Jake Thackray divides opinion. There are those who, with some justification, regard him as a male chauvinist (partly true) and as a poor, Anglophone substitute for Georges Brassens, the great French chanteur (undoubtedly true, but also irrelevant if you don’t speak French and you want to get the jokes).  But the jokes aren’t even funny, Jake’s detractors cry. And he’s a male chauvinist. But the rest of us – at least, that portion of the public who are aware of his former existence  – see in Jake Thackray the classic tortured genius wrapped in comedian’s clothing, the Frank Zappa of folk, the Fool who dares to tell it like it is (men are dirty bastards; women talk too much; don’t be a sheep and follow the herd). Of course, a lot of people think there’s no place for humour in music and pour scorn on those – like Zappa – who wear their brilliance lightly. So let’s look at the fool, warts and all. But first a Tim Buckley song:

(That’s enough Tim Buckley – Ed). Our story begins in Leeds in 1938, when Jake Thackray was born. He went to Jesuit school and might have become a priest, had he not chosen to study Modern Languages at Durham University instead. After four years teaching English in France and Algeria (during the War of Independence 1961–1962 no less) he returned to Yorkshire under the spell of Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel. Teaching himself to play the guitar, he found that he could hold his unruly pupils’ interest through song. From the classroom he graduated to folk clubs, local radio programmes, and finally TV.

It’s on early 70s BBC staple That’s Life that I first encountered Jake, providing much needed comic relief from the blinding light of Esther Rantzen’s teeth, and for many years his witty, catchy Family Tree was on constant replay in my head, thanks in large part to my cousin Marc’s enthusiasm for the song.

It’s not just the wordplay, it’s the intimate, reassuring tones, deepened by a singer’s diet of tobacco and booze, like a Yorkshire Johnny Cash. That, and the heavy lidded-eyes,  provide the succour of a favourite uncle, the kind you don’t see enough. And like Johnny Cash, the combination of personal memories and the vulnerability in his voice can reduce me to tears, as in the tragic song Molly Metcalfe, a favourite of Jarvis Cocker.

Inspired by the great French singers, Thackray in turn influenced a raft of regional folk singers who took up his comedic baton, among them Bristol’s oft-derided Fred Wedlock and the idiot bastard sons Mike Harding & Jasper Carrott, but none had the gravitas of JT. He only recorded four studio albums in his lifetime, the last of which (1977’s On Again! On Again!) led to accusations of misogyny (critics might have also pointed to the jokey treatment of rape in Family Tree) but tucked away on  the same album was The Hair of the Widow of Bridlington, a moving paean to a powerful woman confronting social disapproval, with more than a whiff of Richard Thompson’s Beeswing about it, here performed live (Jake’s favoured mode of delivery) so you can see what a magnetic performer he was in his pomp.

Nonetheless, by the late 70s/early 80s, Jake was falling out of fashion: his literate lyrics and tales of rural life meant nothing to either the punks or the yuppies while to the alternative comedy crowd he was a dinosaur, his bawdy brand of humour disapproved of in much the same way the locals disapprove of the Widow of Bridlington’s joie de vivre. Jake gave up performing and turned to journalism, writing a weekly column for the Yorkshire Post and living a quiet life in Monmouth, of all places, where he sank into alcoholism and bankruptcy before dying of heart failure in 2002.

If you’ve read this far, and your interest is piqued, the best place to start might be with the expanded 2006 re-issue of the peerless Live Performance concert, from the Queen Elizabeth Hall, although it doesn’t have what, for me, is his greatest song, the awesome To Do With You. Listen and marvel how this song twists and turns from love song to insult and back again. It sure as hell speaks to me of long term relationships.