Jake Thackray and Sister Josephine

Far and away our most popular song is Sister Josephine. We’ve been performing it since early in our career and when we dropped it briefly from the setlist, it was requested at every show — so we eventually reinstated it. It appears on our CD, Athens Hotel, and in the liner notes I give a brief history there of how I discovered it: 

“There used to be, and may still be, a program on BBC 1 television in England called “Nationwide”. Critics regard it as having been one of the most stultifyingly boring television programs ever. I watched it religiously. At a certain point in the national show there would be a slot for local news and features. One evening, while sitting in my flat in Bedford, Anglia Television presented Jake Thackray singing Sister Josephine. That was in 1971 and I’ve wanted to sing this song ever since.” It now looks as if I’ll be singing it forever — and that’s all right with me. 

Jake Thackray was born in Yorkshire in 1938 and died in Monmouth, Wales in 2002. He, at one point, considered a life in the priesthood and for a while was a school teacher. He taught in France for a while — he was a French speaker — and while there, became enamored of the French chanson style. His big hero was the French songwriter Georges Brassens. But mostly he worked as a performer. He was a regular on English television and performed all around the country. I saw him at The Dukes Playhouse in Lancaster, England in 1978 (shortly before I came to the U.S.) and it was one of the most enjoyable shows I’ve ever seen. 

He was a man of contradictions. A wonderful performer who grew to hate performing. A witty and very funny man who delivered his songs and patter in an almost dour, lugubrious monotone. A man of few words who was a skilled wordsmith. He was a man of some refinement who also wrote a number of bawdy songs that, by today’s standards, are pretty cringe-worthy. And while he’s been accused of sexism and misogyny, songs such as The Hair of the Widow of Bridlington are most definitely feminist in their tone. 

The bulk of his songs are humorous but songs such as The Poor Sod or Old Molly Metcalfe are most decidedly unfunny. The Remembrance is chilling indictment of war and The Bull is all about, well … bull. And Our Dog is probably my all-time favorite song about dogs. His Remember Bethlehem may be my favorite Christmas song and it is, of course, part of our Christmas/Holiday show. The song is a wonderfully personal re-imagining of the Nativity story — almost as if it had happened in Jake’s native Yorkshire. So, while it may seem a little odd or contradictory that the best liked song of an Irish band should be one written by an Englishman whose chief influence was French song, think of it instead as just another of those Jake Thackray contradictions — one of the inconsistencies that make life so interesting. 

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