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June Tabor

Silly Sisters 1976
Photo: Keith Morris
Silly Sisters 1976
S.R. Because of that, that song’s become very common around the clubs. Unfortunately, it’s not an easy song for people to do well, and in fact I would say that about 90% of the time we hear people doing it they make an absolute cock-up of it. Bearing that in mind, are you happy that a good song has been spread around or, if it’s going to be done like that, would you rather it wasn’t?

J.T. Of course, people don’t usually sing it when I’m there. But it is upsetting when people fail to see the point of a song. I don’t know if you ever read Sheila Miller’s amazing parody; one of the lines goes “And we crucified Waltzing Matilda with our banjos and guitars”. There are actually people around singing it as a chorus song. Twenty of them all in a big huddle! That’s one of the reasons I never sing it any more, because I actually had to say after I’d been singing it for a while, “Please don’t join in, ’cause you’ll spoil it for people who haven’t heard it before,” because it’s a completely solo song to get the impact of it.

S.R. Being a largely unaccompanied singer, it must be very distressing to hear people singing songs and not thinking about the words they’re singing, just concentrating on making a sound.

J.T. I’ve learned to live with that now. It’s because people aren’t used to songs having a story most of the time. The stuff they get bombarded with from radio and TV is just a composite sound, and they’re not really listening to the words. They’re really not used to concentrating. That’s why as an unaccompanied singer it was really quite a hard battle to get any gigs, because people would come up to me and say, “I really love your singing, I’d love to book you for the club, but they couldn’t sit through a whole evening of unaccompanied singing.”

S.R. How much are you actually worried about getting bookings, because you’ve always been fairly restrictive on the amount of work you do? Did you ever want to give up your job?

J.T. No, I don’t think so. I’ve always been very emphatic that I don’t wish to starve! I know people criticise me for that and say “Well, if you feel like that, then your commitment to music is not 100%”, but I sing quite a lot at home, particularly on my own, and if I never did another gig again in my life I’d still sing and traditional folk music is the closest thing to my heart.

S.R. Was the Stagfolk LP the first recording you ever did?

J .T. Yes, it must have been. That was in the days of another of my group forays, when I used to sing with Bonded Boots – Dave Walters and Howard Bond. That was most enjoyable – it was soon after I moved to London when we all used to go down to the Peelers club. It was soon after that I got the initial offer from Topic to do an album.

S.R. Your two Topic albums have presumably done very well for albums of largely traditional songs. Some people criticised you because they had, for instance, smarter covers than the average folkie record, were played by John Peel, and you went and promoted them by touring with a fairly high-powered management behind you. But surely that just means they were bought by many who would not have otherwise bought a traditional folk record?

J.T. Precisely. Particularly by being played by John Peel, who actually did far more for folk music than most people gave him credit for. Certainly at that time.

S.R. I guess the other thing which brought you to greater prominence was the Silly Sisters thing. Was it this that got you management, or did you consciously do that as a way to bring a fairly specialised music to a wider public?

J.T. I got to the stage where I was getting offered a lot more gigs than I could cope with, and a lot of that was because of the Silly Sisters album and tour. People who hadn’t been prepared to book me before suddenly decided my persona was grata after all, but very often they wouldn’t have been the right do and I needed somebody to say “No” for me because it is very, very difficult to say “No” . At one particular time I was doing 10 or 12 gigs a month and a full week’s work as well. I was probably doing as much as many full time singers. It takes 8 or 9 hours to do most gigs with all the travelling, getting back at an awful time in the morning and having to be up at 7 and go to work.

S.R. Didn’t you have a spot of vocal problems as well, which meant you had to cut down?

J.T. Yes I did, actually.

From Southern Rag No.3 (the original title of fRoots), January 1980


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