A Production of The Folk Life ( Inc. 1976)
John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs, Editors


CD Reviews: “Roots & Wings,”
(dba The Digital Folk Life. Org)

JP Jones, “Jeremiah” (Vision Company),

[Again, a bit of a disclaimer: JP Jones was our house-guest, and contributed to the text of the web-page for which this review is intended, following a trip we took to show off Rep Joe McDade’s pet project, Steamtown USA, up near Scranton, Pennsylvania (from which layout there’s that link to his reflections on what the “Big Boys” and other locomotives meant to him when he was a small boy). That trip to Steamtown followed a fine in-studio appearance last year on the sadly missed radio show, “Roots & Wings,” when he premiered a couple of the fine songs that appear on this very CD. So JP, like Andrew Calhoun, is a friend of some years standing, whose work I’ve admired all along – the initial basis of that friendship. No money has changed hands, but I thought you should know that, and if you find it necessary, discount appropriately what follows.]

Y’know, it’s hard to decide what’s bolder, ending this recording with “Abu,” a 19 min, 20 seconds spoken word piece (dating back to 1987), with no text supplied for the story – we’ll get back to it later – or donning a neck-scarf of the kind some people associate with one side in the current troubles in the Middle East and staring past the potential buyer with large, gloomy eyes, looking at something ‘way beyond sales figures. Who is this guy, a first-time visitor to the world of JP Jones might well ask.

The first cut, “Prophet in his Prime,” a growling, wailing first-person meditation on the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, twisting and turning along in this could be first draft from “my emerging material/taken from a back page of my mind,” announcing itself as “one episode in a serial/a document of love/in our time,” telling you to “take it from a prophet in his prime,” begins to answer the question. It also turns directly to the hearer: “the only mortal flaw/I ever heard of/when did your heart turn to ice?” and sharing the mortal chill, “when did mine?” – but pleading “don’t give up on us but/take the word of/a poet who has paid and/made it rhyme.”

The internal alliterations and half-rhymes in the verse complicate and release the address to a maybe-unheeding listener, the unheard participant – or heedless bystander? - in the drama. Give that powerful, rising and falling voice and that insinuating solo guitar half a chance, and he’ll sweep you on in. The apparent exultation of “there’s a new world a-comin/and it won’t be long,” opening the next song immediately gives way to, “where will you stand/when the old one is gone?” The Old Testament prophet for whom the whole collection of “emerging material” is named now rises to full pitch – “the sun will be blindin/the oceans will rise/and it won’t do no good/to be blamin the skies” – colloquial and towering at the same time. The only partial escape from the doom-filled vision in which we are all swept up – “will we wake up in time/to find what it’s about?” – given that “the changes this time/must come from inside out” – seems to be to “lay down your heartache/and pick up a song.” But what kind of song? And he goes on, in the next song on the CD, “With Open Eyes,” to take the part of the refugee, “from a modern war,” who “lost my family/you’ve seen my face before/with open eyes/with open eyes,” and you turn over the recording in your hands to look into those large, mournful eyes. Oh yeah. I’m betting by this time you’ve got it, and he’s gotcha. Not for nothing is JP Jones’ single-artist record company called “Vision Company.”

There is some relief from the intensity, in the shout-out which follows, calling on “every boy, every girl/everybody in the/whole wide world” to get together and let it out. At this point, maybe you’ll miss JP’s rockin’ bar-band, Rite Tite, which has appeared on a number of his previous outings on Vision Company, the solo guitar taking the instrumental weight that otherwise might have been shared with the guys in the band: “play to win and be kind/have a little peace of mind/stand up tall and be free” – JP’s been known to kick his jams out.
But the song which follows, “Still Life” – “a black bird from the mountains/and the morning just begun/he was either lost or he was/searchin for the sun” winds slowly into “standin in the door and I don’t/know what I’m waitin for/there’s no tellin where or why she’s gone,” just takes you on into the territory of a heart broken in love. The haiku-like juxtaposition – “the wind is from the mountains/and I know more snow is due/I tried and tried to reach her/but there’s just no getting through,” leads on into the lament, “holdin on the line/I will try another one more time/nothin but the silence ringing true,” and you can hear that phone at the other end, just not getting picked up. The sorrows of Jeremiah have more than merely political origins.

OK, as Richard Thompson has reminded us, songwriting is theatre. If you find yourself playing the part of the bereft lover here, it’s working.

And we’re back to the retelling of the Old Testament story and the title song, “Jeremiah,” with Isaiah “who say to Jerry/’son, wha do you intendin to? /makin all of them predictions,” and voicing the prophet’s second-worst fear, “what if one of em should come true?” Just imagine – “all them people dead/all them things you said.” Worst of all, “out of the darkness comes a Christ/who fails to heed it pays a price.” Dire warning, indeed – what if? And the story of Jeremiah unwinds in the tight verses that follow, the tale of the prophet whose visions fail to come true, lost and deserted, “underneath the midday sun/lookin out across the valley/thinking how far he had come.” Vision enough for you?

So back to a lovesong – “Without You” – and a story about someone “playin solitaire” – “The Man Upstairs” – and a simple song about separate lives – “So Far So Good” – even an old Scottish song – “So Early in the Spring” – which lands a sailor back in Glasgow town before he goes a-roaming once again without his lost love, and then finally – not finally – a sweet love song, “To Sleep With You” – a collection which seems by now to have drifted a little from its original visionary intention.

Seems to have. But finally, here’s the story of King Abu, the life of someone who, reared to be a “Solitary Walker,” passes thro the rituals of initiation with seeming failure, but then – somehow – ascends to the throne, with a lover by his side, and drifts on thro a long life of serene rulership, to a slow and gentle death, finally passing quietly from the scene, as his lover draws the curtain on his reign. It’s a life of understated drama, the gods and monsters largely offstage, breaking thro at the necessary critical moment – whose meaning remains obscure, as is a final evaluation of the king. Was he really a failure at the hour of testing? Was his long and serene life an answer to that question? Did he really deserve his throne, and did the peaceful calm of his reign lay that question to rest? Unanswered questions, of course, probably calling for repeated listenings to his quiet, regal and non-regal story, and maybe even then not yielding up all of its answers. You come up from immersion in the story strangely refreshed, made calm and peaceful yourself. In the term of the mystic, this king has “a good ending.”

Where did it come from, this non-Jeremiad placed so strangely – yes – at the end of an absorbing musical journey? It’s a blessing, of course, a gift from the well of JP’s visions. It may not get much airplay, given its length, its spoken-word status. I’m glad it’s there, however. Don’t pass it over when you listen to “Jeremiah,” a CD whose music might otherwise tempt you to let go this long, mildly dramatic conclusion. It’s a revelation of depths beyond the prophetic, beyond the love songs, beyond the quirky celebrations, a slowly moving glimpse into mysteries of the heart and of the soul. It deserves respect.

(Copyright John McLaughlin, 4/14/2004)