties to the early two-thousand-tens, Jones’ wife Julia curated a number of live recordings as sent to her from fans that help to flesh out his body of work up until the Penguin Eggs album.
You can learn more about those recordings and about Nic Jones at nicjones.net.