Classic Music Review: Airs and Graces by June Tabor

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I had planned to pair June Tabor with Françoise Hardy in my Great Broads series, but Connie Francis ruined my plans.

I have always loved Connie Francis’ voice, and I will go to my grave believing that “You’re Gonna Miss Me” is one of the greatest female vocal performances of all-time. What triggered the change in plans is that when I started writing the review of The Very Best of Connie Francis, I had to deal with the other twenty songs in the collection. Connie sang most of them very well, using her genetic talents and consummate professionalism to make the most out of each number. Unfortunately, the songs themselves were as empty as a nun’s cunt, selected primarily to pander to various markets (white teenagers, Italian-Americans, country crossover fans), so I found myself getting frustrated trying to make something out of not much. Connie Francis had a beautiful and flexible voice that could have easily moved into the more challenging field of jazz vocals, but instead she chose to sing crap scarcely above the level of television commercial jingles. Instead of becoming the next Peggy Lee, she gave us polkas, chlorinated pseudo-rock numbers and Neil Sedaka.

Her choices made her very successful. During her peak period from 1957-1963, she was the most popular singer for five consecutive years in the American Bandstand poll, appeared on every major television variety show of the time, conquered markets all over Europe and became the role model for millions of good girls who pushed their parents to buy them Connie Francis lunch boxes, charm bracelets, scrapbooks and sportswear. Befitting that Happy Days era of American denial, when women trapped in Levittowns suffered from depression behind June Cleaver façades, when blacks were still denied the right to eat and sleep in many places in the South and beyond, and when being gay was a sign of a psychological disorder, Connie Francis sang songs that supported that denial and could be played in polite company. She was the anti-Shangri-Las: a good, sensible girl who never thought of rebelling against her parents or dating the Leader of the Pack. Connie made the Bobby Darin-like progression from malt-shop-rock to easy listening without a hitch, and even after she dropped out of the Top 20 in the face of The British Invasion and the emergence of Motown, she could still fill concert halls and night clubs with people who just wanted to hear a nice girl sing nice songs.

That’s not what I want to hear. I have to admit that I tend to be more demanding of song interpreters than singer-songwriters, because it’s easy for an interpreter to ride the fame of a popular song without doing much with it, or take a long-forgotten hit and spruce it up a little to cash in on the latent nostalgia in the aging component of the listening public. The great interpreters (Patsy Cline, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin) took songs written by other people, made them their own and imbued them with meaning. Song selection is an art in itself, and this is where Connie Francis consistently falls short. Yes, she made a lot of money singing songs that her papa wanted her to sing, songs that she thought teenagers wanted to hear and songs designed to extend her reach into specific markets (her album of Italian numbers proved to be her best-selling album), but very, very little outside her comfort zone or the comfort zone of her loyal fan base.

That doesn’t make her a Great Broad in my book, so Connie has been bounced from the list, and after listening to someone engage in repeated acts of criminal song selection, I needed to hear the woman who is the best I know at choosing songs that reflect her passions and her talents.

June Tabor’s ear for a great song was evident from the start, on her maiden album, Airs and Graces. Unlike Connie Francis, she has no marketing talent or interest whatsoever, and has largely toiled in relative obscurity during her career, at one point dropping out of the music scene to work as a librarian and run a restaurant. She is unlikely to ever garner the honors bestowed on fellow countrywomen Kate Bush (CBE) or P. J. Harvey (MBE) because those artists made a lot of money for the Empire, while June Tabor sells records by the handfuls. That is not a knock on either Kate or P. J., but an acknowledgment that sometimes one’s artistic impulses do not align with the tastes of the consumer. The Silly Sisters collaboration with Maddy Prior was relatively successful, but that had more to do with dumb luck than intent. June Tabor’s work is all about the music, about the meaning, about the art itself.

I believe I have everything June Tabor has ever recorded, and I have never been disappointed in her work. Still, I often go back to this first album because it remains one of her purest recordings, with several songs sung a cappella—and there are few singers who do a cappella as powerfully as June Tabor. The songs here range from traditional to those by horribly under-recognized songsmiths like Eric Bogle and John Tams. And unlike Ms. Francis, June Tabor was and remains absolutely fearless when it comes to choosing songs that deal with the ugly and tragic side of the human condition.

