I don’t remember how old I was, but it was during the period of the simmering hormones of puberty when I had raised the concept of “difficult teenager” to an art form, saying no to everything my parents invited me to do with a sense of righteous outrage that they even dared to invade my space to ask.
One Saturday evening after I had haughtily refused to dine with them, my father came into my room. “Hey, we’re going to drive over to Berkeley to see June Tabor. Wanna tag along?”
“NO!” I said in disgust and frustration. Why didn’t he get it? I didn’t want anything to do with them!
And do you know what that son of a bitch did? He started laughing at me! What’s worse, it was a jolly, good-natured laugh!
“Stop that!” I cried.
“I’m sorry,” he said with mock seriousness, pausing briefly in his fit of laughter to size me up. “No, you’re going with us,” he said with a smile.
“I am NOT! Leave me alone!”
He started laughing again and said, “Oh, yes, you are!” Then he came over to my bed, lifted me up and heaved me over his shoulder, laughing all the time.
“Let me GO!” I screamed.
He completely ignored me and carried my squirming body out to the car, where my mother was holding one of the rear doors open. Dad shoved me in, maman closed and locked the door, and we drove away, both parents not trying very hard to suppress their giggles.
“I’ll never forgive you for this!” I screamed.
My mother turned to me and said the one thing she knew would shut me up. “You’re being silly,” she said.
I never wanted to be silly under any circumstances, so I straightened up, took a few deep breaths and asked maman for a Kleenex and a mirror. If I had to go, I wasn’t going to look silly or ugly when I got there.
I was thoroughly dismayed when I found out that the performance was taking place in a church, but since they had pretty much taken the fight out of me, I sullenly slid into a pew next to them. The only trappings on the portable stage were a single microphone, a piano and an accordion. “Oh, great,” I thought. “Boring music in a fucking church!” I folded my arms and closed my eyes, trying to wish myself away from that awful place.
After a while, June Tabor appeared to warm applause. I opened my eyes and saw a rather small woman with dark hair and eyes take her place at the microphone. She thanked the audience for coming and then took some time describing the back-story of the song she was going to sing.
Then she sang.
She sang and somehow neutralized all of the chemical activity in my developing body, all of the aimless emotions, all of the seething anger. She held my attention as if she had cast a spell on me while I wasn’t looking. My only solace was that I was not the only one in the audience under her spell, for during her performance, the audience was perfectly still: not a cough, not a sniffle, not a squeak. I had wished myself away from that awful place and June Tabor had heard my wish, taking me to grand palaces, dark coal mines, tempestuous seas and the green swards of England as if by magic. When we left the church at the end of the performance, I talked with my parents as if the drama of the early evening had never happened, sharing my amazement and listening intently to how they had experienced the evening.
If you were to ask me to identify one artist whose work is consistently of the highest quality imaginable, I’d tell you without hesitation that it is June Tabor. In a career spanning some forty-odd years, I don’t think she’s ever recorded a bad track, much less a bad album. Grounded in British folk, she has occasionally expanded her range to include modern folk, jazz, pop standards and folk rock. The genre hardly matters; June Tabor is the epitome of artistic commitment, and whenever she sings, you know she brings all her talent to bear on the interpretation, unmasking the essence of a song.
While I intend to cover several of her albums, I thought I would start somewhere in the middle, with a record that may be more accessible to the average listener than her purely traditional efforts. Angel Tiger contains both traditional music and songs by modern songwriters such as Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson. Even with those peace offerings to modern music aficionados, June Tabor can demand a lot from her listeners. In addition to lovely ballads and songs with wicked humor, she also dares to sing about subjects people do not want to hear about: war, greed, rape, growing old, dying. As she said in an interview with Pulse, “I make the albums that I feel are right for me, and I don’t make them with a specifically commercial end in view.” The commitment is always to the art, a commitment that demands self-knowledge, self-awareness and discipline.
Angel Tiger begins with a very difficult song, one that always brings me to tears. Bob Franke’s “Hard Love” is the story of a soul damaged by a childhood lived in fear, leaving scars that block the desire to give love freely in adulthood. The two opening verses set the scene:
I remember growing up like it was only yesterday
Mom and Daddy tried so hard to guide me on my way
But the hard times and the liquor drove the easy love away
And the only love I knew about was hard love
It was hard love, every hour of the day
When Christmas to my birthday was a million years away
And the fear that came between them drove the tears into my play
There was love in daddy’s house, but it was hard love.
June approaches the song with some distance as if confronting the truth is too painful to imagine. As the song proceeds, the narrator moves toward the awareness that the “love that heals our lives is mostly hard love,” and June’s vocal becomes stronger with the sense of having realized something that had been so difficult to express.
