As Diana Jones ended her performance to rapturous applause, the person next to your reviewer could not have summed it up better, “She gives you hope that the world might be a better place and she makes you want to help.” Through a set list filled with injustice, cruelty to people and places hope prevails that ‘Better Times Will Come’. First released in 2009 ‘Better Times Will Come’ (a recent Classic Americana Album) is now out in a “reimagined and remastered” version containing some very different mixes and a new song (for full appreciation read the AUK review). What particularly resounds is the continued relevance of the material 14 years on. Iraq is now Ukraine, the refugee crisis is now on a scale hitherto unimaginable in a far more perilous world.
Taking the compact stage in front of a sold-out Twickfolk Sunday night gig, Jones recalled her previous visit nine years ago. With commendable understatement she condensed her country’s leadership during the intervening years into, “Look what’s happened since, I’m so sorry.” Not that any ice needed breaking, she and audience were at one immediately. Raucous laughter swiftly dissipated on the opening bars of ‘Willow Tree’, from the album ‘My Remembrance of You’ that brought her huge acclaim in 2006. A gentle acoustic strum to a haunting voice laden with tension, Jones took her audience deep into her muse, “You can bend like a willow tree/ release your sins fall down on your knee”.
Live and with no accompaniment, Jones’ sparse blend of old time Appalachian folk is all about storytelling and remains every bit as alive and relevant as when first played. Her own story is fascinating. Raised by foster parents in Long Island she developed a love for the music of the rural south. In her twenties she travelled there to meet her birth family. That local music must have been in her blood as her biological grandfather, with whom she developed a very tight bond, took her on a trail that wound its way into the folk music of her predecessors.
From the mountains of Appalachia, in style and lyric Jones’s musical journey makes stops in the Depression era, the coffee houses of the early ‘60s Greenwich Village right up to today. As Joan Baez herself described Jones, “There’s some kind of channelling from some other lifetime going on, I don’t know the answer to these things, but all I can think of is that it must come from some mysterious part of her soul”. Unsurprisingly, today’s America offers no shortage of subjects. From ‘Better Times Will Come’, at a modest tempo, the part folk song part hymn ’All God’s Children’ blends the autobiographical with Jones’ innate curiosity about other people, “All God’s children travel like life’s highway/ I search for faces like my own.” She takes aim at gun violence with ‘If I Had A Gun’, admitting she can hardly sing this back home. The song is all in the conditional tense as a mistreated woman muses the aftermath of her pulling the trigger. Would he be any great loss? No.
With such musical heritage, not to mention her own studies, history features frequently. ‘Cold Grey Ground’ from ‘My Remembrance of You’ is about a soldier in the American Civil war pleading, “Don’t leave me here in the cold grey ground”. Sung unaccompanied, her alto drawl amplified the eerie pathos of this poor soul. Environment matters to Jones. ‘Appalachia’ is a lament to the natural world being laid to waste by a coal mining technique Jones described in her intro as “mining without getting your hands dirty.” They don’t even bother to dig a hole but just tear up the ground leaving a place where, “there won’t be no trees left at all/ no birds flying.” Her spacing of word and note hangs in the air like the aftermath of that vicious onslaught.
But it is people that Jones keeps coming back to. And people in the most desperate situations. Another from ‘Better Times Will Come’, ’Call Me Daddy’ contains brutal imagery of a mother’s new man whose promises to be a permanent fixture shrivel as his true character emerges. “He loves her like the devil loves a hard time/ like a convict loves a plan.” Vocally, Jones conveys a sense of weariness, seen it all before, the clarity of her words only adds to the intense dejection. ‘Evangelina’ paints an uncompromising picture of the sheer cruelty meted out to those trying to find a better life. Jones spent lockdown in New York where in Greenwich Village she befriended a homeless man struggling to get by. The city authorities had turned off all water sources so he had to beg outside the grocery store for the bottled stuff. Even among a crowd of people ‘’Since I Got No Home’ rang with the loneliness that man felt on those streets.
The plight of those displaced and dispossessed was the theme of Jones’s 2020 album ‘Song to a Refugee’ from which she sang ‘The Sea Is My Mother’. Introducing the song she paid tribute to her friend and spiritual adviser, a 90 year old Dutch Reformed Church minister who was once PR to Martin Luther King. From the same record came ‘We Believe You’ an uplifting anthem of hope for those whose voices go unheard that she recorded with Steve Earle, Richard Thompson and her friend and mentor, Peggy Seeger. In ‘Pony’ Jones spoke to Native Americans driven from their lands and forced to adopt identities of the oppressors, “My daddy called me Pony” being the ghostly reminder of better times long gone.
Nanci Griffith was a source of great encouragement to Jones when she newly arrived on the Nashville music scene. She “took me under her wing and appeared on my second record.” Griffith also guested on ‘Better Times Will Come’, a fitting end to the set. In a way the song pulls together all the strands of the entire show, its unswerving hope spread around the room as all joined in, “Better times will come/ better days will shine”.
Whether intentional the two encores each highlighted a significant influence on Jones. From her album, ‘Museum of Appalachia Recordings’, ‘Love O Love’ was a tender reminder of the southern reels and ballads she learned from her “pawpaw.” A particularly appreciative cry from the front row, “One more for the rest of us” persuaded Jones to close with ‘The Day I Die’ , a gentle infusion of folk and country infusion about moving on to the next world without regret.
Without doubt Jones carries the torch handed on from Baez and Seeger. Twickfolk could have been a cabin in those Appalachian mountains packed full, each person there hanging on every word proving once again the power of music.