The first tune on Airs and Graces is anything but a trip into the heart of darkness. “While the Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping” is one of three variants of a song classified as Roud 363, which June learned from the Hammond-Gardiner manuscripts collected in the early 20th century. This is a playful first-person song from the point of view of the poacher, who describes in not-too gory detail how he and his dog chase a female hare that has dashed across the borders of a country estate. They pursue their game while the gamekeepers lie sleeping, catch and kill her. The pair then sell the carcass to a laboring man and head off to the public house to get “quite mellow.” The poacher is quite consistent in his use of the word “we” throughout the song, implying that his dog was as boon a companion at the pub as he was during the hunt. The song is performed as a duet with talented guitarist Nic Jones, and the result is a melodic delight with a jaunty rhythm that serves to welcome the listener.

The first a cappella number on Airs of Graces is “Plains of Waterloo” (Roud 960), what June refers to in the liner notes as a “broken token” song. Romance of old was always conditional and tinged with suspicion, with greater suspicion attached to the more easily tempted fairer sex. The ultimate test of a woman involved proving their trustworthiness by remaining faithful during a long separation—a completely one-sided expectation, but such was life in a world where everyone believed that women were forever tainted by the curse of Eve. The Traditional Music Library defines broken token songs thusly:

There must be dozens of examples of this type of song. A young man about to leave for sea or the military gives his true love one-half of a token (a coin, say) to remember him by. On his return years later, he is so changed as to be unrecognizable, so he engages his love in conversation in hopes of finding out if she’s been true to him. When he discovers that she has, he produces his half of the token to prove his identity and they live happily ever after. Not the most realistic of stories, but some of the songs have great tunes. Examples are “Johnny Riley”, “Plains of Waterloo”, “The Crookit Bawbee”, “A Pretty Fair Maid”, and “Sweet Jenny of the Moor”.

This story plays out in the same fashion, with the young man (Willie) telling the fair maid that he saw Willie killed by one of “Napoleon Boney’s” soldiers. Only when she turns pale and wan at the news does he reveal himself as Willie. She falls into his arms, weeping with gratefulness and relief, instead of giving him the kick in the nuts that he truly deserved. June Tabor does not allow any similar editorialization to enter her phrasing, capturing both the unfolding drama and the expressive accents with the talent of an old storyteller. While the story itself is not as enthralling as some of the following numbers, June Tabor’s voice is more than enough to keep you mesmerized.

Nic Jones returns to accompany June on “Bonny May,” one of many traditional songs dealing with in-the-field fucking. In this case, the lass is tending her sheep when a passing group of men on horseback stop near her, ostensibly to let one of the men dismount and ask directions. Bonny May smells a rat and tells them to bugger off (in so many words), but as is often the case with men, they don’t understand that when a woman says no, she fucking means it:

Now he’s taken her by the middle jimp
And by the green gown sleeve,
And there he’s had his will of her
And he’s asked of her no leave, leave,
And he’s asked of her no leave.

Feeling the culturally-imposed shame of the rape victim, she walks home with “the milk pail on her head” to face her father. Her response to his query as to why she tarried so long forms a subtle indictment of Christian faith:

Oh, woe be to your shepherd, father,
He takes no care of the sheep,
For he’s builded the fold at the back of the down
And the fox has frightened me, me,
And the fox has frightened me.

Oh, there came a fox to the fold door
With twinkling eye so bold,
And ere he’d taken the lamb that he did
I’d rather he’d taken them all, all.

As it turns out, the rapist returns six months later and though Bonny May denies he is the father of the child in her belly, he swoops her up and takes her away to his “twenty plough of land,” still enthralled by her beauty. Compared to the original version of the song (Child’s 217), the version concocted here by June and Maddy Prior leaves out one key passage: in the original, the rapist gave Bonny May three guineas and told her “If I dinna come back in half a year/Then luke nae mair for me.” I suppose that was considered chivalry at the time. Excluding that passage effectively placed the rape in its proper context; rather than the story of a gentleman doing the right thing by the woman he knocked up, we have another female victim of male physical and financial superiority. June Tabor’s rendering of this song never comes close to making us believe that “things worked out in the end”; in the last verse, as she describes how “he’s taken away the bonniest lass in all the South country,” her tone is one of inevitable finality. From a musical perspective, the brief moments when she harmonizes with herself over guitar and soprano recorder are timeless moments of sheer beauty.

