My recent reviews of Elvis Costello reminded me that I’m way, way behind in my plan to review more June Tabor albums and give her a coveted spot on my navigation menu.
Okay, I’ll admit that no one covets a spot on my navigation menu, but the phrase had a nice ring to it.
Costello wrote two songs for June Tabor in the early 90’s: “All This Useless Beauty” on 1992’s Angel Tiger; “I Want to Vanish” on Against the Streams in 1994. Those two albums form part of a period in her career (beginning with Aqaba in 1988) when she expanded her repertoire beyond traditional British and Irish folk music, choosing songs in multiple genres based on the quality of the songwriting. In addition to covering songs by Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson, she brought her remarkable interpretation skills to the works of a wide range of songwriters, including familiar names such as Cole Porter, Charles Mingus, Natalie Merchant and the Gershwin Brothers, and less-familiar but highly talented craftspersons like Bill Caddick, Les Barker and Maggie Holland.
Not caring much for the available but mundane English term to describe those who interpret songs (“song interpreter”), I made up a word that feels more descriptive and accurate: interpretiste, integrating “interpreter” with the French word for artist: artiste. June Tabor is a true interpretiste, not only in her remarkable ability to capture text and subtext of a given song, but in her talent for choosing works that challenge both the singer and the listener. Some of her best interpretations involve songs that present the unpleasant aspects of human life that the typical listener would rather avoid. Because most people consume music designed to make them happy and facilitate their escape from a dreary reality, June Tabor’s work is unlikely to appear on the Top 40 or anywhere in the rotation of a commercial music channel. She is one of those stubborn artists of rare courage who prefers depth to superficiality. And while she has consistently chosen songs that explore the extent of man’s inhumanity to man, she also has a wicked sense of humor and a marked sensitivity to the complex emotions surrounding human love.
Against the Streams is therefore a perfect title for an album by an artist who consistently paddles against the stream.
“Shameless Love” is an exceptionally engaging opening track, one of my favorite songs by anybody, anywhere, anytime. The song was the title track on a 1981 album by Texas singer-songwriter Eric Taylor, and while his excellent lyrics remain in place, the music underwent a complete overhaul. The unremarkable rhythm of the acoustic original was replaced with a superb arrangement by long-time collaborator and pianist Huw Warren that features a palpable syncopated rhythm driven by piano and accordion, punctuated with sharp violin thrusts at the song’s dynamic peak. Taylor’s original also lacked an identifiable melody, rather like early Dylan songs that needed more melodically-oriented artists to flesh out the tune. Here June and Huw fill in the missing pieces of the melodic puzzle to create a tune with delightful movement up and down the scale.
The lyrics spoke volumes to me as a teenager struggling with my nonconventional desires for both boys and girls, and the song still speaks to me today after years of being shamed for my kinky predilections and living (in sin!) with another adult woman. I don’t think there was a specific moment when I turned the corner, but somewhere along the path there came a point where the judgments of others stopped bothering me: I knew in my heart and soul that the love I felt was a pure as pure could get, and I wasn’t going to let anyone interfere with the free expression of such a precious feeling:
Here’s my heart and all that’s in it
Some say roses, and some say thorns
Some say I’m a fool to give it
Crazy as the moon in a midnight storm
I learned that it was crazier not to give all I am and all I had to give.
Taylor’s lyrics suggest that shameless love is achieved after the emotional release of a good cry, and I do remember a lot of good cries during the period when the light was finally dawning—cries of sadness and joy. It takes a lot of energy to repress both emotion and identity, so it follows that the dam will have to break sooner or later. June’s delivery captures the complexity of this transformation, varying from playful to passionate with a tinge of melancholy at the end, all expressed through exceptional command of build dynamics and thoughtful, deliberate phrasing.
We can be thankful that June brought her immense vocal talent to Elvis Costello’s “I Want to Vanish,” for Costello’s version (on All This Useless Beauty, released two years after June’s recording) reveals his limitations as a vocalist in a quite unflattering manner. The melodic line features a great deal of variation, especially noticeable on the near-octave leaps that appear frequently in the song. You can hear Elvis struggling to hit those notes—an effort that also throws off his breathing—but for June it’s a walk in the park. Costello told Lydia Hutchinson of Performing Songwriter that the song was not about Princess Diana as many have assumed, but “a whole story about a backwoods musician who was being pursued by these documentary filmmakers, and all these images that were being put on satellite television were in the lyric of that song.” June’s interpretation, marked by a certain elegance in delivery, does call up images of a trophy wife trapped at a banquet table laden with silver candelabras and surrounded by bores who consider her little more than an addition to the decoration:
Whether in wonder or indecent haste
You arrange the mirrors and the spools
To snare the rare and precious jewels
That were only made of paste
Listeners often choose to interpret songs in their own way, but however you interpret June Tabor’s version of “I Want to Vanish,” the excellence of the vocal performance cannot be denied.
June returns to her folk roots with “False, False” (Roud 8276), though I doubt the original featured a background as refined as Huw Warren’s supporting piano, Mark Emerson’s subtly evocative strings and Mark Lockheart’s subtle but stirring clarinet. What I love here is that while June plays the role of woman rejected for another, her vocal maintains its strength even in the saddest moments, a choice that beautifully complements the song’s narrative flow. The marvelous Peta Webb, who recorded the song on her album The Magpie’s Nest, described the song as one that “moves from tragedy to optimism in three short verses of striking poetic imagery,” and June beautifully captures that whirl of emotions in her delivery. After admitting that fulfillment was a long shot at best (“against the stream I was rowing”), the woman rises from the emotional devastation to express her firm belief that true love is still possible:
But I mean to climb up some higher, higher tree
And harry a white snowflake’s nest,
And down shall I fall, ay, without any fear
To the arms that love me the best.
