Jake Thackray - the Yorkshire Chanson
I first came across Jake Thackray when he appeared on Esther Rantzen's 'That's Life' show in the 1970's. As one of the regular guest performers, he'd come along, guitar in hand, with a new song relating to whatever news story had caught his eye that week. I loved his gravelly voice, his quick wit and the often highly-irreverent comic songs with their jazz chords and eccentric rhymes.
A few years later, I saw him performing at Newcastle City Hall where his songs left me feeling like I'd witnessed something amazing - not only was he an immensely talented songwriter, but his banter in-between songs was equally hilarious, giving insights into how each song had come about or been inspired.
Jake was a Yorkshireman. Born in 1938, he briefly considered becoming a priest, but instead trained as a teacher, occasionally contributing some of his early songs to school productions (such as Remember Bethlehem). His guitar style evolved over many years and while steeped in the English folk tradition, he never fitted easily into any precise category. Playing a nylon-strung classical model (rather than the steel-strung acoustics favoured by most folk musicians), he dressed in a continental style (polo-neck shirts) and developed a technique inspired by the French chanson style: lyric-driven, secular songs reflecting real life and identify.
Spending a few years in France, Jake came in to contact with several singer-songwriters who left their influential marks on him: the likes of Charles Trenet, Jacques Brel and George Brassens had that antiauthoritarian, anarchistic outlook to writing and performing that Jake loved, and he soon began to carve out a niche for himself with his own brand of humour.
I've got a dog called Ulysses
He plays all day in the park
Sniffing at his friends and the chestnut trees
And chasing cats 'til after dark
Jake on the Box
From appearing at folk clubs around Leeds, Jake was given the opportunity to take part in a BBC early morning radio programme. This led to further appearances via BBC Radio's Northcountryman show, and by 1967 he had a recording contract. His first collection of songs was produced as The Last Will and Testament of Jake Thackray and its popularity prompted invitations to appear on television.
His early slots on TV were on the Bernard Braden show, 'Braden's Week'. At first he wasn't terribly popular with viewers (presumably due to his out-of-the-ordinary style and derisive lyrics), but eventually he gained a strong following and when the show ended in 1972 he moved on to a similar role on 'That's Life'.
Despite the fact that many of Jake's songs are rude, hilarious or otherwise entertaining, he was a staunch Roman Catholic and his beliefs often shone through in the lyrics of his more serious songs. 'Country Boy', for instance, tells the story of how Jesus spoke to the poor and dispossessed and changed their lives:
It was only a country boy, talking to a people in chains.
Come unto him, you hunchback people:
Open your hearts and he will take a part in the pain.
Other songs, such as 'The Rememberance' tells of the horrors of war and how many of the young men who signed up to fight for their country in 1914 found that the dreaded enemy were just as young and innocent as they were themselves:
Remember the night before the raid
When the guns began the cannonade,
And how we all looked up to see the captain of the company:
Who told us we were bold and strong,
Let fame and glory spur us on -
If the Enemy comes off best, he said,
You'll be better off dead . . .
This was a couple of hours before we got killed in the war.
Jake's second album 'Jake's Progress' appeared in 1969 leading to demands for more concerts and larger venues. Jake, however, always preferred the smaller, intimate folk clubs he'd been used to but since he was now earning his living from performing, there was no escape, and he found himself touring Europe, America and the Far East.
His TV appearances continued with 'Nationwide', 'The Camera and the Song', 'Jake Thackray and Songs' and 'The Innes Book of Records', as well as live performances at the Cambridge Folk Festival. Further albums were made, including 'On Again! On Again!', 'Bantam Cock' and numerous live albums.
In later years, Jake was occasionally known for ducking out of stage appearances, a growing lack of confidence and self-doubt creeping into his performances. In the mid Nineties, his uncomfortable relationship with the limelight got the better of him and he retired from the stage altogether. Jake died on Christmas Eve, 2002.
Despite the lack of the man himself, Jake's many fans continue to trumpet his talents to the uninitiated. An excellent website charts his song lyrics, anecdotes and other memorabilia while the performer John Watterson masquerades as 'Fake Thackery', touting his hero's songs around the country for the Thackery fans old and new.