All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”
— Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
Swing Boys Swing is another fine collection of recordings by the Whitstable based singer/songwriter Nigel Hobbins.
There are twelve songs in all. Five of them are co-written with Andrew Ling; one of them is a traditional number and one (The Spritsail Barges) based on an anonymous poem found painted on a bit of old plywood in a boatbuilder’s yard in Faversham. The rest are one hundred percent Nigel’s.
It’s impossible to categorise Nigel’s music, it is so uniquely his own.
There are many influences in here, all of which play a part. There are African-sounding riffs, Country Music choruses, bits of Cajun, bits of Soul, Jazz phrases, Reggae rhythms, Celtic folk and, I’m sure, a whole bundle of other borrowings from music forms from around the world, but it is all wedded to a deeply English – nay Kentish – sensibility.
It is music grown from the rich soil of rural Kent, from Challock, on the North Downs, where Nigel was born and raised, and Whitstable, where he has lived and worked and raised his children, with Christine his partner, these last thirty years.
You can almost hear the roots burying themselves in the English soil as the songs waft by on the summer air.
And that, indeed, is the quality of many of these songs: a kind of breeziness, a summeriness, a lightness of touch that can nevertheless lead you to some very deep places.
It is also almost completely production free. There’s not a hint of electronics here. It was recorded in a summerhouse in Challock, just Nigel and his guitar and the birds outside, and then lugged round to various people’s houses in Whitstable, where the other musicians added their tracks. And that’s it. No more. Simple, sweet, unvarnished music, played by artisan musicians accomplished at their craft.
I Can’t Explain
I Can’t Explain, the opening song, co-written with Andrew Ling, is unaccompanied except by Nigel’s jaunty guitar, and is the only one on which no other musicians appear. There’s an almost painful intimacy about it, both in the way that Nigel sings, very close to the microphone, as if he’s whispering in your ear, and in Andrew’s lyrics, which evoke the shy confusion of a love that reaches beyond words.
It is a beautiful start to a beautiful album.
Head Over Heels, the next song, is one of Nigel’s own. It’s a love song, but one that is characteristically Nigel. His choice of imagery is so down to earth it’s glorious. How about “my footings have all lost their firm foundations” as an illustration of the uncertainty of love? That reminded me of his Love Sick Brickie song from another album, in which he evokes the confused preoccupations of a bricklayer in love.
Or how about this: “as helpless as a fish served upon a plate”? That would be one of Nigel’s fish, then, caught by his own hand on one of his fishing trips.
But the line that made me laugh out loud was this: “Now the postman’s delivered next door’s mail, I open it and feel real bad.”
That’s me that is. I’m the postman who delivered next door’s mail. I’m always doing it, always sticking the wrong letters into the wrong letter boxes, being far too distracted half the time to make a decent postman, and it’s great to hear a mundane detail of my daily life make it into song.
What a song like this does is to redeem ordinary life, to give it the status of poetry. It takes a proper artist to pull that one off.
Down to Ground
Back Down to Ground, co-written with Andrew Ling, made me cry. It evokes the feeling of lost love, and the craziness and confusion that can accompany that, but adds a sort of kindly reminder that the world spins on regardless of our loss.
It’s in two distinct parts. One of them, bittersweet and sad, and sung in a minor key, evokes the loss and the pain and the confusion; while the other, the chorus, is bright and lively and full of verve and reminds us of the simple joyful pleasures of our remaining days upon this Earth:
Winter came and the stars wheeled on,
And the frost broke up the clay,
Swallows flew and the sun shone on
And the summer smelled of hay.
Very simple, very poignant, and sung with heartfelt emotion by Nigel, who has obviously experienced a loss or two himself in his time
I won’t go into every song line by line as that would probably spoil it for you. These are my thoughts, my emotions, and you will no doubt bring your own feelings to it when you listen to the album: which I heartily recommend you do.
What it does for me is to underline the absurd narrowness of contemporary mainstream culture. These are not only accomplished and wholly original songs, but they carry a depth that is all too rare in this age of prepackaged emotion.
It deserves to be heard by everyone all over the world, and not just the small audience in and around Whitstable, where it currently has its base.
I’ve saved the stand-out song till last. It is the one after which the album is named: Swing Boys Swing.
It’s not like anything I’ve ever heard before.
It’s about a time of turmoil and violence in British history, the rising up of the poor against the greed and narrow-mindedness of their Masters.
It’s about Captain Swing, the fictitious person who signed the letters warning the magistrates, parsons, landowners and other worthies of the “consequences” if their demands weren’t met.
The song is very dark in atmosphere with some threatening undertones, which perfectly invoke the mood of a night time riot. There’s an eeriness about the song too. Not so much haunting, as haunted, it’s as if Nigel has channeled the grief and anger of these long-dead souls who, unable to feed their families, and incensed at the injustices bearing down upon them, took it upon themselves to do the only thing in their power to do: to smash and burn the symbols of their oppression, the threshing machines and farm equipment, the barns, outhouses and other property of the wealthy landowners who were busy enriching themselves off the worker’s backs.
It isn’t a song about history. It is history come alive.
Some things never change, it says. There are still people enriching themselves off the workers’ backs. The greed and narrow-mindedness hasn’t gone away and Captain Swing is ever on the alert for the shadow of injustice.
Nigel Hobbins - vocals, guitar, mandolin, bass, percussion Andrew Ling - lyrics Daren Reynolds - double bass, electric bass Neil Sloman - tenor, soprano & baritone sax Robert Jarvis - trombone Diane Comley - vocals Martyn Kember-Smith - fiddle Joe Hand - banjo Daniel Mackenzie - electric guitar Will Glanfield - E flat clarinet Mastered by Robert Jarvis
1. I Can't Explain (3:10) Hobbins/Ling 2. Head Over Heels (4:51) Hobbins 3. Swing Boys Swing (6:52) Hobbins 4. Back Down To Ground (3:22) Hobbins/Ling 5. The Dargate Stomp (3:39) Hobbins/Ling 6. Hares on the Old Plantation (3:14) Trad 7. The Spritsail Barges (4:06) Hobbins/Anon 8) I Will Never Forget (3:38) Hobbins/Ling 9. Vic Plums (5:23) Hobbins 10. So We Owe (2:51) Hobbins/Ling 11. Far Far Away (3:41) Hobbins 12. Beautiful Day (5:57) Hobbins
- Nigel Hobbins Music
Inspiration for my music is simple, three generations of my family in a small village in Kent, all the history that comes with it
Nigel Hobbins and The Dreamlanders Facebook page
- Nigel Hobbins on YouTube
Lots of goodies here
- Review: It’s Only 8 1/4 Miles to Dreamland by Nigel Hobbins
There is something deeply rural in Nigel’s music, something local, something English in the old sense, like a cutting taken from an old tree and grown afresh
CJ Stone is an author, columnist and feature writer. He has written seven books