From Southern Rag No.3 (the original title of fRoots), January 1980
Some of the most refreshing music to be heard around the clubs in the past autumn was provided by a new dynamic duo in posing boots, June Tabor accompanied by Martin Simpson. Shortly after their initial run of dates together, June came down to Southern Rag Towers to take part in another of our series of mildly scurrilous interviews with people The Sun has never heard of.
After strapping her firmly into a chair still bearing marks of struggle from last issue’s Nic Jones encounter, Ian Anderson and Maggie Holland did most of the talking whilst Caroline Hurrell applied more subtle methods of persuasion in the form of rather too many bottles of red wine. The latter method proved more fruitful!
For complete dumbos (a very small percentage of our readership, we hasten to add), June’s two Topic albums to date are Airs & Graces (12TS298) and Ashes & Diamonds (12TS360), whilst her duo album with Maddy Prior, Silly Sisters, was on Chrysalis CHR 1101.
The first time I met you would have been around 1967 when you came down to Bristol with the New Modern Idiot Grunt Band. What were you doing in folk clubs in those days, were you already singing or just an audience person?
No, I sang the first time I ever went to a folk club, would you believe? I got taken along to one just opened in Leamington, I’d been known to sing all sorts of things at school. I went along with a school friend when I was about sixteen, and we walked in and she went straight up to the organiser and said “My friend sings, will you put her on?” I was hiding at the back thinking “Oh my God, what shall I sing? I don’t know any folk songs”. And my first public appearance in a folk club I sang Kumbaya and Michael Row the Boat Ashore, because that was all I knew. I’d been watching the Hallelujah programme on television, so I got up and sang and I’ve been doing it ever since. I got friendly with the resident group and started going round with them, and started to get hold of records and things and learn traditional songs.
How early on did you get interested in traditional songs, because at that time the clubs were fairly heavily into Bob Dylan and Bert and John?
Well the club I went to regularly, the resident group were very much into Irish stuff, Clancy Brothers, that kind of thing, but fairly soon after I started going I went into Dobells and acquired an Anne Briggs EP; that would be after about a couple of months of going to folk clubs, and I learned everything off that. I used to drive my mother mad by sitting in the bathroom learning how to decorate! And if you remember that particular Anne Briggs EP, it was the one with My Bonny Boy and Rosemary Lane and things like that; very, very highly decorated singing, so I learnt how to do that by copying Anne Briggs, and then I found out about Topic by getting that EP and I acquired the Belle Stewart (The Stewarts Of Blair) so my style evolved from a mixture of things, Irish decorated style and Scots tinker style.
That’s interesting because you must be one of the few people who went straight into singing British traditional songs rather than starting off in something else and then delving deeper into things. The next time I remember meeting you, you were at Oxford at the Heritage Society. I gather that had quite a marked effect on you. Was this where you ran across the old singers for the first time?
Yes, apart from the odd albums I’d picked up by looking in the Topic catalogue and picking out things that had female singers on, Lizzie Higgins, Jeannie Robertson, that sort of thing. Because the people I’d been mixing with up to that time had been very Irish orientated, or people like the Grunt Band doing blues and all that sort of stuff, then to go to Oxford and actually find this immense band of people who were really very much into Traditional with a capital T music and sitting in a pub playing tunes and English music. that was tremendous, I’d never come across anything quite like that before. And of course Peta Webb was at the same college as I was, and she was a leading light in the club at the time.
How much would you say your singing has been affected by other revival singers compared with, say, listening either to records of older traditional singers or hearing them in the flesh?
Quite a lot, I think. I couldn’t but help be influenced by the revival singers, I think. Although there were all sorts of other musical influences going on at the same time. While I was at Oxford, apart from singing the straight traditional things I then got involved with a soft rock band in my third year. They were doing Fairport type stuff, Jefferson Airplane songs, all that kind of thing. We had a really great time. I gave it up in the end because I was ruining my voice shouting over what they were doing. I was also singing with a jazz-influenced little group; guitarist, flute player.
The reason I asked about the influence of other revival singers was that the folk scene is, in a way, an isolated community, albeit spread out geographically, and I wondered whether you were aware of the development of a particular style peculiar to that community.
Certainly in choice of material rather than singing style. There was a guy at Oxford called Martin Clark, I got a few very good songs off him, and I think I was undoubtedly influenced to a degree by his style. I got Plains Of Waterloofrom him, and Scarborough Fair Town. He had a very straightforward singing style, hardly any decoration at all. I’d been singing very highly decorated stuff. That was one of the things that, well, not took me away from singing in a decorated way, but I’d been really going over the top with decoration when I first learned how to do it. I was so pleased that I could shake my vocal cords about and produce all these amazing notes, and I think listening to people like Martin made me realise that a better way was to use decoration sparingly, and I’ve been moving in that direction, really, ever since. You’ve got to find out what you can do and then not do it most of the time. Dave Burland is a classic example of doing or not doing it. He is one of the most subtle and beautiful singers I’ve ever heard.
Funnily enough, Michael Grosvenor Myer’s review of your second album in Folk Review implied that your mannerisms had got more extreme, to the extent that he couldn’t understand the words of the songs any more.