“Reynardine” is a similar tale with supernatural tinges sung a cappella. The myth of the sneaky fox who whisks women away to dark places with his sly talk is quite different from the character in the original French countryside myth, where Reynard is grudgingly admired for his ability to survive through cunning and does not go around sweet-talking women into giving it up. This Reynardine does, but what is interesting is the girl’s response to his polite entreaties, which is essentially, “I seriously want to get down with you but I’m afraid my parents will find out.” Reynardine assures her he will protect her life with the gun at his side, and she immediately gives herself up, fainting from his kisses. June’s approach has a hint of that wicked humor you sometimes hear in her in-between song patter during live performances, most noticeably when she lengthens the vocalization of “he led her over the moun—tain,” slowing down the rhythm before delivering the closer, “that sly bold Reynardine.” Another interpretation I read is that the reason the British versions of Reynard songs paint the character as a woman-thief was part of their ongoing demonization of the Irish as untrustworthy. June’s liner notes do not support that interpretation (“For me the romance and mystery outweigh the horror of the werewolf implication—Errol Flynn rather than Lon Chaney”). Yes, women are indeed capable of consciously choosing to allow themselves to be seduced, especially if the man in question is dashing rather than dull.

The pièce de resistance of Airs and Graces is June Tabor’s rendition of Eric Bogle’s “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” one of the most moving anti-war songs ever written. June would record Bogle’s equally gripping “No Man’s Land” on Ashes and Diamonds, and both songs leave me in tears and in a state of deep bitterness regarding man’s inhumanity towards man. The primary difference in the two renditions is that “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is sung a cappella, leaving the listener with only voice and story. To hold the listener’s attention with only the voice is a demanding task for any singer, but June Tabor’s talent in expressing emotional nuance while avoiding excess, and her ability to immerse herself in the character of the narrator of this tragic tale, creates a one-of-a-kind intimate experience that magnifies the power of Eric Bogle’s lyrics many times over. The sheer emotional power of this song is off the charts, yet June’s performance avoids all histrionics and remains completely faithful to story and character.

The narrator is a young Aussie in the year 1915, a self-described rover with no aim in life except to ramble. That life ends with Australia’s entry into World War I, and the young man is drafted into service. He boards a ship to the sound of an excited, patriotic group of well-wishers, “And amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears, we sailed off to Gallipoli.”

Simply naming the place establishes a strong sense of foreboding, as Gallipoli was Churchill’s mad attempt to establish a second front that resulted in one of the greatest disasters in military history. That’s the historical truth, but what Eric Bogle wanted to express was the human truth, and he could not have found anyone more suited to express his stark and chilling lyrics than June Tabor:

And how well I remember that terrible day,
How our blood stained the sand and the water
And of how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay,
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk he was ready, he’d primed himself well.
He chased us with bullets, he rained us with shell.
And in five minutes flat, he’d blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia.

June Tabor’s approach in this early passage is one of quiet semi-detachment; she sings the story without flourish, allowing the power of the words and a hint of melancholy in her voice to carry the load. It’s as if the narrator is relating a tale he has told many times, but despite the soul-level weariness he must feel at revisiting a traumatic experience, he also feels a sense of responsibility to tell the story faithfully.

The cycle of death and destruction continues for an unimaginable ten weeks, neither side moving the other, “a mad world of blood, death and fire.” Our narrator has been lucky so far, “though around me the corpses piled higher.” His luck ends with terrible suddenness:

Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head,
And when I woke up in my hospital bed,
And saw what it had done, well I wished I was dead.
Never knew there was worse things than dyin’.

He will travel the green bush no more, having lost both legs to a meaningless exercise in human futility. They ship “the legless, the armless, the blind, the insane” back to Australia; as the ship pulls into the harbor, June’s sad melancholy breaks with her emphasis on the phrase in italics:

I looked at the place where me legs used to be
And thanked Christ there was no one there waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity.

The final passage of the song recounts a typical ANZAC day where bands play and crowds gather to honor their heroes “from a forgotten war.” The horror of Suvla Bay has been transformed from a tale of human tragedy into a sick celebration of heroism, where the bloodshed is redefined as “old dreams of past glories.” The last thing we hear is June Tabor’s voice moving to the back of the soundscape, ephemeral, ghostly and terribly wistful, singing a variation of “Waltzing Mathilda.” The experience of June Tabor’s performance here goes beyond moving; it is a performance that reaches deep into the heart and soul.

