The sleevenotes to this album go like this. “My daughter Rosie was born just 5 days before my Dad died unexpectedly from sepsis, and at a time when all 3 of us were fighting the same condition. During the months that followed, I fluctuated between numbness and intense emotion at the joy and the sadness that had struck me all at once.”
I got to thinking about what a difficult time this must have been for Jackie Oates. Roo and I never really ever talked about having children and I regret not meeting her ten years earlier because then we would have started a family. Although, considering we can’t agree on how to put a duvet cover on, I’m not sure we would ever have agreed on how to deal with the trials and tribulations of bringing up a child. When I see the joy that my friends’ children bring them, I am jealous and regretful. On the other hand, I fully understand that worry and responsibility don’t exactly lie easy with me so maybe it’s a good thing. It was nice to get a message from an ex student a month ago who was just about to embark on her teacher training year – she told me that she felt that I always cared about her class. Messages like that provide some form of compensation.
Jackie Oates came to my attention as a member of The Winterset. Before Becky Unthank committed herself to The Unthanks, her sister recorded an album called “Cruel Sister” which was by Rachel Unthank and The Winterset. Confusingly, Becky Unthank was a member of The Winterset along with Belinda O’Hooley and Jackie Oates. (Belinda O’Hooley had once appeared on “Stars In Their Eyes” impersonating Annie Lennox.) Her main instrument is a violin but she also plays viola and a shruti box. I had never heard of a shruti box but apparently it was originally an Indian instrument, similar to a harmonium but using a system of bellows.
Jackie Oates has made seven solo albums as well as playing on “Cruel Sister” and “Bending The Dark”, one of the three albums by Imagined Village, the folk collective formed by Simon Emmerson of the Afro Celt Sound System. Whereas her early albums were more pastoral and idyllic, “The Joy Of Living” is a deeper album reflecting the intense combination of emotions she experienced at the death of her father and birth of her daughter. There are sixteen songs on the album, one is written by Jackie Oates and five are traditional songs that she has arranged. Every song is a work of beauty.
The second track on this album is called “Spring Is Coming Soon” and it was written by Jackie Oates soon after her daughter was born “to bring life and expression to what was both mundane and incredible”, as she writes in the sleevenotes. The song is reprised at the end of the next song which is a cover of “Mother” from John Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” album. It’s a strange choice but it’s beautiful. The song, as sung by John Lennon is a biting recrimination directed towards his mother and father who both rejected him. Reading what she has written about this song, it’s clear that they literal lyrical content wasn’t as important to her as the “intense and deeply held pain” that he sung about. There is something about The Unthanks and Kate Rusby who both sanitise raw music and turn it into something beautiful. I know that the word “sanitise” may make it seem that I don’t approve but nothing could be further from the truth. This is a lovely version of a great song. I guess that the droning sound is made by a shruti box. Whatever it is, it’s brilliant, giving a huge space to her lovely voice.
“Nay Ivy Nay” is based on a Christmas song (“The Contest Of The Ivy And The Holly”) that dates from the time of Henry VI. It’s a very simple song comparing holly and ivy (!) There’s a complex history to this song which can be found at this link.
The title track of the album was written by Ewan MacColl when he realised that he would no longer be able to walk amongst the mountains that he loved. He wrote “The last time I climbed Suilven, or to be more precise, failed to climb it, was in my seventy-second year. I
was with my wife and fourteen-year-old daughter Kitty. “You go ahead,” I told them, “I’ll meet you at the top.” I hadn’t gone more than half the distance when my legs refused to carry me further. My body had given me plenty of warnings over the last seven or eight years but this was the final notice. My mountain days were over. I sat down on a rock feeling utterly desolate. The feeling lasted for several days and then my grief and feeling of loss gave way to nostalgia and I wrote “The Joy of Living”. In an odd kind of way it helped me to come to terms with my old age.” The sense from this album is that this is a song of farewell and Jackie Oates is using the words to say goodbye to her father whilst celebrating the joy that the birth of her daughter has brought her. This performance is very emotional.
Bob Dylan wrote “he not busy being born is busy dying”. This album reflects the emotions felt by a sensitive musician when confronted by the human condition.