I would certainly quarrel with that, because I don’t think it had. If he’d heard me singing 8 or 9 years before, then certainly. I’ve heard myself decorate so much that I’ve lost the tune completely.
Does it worry you to know that somebody who’d never heard you or the song before recently commented that they found it very difficult to follow the storyline of a ballad, although they really liked your voice?
I’d find that odd now. Admittedly my enunciation is not all it might be, which is something I should watch because, particularly when you’re singing unaccompanied, it’s the story that’s important. And if somebody can’t understand that, then I’ve failed.
I wonder if, because we’re all so used to singing to audiences in the folk scene who know the styles, that in fact somebody who has not heard that style of singing before would find it more difficult to understand.
People who haven’t been to folk clubs before find it immensely difficult to listen to unaccompanied singing at all because it’s just not something they’ve ever come across. I wish there were more audiences like those Kenyans who came to Shackleford, because they really understood, and the questions they were asking us afterwards! Really intelligent sort of things, you know. “Why do you sing sad songs, why do you particularly pick on that?” And I was saying, “Well, I feel the suffering in these songs and I feel that people shouldn’t forget the emotions that have produced those kinds of songs.” And they really understood that. It’s a long time since anyone’s come up to me in a folk club and asked those kinds of things.
People don’t any more, do they? Once upon a time people were much more interested in the music and the songs than they are now. I really regret that passing.
One song in particular that you were responsible for putting around was The Band Played Waltzing Matilda…
Yes I sang it at the Inverness Festival, and apparently the tape was changing hands at an amazing rate, and sometimes for money!
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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.
Was the Stagfolk LP the first recording you ever did?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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 clubs.to 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.
Didn’t you have a spot of vocal problems as well, which meant you had to cut down?
Yes I did, actually.
I’ve heard it suggested that vocal problems can be your body’s way of telling you you’re overdoing things in general.
Yes, that is very true – it hits you in the place where you notice it the most. My voice started to go; it wasn’t good when we were rehearsing and doing the Silly Sisters, and then the gigs I did after that got to the point where my voice started to disappear. That got me very worried so I went to a throat specialist (my current specialist is called Norman A. Punt, he’s absolutely wonderful) and I was told I’d strained my vocal cords and the only thing I could do was stop singing and, if possible, not speak for a month. So I did it – I had a notebook, several notebooks, they’re all thoroughly obscene!
But back to the management thing – I’d acquired management before; I’d got Paul Brown to take me on at the time of doing the first Topic album because we were at Oxford together. We’d been friends for years and we stuck together up to now. Now Jean and Jane do that because I’m only actually doing gigs with Martin Simpson, not doing any unaccompanied gigs, so as they do Martin’s agency they’ve taken over.
I’d thought the tour you just did with Martin was a one-off and you’d generally continue with solo work.
Oh no, I’d got to the stage where I wanted to do something different, I felt I was getting stale just doing unaccompanied gigs and I felt I needed a change to put a bit of life back into what I had been doing. So I virtually stopped doing gigs on my own apart from one or two clubs I’ve always done for the last 7 or 8 years. We’re doing another album for Topic, Martin and I, with the guys from “the band”; Ric Sanders, Dave Bristow the keyboard player and John Davy the bass player. That’s three out of four of Ric’s band.
How much of this album is going to be the combination of you and Martin as people will hear you and how much of it will be more arranged?
Well, the whole thing is based on what Martin and I are doing in the clubs at the moment. We are going to use the band on about half of it, but even so I’m a great believer really, these days, in doing an album so that you can present most of what’s on there in a club and people won’t think “Oh, that’s not the way it sounds on the album”. It should be out the 1st of April – that’s a good day for an album!
Do you know yet what’s going to be on there?
Yes, it’ll be mostly what we’ve been doing on our recent tour; things like Unicorns, The Green Linnet, Davy Lowston, the French song Le Roi Renaud. The same sort of mixture as the last one.
You have stuck fairly closely to the way Pierre Bensusan arranged Le Roi Renaud. Even with my limited, lapsed O-level French, hearing you sing it gave me goosepimples at exactly the same point in the song as on Pierre’s version.
It’s tremendous, actually, the reaction we’ve had doing that, because I was a bit apprehensive about standing up in a club and singing something that wasn’t in English. I do make a point of explaining the whole song before I sing it. I’ve heard Rum do this, singing something in Flemish but they told the whole story first and although I don’t speak a word of Flemish I could pick up the key points in the song. Most people in an English club have done some sort of French at school. And it is such a strong song, extremely emotional.
But there I was worrying about singing something not in English in a folk club and it occurred to me that Dick Gaughan does it all the time!
The tour with Martin certainly seems to have done the trick. The last thing anybody who heard it could imagine was any of the staleness you said you’d been feeling before.
I find it a very interesting combination to work with Martin who has been doing mostly American music and me who’s been doing mainly British traditional stuff – we really find each one is sympathetic to the other’s way of playing. I always considered myself to be the kind of person who would perform mostly British traditional songs or contemporary songs written in the traditional style, like Bill Caddick’s or Richard Thompson’s. But having worked with Martin, it’s opened out a whole new vista because on the tour, our second set was all songs of the American Civil War. So I’m actually singing American songs. That’s something I’d never done before, I’d never even sung American versions of traditional songs – and it’s great!