Every year, as part of our continuing sponsorship with the Owen Sound Sun Times, the Artistic Director writes a series of 12 articles about the festival and the performers.
Jez Lowe told me to stop reading.
Reading is my second favourite form of recreation. When I am on the road, a book is what clears my mind. Jez thinks the opposite. His theory is-if I am taking words on, I‘m not putting words out. In order to write more, I was going to have to lay off the reading for a while.
When Jez offers songwriting advice, it’s best to listen. He’s not only the most prolific songwriter I know, I think he is the finest folk songwriter of this generation. Richard Thompson has heaped praise upon him. The BBC has called him “a singular talent”. People who are my musical heroes record his songs-Liam Clancy, The Dubliners, Mary Black, Fairport Convention.
He played traditional tunes and a fair amount of Beatles and Stones when he was younger, He brings all those sensibilities to the songs he writes. Songs like “The Bergen” or “ Durham Goal” are as traditional sounding as they come. “Spitting Cousins” or “Greek Lightening” are more cinematic, more modern. They exist side by side in his live sets and neither suffer.
Jez was born in county Durham in the heart of coal country in the northeast of England. He didn’t follow his class mates into the coal mines choosing to make music instead.The first ten years of his musical career he played mostly traditional songs. He quickly became one of the mainstays of the folk scene, sought after for clubs and festivals.
He had always written but it took a cultural earthquake to turn him into full time writer. In 1984 the Thatcher government announced the closing of 74 coal mines, mostly in the Northeast . The divisive miner’s strike of 1984/85 and the breaking of the miner’s unions signalled the end of a way of life in the Durham. Jez was there to document it in song. He has not stopped writing since.
The songs about the collapse of economy in the Northeast are not academic. He’s writing and singing about his family, about the guys he went to school with. He cares about it deeply. That’s what makes the songs universal. They are not just about the events in Easington or Peterlee. They are about the real human emotions in play when a whole way of life changes.
It’s not all serious stuff, either. He writes more and better comic songs than anyone I know. Most of them work because he is a man who takes great delight in language. He wrote a great tune about the Vikings. In the song, they are eager to get back down to earth from Valhalla because the world as it is now is perfect for them.
They say we’re sick of sleeping in the arms of Thor
When down here its fun and games and war, war, war
Blood lust and savagery are guaranteed
And we maim to please-so say the Vikings
He’s got an amazing 17 CD’s to his credit. He has been the back bone of the recently revived BBC Radio Ballads. The original radio ballads series in the 1950’s was the brain child of legendary writer Ewan MacColl, with whom Jez shares a number of similarities. He’s written over 50 songs for that project alone.
I met him at the Old Songs Festival outside Albany, New York in 1994. I’d been hearing his name for years. People would tell me I had to keep an ear open for him. For some reason I thought he would be much older than he was. He wasn’t.
I’d see him when I was in England, or when he was on tour over here. We spent a memorable 6 weeks crisscrossing each other’s paths in Australia. We also toured together some. You learn a lot about people when you are in the car with them for 17 or 18 days.
Here are some of the thing’s I’ve learned.
-He is writing all the time. He’ll be driving but you can see that he is actually turning lines and rhymes over in his head. He’s often writing three or 4 songs at a time. None of them are bad, or even mediocre.
-He’s right handed but he plays the guitar left handed. It is one of the enduring little mysteries about Jez. All he ever says about it is…that’s how I learned.
-Audience members have, on more than one occasion, told him that he is taller than he sounds on recordings. He says he thought the same thing when he first heard himself. But don’t take his word for it. You can judge for yourself.
Jez Lowe will be with make his Owen Sound debut at Summerfolk 39. The Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival happens August 15, 16 and 17 at Kelso Beach Park. Information can be found at www.summerfolk.org. Tickets can be ordered online or by phoning 1-888-655-9090