Eric Taylor is a Texas-based songwriter known for his stories, and the writer of the brilliant “Shameless Love,” which June covered marvelously on Against the Streams. Here she tackles his song “Joseph Cross” with an arrangement vastly different in tempo and choice of instrumentation than the original version with its simple acoustic folk feel. This version opens with the haunting sound of an accordion, opening an eerie landscape gradually enhanced by cello and soprano saxophone, creating a mystical feel appropriate to a song about the death of an old man of Native American descent. This is followed by Les Barker’s “Sudden Waves,” a song of stark beauty that allows June to demonstrate greater range while still maintaining perfect command of emotion in a very touching song.
Few things in life can command your attention like June Tabor singing a capella. The first two verses of Billy Bragg’s “Rumors of War” are June-only, and the rest of the arrangement is exceptionally sparse, consisting only of a piano playing in the lowest depths of the keyboard and a rough accordion also played in a lower register. The war in question is WWII, but the song does not deal with battles or atrocities, but with the collateral damage to average lives and the disconnection between natural time, cultural time and wartime:
Everything in my life that I love
Could be swept away without warning
Yet the birds still sing and the church bells ring
And the sun came up this morning
Mick Fitzgerald’s “All Our Trades Are Gone,” in contrast, moves with insistent intensity, driven by powerful cello support. Here the destruction of “normal life” and collateral damage is occasioned not by war but by the oxymoronic term, “economic progress.” As technology continues to wipe out the skilled crafts, all that is left for the craftsperson is to move on . . . to the next bleak city, the next shot in the dark. June’s delivery is one of righteous indignation at the fundamental lack of consideration or compassion by those who gain from other people’s losses.
“Happed in Mist” comes from the late Michael Marra, “The Bard of Dundee.” This is a funereal song of war, echoing her masterful interpretation of Eric Bogle’s “No Man’s Land” on Ashes and Diamonds. Her Oysterband mate Ian Telfer wrote “The Doctor Calls,” one of the more unusual songs on the album, with more of a pop feel, particularly on the chorus with its harmonies and horns. It’s followed by the traditional “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme,” a song warning young ladies to watch out for guys only interested in a quickie (men never change!), once sung by the late Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention fame. As she always does with traditionals, June subtly adjusts her phrasing to dialect, taking you back centuries to a time when life’s lessons were communicated to the illiterate primarily through music.
Demonstrating her astonishing range, June then moves forward a few centuries to “All This Useless Beauty,” a song that Elvis Costello specifically wrote for her in 1992. The quality most apparent to me in her delivery of this masterpiece of the songwriting art is her ability to enunciate the lyrics even when vocalizing intense emotion, a quality you rarely find in rock, pop or other genres. When you have lyrics as layered and rich as these, they deserve a hearing!
Good Friday arrived, the sky darkened on time
‘Til he almost began to negotiate
She held his head like a baby and said, “It’s okay if you cry”
Now he wants her to dress as if you couldn’t guess
He desires to impress his associates
But he’s part ugly beast and Hellenic deceased
So she finds that the mixture is hard to deny
What shall we do, what shall we do, with all this useless beauty?
All this useless beauty.
She won’t practice the looks from the great tragic books
That were later defaced to grace celluloid
They no longer make sense but you can bet
If she isn’t a sweetheart or plaything or pet
The film turns her into an unveiled threat.
Her precise yet passionate delivery also demonstrates another feature of June Tabor’s approach to a song: she has deep respect for the songwriter, whether that songwriter is famous, obscure or completely anonymous.
June then returns to the traditional with “10,000 Miles,” a song from the Roxburghe Ballads popularized in our time by Mary Chapin Carpenter. I’ll take June’s more authentic approach any day.
June Tabor always refers to him as “The Blessed Richard Thompson,” and has recorded several songs by my favorite songwriter of all. “Blind Step Away” begins with muted, plucked strings, a perfect backdrop for this symbolic rendering of Blind Man’s Bluff placed in the context of the thoughtless, unaware, grasping behavior that passes for love in too many relationships. The strings on this song create a sense of dizziness as subject approaches object in a state of complete emotional blindness. The drama of the piece is simply astonishing. The album ends with the stark landscape and lyrics of “Elephant,” which June delivers with that rare ability to integrate intense emotion and restraint into a single performance.
As I said near the beginning of this piece, June Tabor requires a great deal from her listeners. Her music is never background music; it demands the listener’s complete attention and respect. The reward for giving her music a mere hour of your time is that you will find the respect is mutual, for more than any other artist, June Tabor respects the intelligence and human capacity of the listening audience. She will challenge you, to be sure, but a musical journey with her will engage your emotions and your intelligence, and leave you with an awareness of the human condition that will become a part of you forever.
June Tabor leaves no soul untouched.