Four CD’s – sixty-seven tracks in all – is a daunting task for a reviewer. My job was made easier by a statement from Robin Deneslow, which is quoted on the box ‘‘June Tabor is far more than a folk singer. She is quite simply one of Britain ’s greatest interpreters of popular song.’’ As I am a folkie writing for a folk magazine I shall concentrate on the folk tracks, by which I mean traditional songs and contemporary songs influenced by the tradition.
Let me begin by saying that, of course, June Tabor has an incredible voice and that an enormous amount of care and devotion has clearly gone into this whole project – the CD’s, the autobiographical notes and the detailed notes for each song. Three minor quibbles before I begin the eulogy. (1) I would have liked the words of the songs to be included. There are songs on the albums by such distinguished writers as Richard Thompson, Bill Caddick and Eric Bogle among others and it would have been useful to be able to study the words. (2) In the song notes, Les Barker describes The Cutty Wren as ‘a stupid song’. If it is ‘stupid’ because it is about an ancient ceremony, doesn’t that make lots of other traditional songs ‘stupid’? (3) I personally have reservations about piano and viola as accompanying instruments to traditional songs.
On the subject of accompaniment, there is a dazzling array of accompanying musicians on these albums (Martin Carthy, Martin Simpson, Nic Jones and Andy Cutting to name but a few), but I very much enjoyed June Tabor’s unaccompanied singing as well. I particularly like her subtle use of decoration, and this is shown at its best on the track ‘The King of Rome’, on the first CD, a lovely song by Dave Sudbury about a legendary racing pigeon. I loved the Silly Sisters album, especially the blend and contrast of the voices of June Tabor and Maddy Prior and this blend can be heard on ‘What will we do?’ and ‘Buried in Kilkenny’. But my personal favourite on the first CD is ‘Young Johnstone’ – a classic murder ballad beautifully sung and with a marvellous accompaniment by Martin Simpson.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the second CD is June’s version of Eric Bogle’s ‘The band played Waltzing Matilda’. The subtleties of Bogle’s words really come out in this unaccompanied version. The distinctive guitar style of Martin Carthy is featured on the Richard Thompson song ‘Beat the Retreat’, and on the traditional song ‘Geordie’, while Martin Simpson takes to the banjo to accompany ‘The Overgate’. Another strong unaccompanied track is ‘The fair maid of Wallington’ a Childe Ballad of sex and infanticide.
Diehard folkies should start at the third CD; it’s a gem of an album – twelve traditional songs plus two by Bill Caddick, one by Richard Thompson and one by Eric Bogle. If I had to choose one track to take on a desert island it would have to be the ‘Will ye go to Flanders ?’ – a great example of a timeless traditional song, dating originally to The War of the Spanish Succession but relevant to any war. But how could I leave behind the lilting ‘Singing the travels’ (from Silly sisters); or another lively Tabor and Prior duet ‘Dashing away with the smoothing iron’; or a duet of a different kind, ‘Reynardine’ - a song which defies us to doubt its supernatural plot; or the Eric Bogle classic ‘Now I’m easy?’ Spoilt for choice, in fact.
The fourth CD begins with an angry Richard Thompson song of industrial oppression, ‘Mrs Rita’, followed by ‘The Wind and the Rain’, a version of The Two sisters, with fiddle accompaniment by Mark Emerson. There is also an unaccompanied version of ‘The Royal Oak’ – a powerful song powerfully sung; and a Bill Caddick song ‘Eights and aces’, about the death of Wild Bill Hickok, with Caddick sharing the vocals. But for me the best song on this album – and my favourite track of all sixty-seven is ‘A proper sort of Gardener’ written by Maggie Holland. It’s an evocative set of words set to a haunting tune and it’s beautifully sung by June and sensitively accompanied by Andy Cutting.
If you like song in the broadest sense, you should buy these albums. If you are strictly a folkie you will find plenty of tracks to enjoy and be moved by, so you should also buy them. And if you are June Tabor fan you will have bought them already.