On vinyl, “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” ends side one, a much-appreciated break from the sheer intensity of that piece. “Young Waters” (Roud 2860) is a very different but equally absurd tale of the unlimited power of the royals. Young Waters’ crime is that the Queen happens to remark that he’s the “fairest face that my eyes ever did see.” Unfortunately for Waters, she makes that offhand admission within earshot of the jealous and insecure King, earning poor Waters a quick trip to the dungeon to await execution, which itself follows rather quickly. Sung over a relentless drone, enhanced at key points with simple piano chords, the music mirrors the inevitability of Waters’ end and the cold, cruelty of arbitrary justice. June sings this song almost as a warning to those who would dare offend the royalty, emphasizing one word above all others: “die.” It’s another compelling performance that demonstrates June’s keen ability when it comes to song selection. She often chooses ancient songs that contain truths relevant to modern audiences, and when we consider the millions around the world who have suffered from unjust imprisonment and the innocents executed through seriously flawed systems of justice, “Young Waters” becomes a very powerful song indeed.

“Waly Waly” (Child’s 204) brings us back to tragedy associated with l’amour, while still dramatizing the hurtful absurdity that often interferes with human relationships. The narrator is a young noblewoman completely in love with her new husband and equally delighted to have given birth to the couple’s first son. For reasons unknown (male competitiveness, shit-stirring, assholity), a pair of evil blokes conspire to accuse the lady of sleeping with one of the blokes (Jamie Lockhart). The other bloke slips Jamie’s shoes under the lady’s bed then guides her good lord to see the evidence for himself. The lord immediately (and stupidly) believes his wife has been unfaithful and refuses to have anything to do with her. The lady’s father, hearing of the abandonment, sends “fifty of his best dragoons” to rescue his daughter from her wacko husband. June’s performance here is more varied, intense and emotionally expressive; her rendering of the line, “Oh woe be unto thee, Blackwood, and an ill death may you die” are bitterly heartfelt. The only good to come out of the tale is the lady’s incisive perception of male immaturity and naked hypocrisy:

O had I wist (known) when first I kissed that love should been so ill to win,
I’d locked my heart in a cage of gold and pinned it with a silver pin.
You think that I am like yourself and lie with each one that I see,
But I do swear by Heavens high, I never loved a man but thee.

That line “You think that I am like yourself and lie with each one that I see” is what those in Bonny Prince Charlie’s time called a zinger.

After three songs of tragic absurdity, “The Merchant’s Son” (Roud 2153) provides a much-needed break in the form a tables-turned story about a wench who takes financial advantage of a traveling merchant. Nic Jones switches to fiddle for this duet, and June sings the story with gusto. “Queen Among the Heather” (Roud 375) is revealing in that June Tabor is a self-trained singer who learned vocals by listening to her heroines, Anne Briggs and Belle Stewart. “Queen Among the Heather” was one of Belle Stewart’s signature numbers, and June’s a cappella version pays glorious tribute to her mentor. It’s a lovely old Scots song, and an equally lovely story of a rich squire’s son falling in love with a poor lame shepherd’s daughter, accomplishing union without resorting to force.

Airs and Graces ends with the wistful, melancholy beauty “Pull Down Lads,” written by modern composer John Tams. The story describes the experience of departure of the traveling funfair from the perspective of the fair’s manager. The experience is one of deep ambivalence about having to move on to the next town, leaving promising love affairs and friendships behind when the troupe has overstayed its welcome:

Haul down, lads,
It wasn’t all that grand, lads.
We’ve made some brass, you’ve had a lass,
It’s perhaps as well we’re going.
I know how it can hurt, lads,
To leave her standing there;
But there’s often tears
And there’s always fears,
But you’ll be back next year.

The manager doesn’t believe that “look on the bright side” message any more than his crew, and admits as much in the sad, slightly bitter lines that close the song:

We’ll leave it as we found it;
They’ll soon forget we’ve been.
O, we trade in fun, and we go and come,
We’re often scorned and seldom mourned.
O, I hope you know what I mean.

Accompanied only by Jon Gillaspie’s sensitive and supportive piano, June once again becomes the character and expresses the tired, morose hopelessness of a man who has chosen a certain kind of life and finds himself with no other options. There are singers whose voices blend especially well with the timbre of a natural piano, and June Tabor is certainly one of them, as she has proven again and again many times over the years.

I never leave Airs and Graces without the feeling that I have listened to something very, very special, something that is equally true for nearly all of June Tabor’s albums. From the dark mysteries of Abyssinians to the delightful diversity of Roses to the more contemporary sounds of Against the Streams and Angel Tiger, June Tabor approaches every record with care and the desire to achieve excellence. Airs and Graces was the first deliberate step in what has proven to be a long and fruitful journey of a woman who is a model of artistic integrity.

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