In one sense, the song bears a striking similarity to “Shameless Love,” in that it is indeed possible to feel two completely opposite emotions at the same time. Ah, the wonder of being human!
We now move on to Richard Thompson’s contribution to crime fiction in the person of that “cold steel woman” known as “Pavanne,” the “beauty as elegant as ice.” This character sketch of a hit woman specializing in political assassinations is remarkably complete, and as is often the case, the seeds of her psychosis were planted in childhood trauma.
And they say she grew up well provided for,
Her mother used to keep her boys for sure.
And father’s close attentions led to talk,
She learned to stab her food with a silver fork.
June maintains the suspense as the story plays out, rendering the tale’s conclusion by opening the final verse in sotto voce to replicate the whispering gossip of the masses who have been following the case in the papers. She then rises to full power as she delivers the shocking truth about this female psychopath:
And they say she didn’t do it for the money,
And they say she didn’t do it for a man.
They say that she did it for the pleasure,
The pleasure of the moment.
Kudos again to Huw Warren for exceptionally sensitive piano support that faithfully tracks June’s emotional narrative.
You will often find at least one song on a June Tabor album that leaves you emotionally devastated, and on Against the Streams that song is “He Fades Away.” Written by the late Alistair Hewitt, Scottish immigrant to the lands down under and confirmed Trotskyite Socialist, the song consists of the reflections of an Australian woman who tends to her husband as he wastes away from lung disease caused by years of toil in the asbestos mines. Hewitt’s original is a decent piece of work, and while his empathy is admirable, the song needed a woman’s voice and sensibility to realize its potential.
The song begins with June’s voice, a voice expressing exhaustion, resignation and infinite sadness. She is soon joined by Andy Cutting on the diatonic accordion, a sound that serves to intensify the unimaginable heartbreak:
There’s a man in my bed I used to love him
His kisses used to take my breath away
There’s a man in my bed I hardly know him
I wipe his face and hold his hand
And watch him as he slowly fades away
He fades away
Not like leaves that fall in autumn
Turning gold against the grey
He fades away
Like the bloodstains on the pillow case
That I wash every day
He fades away
The second verse deals with the complications surrounding compensation, highlighting the cold, impersonal bureaucratic response of the state (“The lawyer says we might get compensation/In the course of due procedure/But he couldn’t say for certain at this stage”). June maintains that tone of resignation throughout the verse, indifferent to the possibility of compensation for reasons to be poignantly clarified in the final verse. The song then moves to the bridge, where we learn her husband is not the only victim of Austrailia’s Wittenoom mines. While Hewitt’s delivery in the original feels polemical and political, no one can express righteous outrage as effectively and genuinely as June Tabor. Her tone and phrasing change noticeably when she mentions the mines, seething with deep-seeded anger and human outrage at the sheer senselessness of the sacrifice:
And he’s not the only one
Who made that trip so many years ago
To work the Wittenoom mines
So many young men old before their time
And dying slow
They fade away
Wheezing bags of bones
Their lungs half clogged and full of clay
He fades away
She returns to that achingly moving tone of resignation in the final verse as she remarks on the absurdity of the compensation that may or may never come, subtly condemning the values of a system founded on the belief that money is an effective palliative for grief:
There’s a man in my bed they never told him
The cost of bringing home his weekly pay
And when the courts decide how much they owe him
How will he spend his money
When he lies in bed and coughs his life away?
The bitter irony of the story is that the Wittenoom Mines did in fact close at the end of 1966, but the closure had nothing to do with the individuals and families whose lives were ruined. No, the firm in question “closed its asbestos mining operations at Wittenoom claiming lack of profitability and falling of asbestos prices.” You can read the timeline of the disaster online, but that cold list of facts won’t come close to matching the impact of June Tabor’s moving performance.
“The Irish Girl” is a mysterious tale of abandoned love from singer-songwriter Peter Bond. Though the “plot” is somewhat surreal, the moral of the story is that a man “Seeking his fortune while the brightest jewel/Was within his reach all the while” is the ultimate fool. It’s a lovely song, marvelously supported by a string arrangement that weaves itself beautifully around the melody. Next comes a brief traditional intermission combining two different fragments, the song title drawing its name from the first (“Apples and Potatoes”) while the second is based on the tune from “God Killed the Devil.” The highlight of the piece is when June shifts to nonsense syllables in a burst of “traditional scat” delighting in the sounds of the did-a-lee-doos rolling off her tongue.
“Beauty and the Beast” is actually a poem by Jane Yolen set to music by the multi-talented Huw Warren, where June abandons singing for straight poetic narrative. We find the curiously matched couple in their golden years, the loping rhythm established by Huw Warren’s piano hinting that they’re taking a stroll about the grounds. The music of the primary theme combines C major during the verses and G minor emphasizing the fifth in the gaps, indicating that all may not be sunshine and roses in Beast Land beneath the superficial trappings. Beauty’s naïve belief in her ability to uncover the prince trapped beneath a beastly façade turns out a crapper, as she describes Beast as “graying around the muzzle.” The ultimate sacrificial lamb then claims she has “No regrets—-None.” At that point, the main musical theme vanishes, the key shifts to a pattern emphasizing half-step dissonance, and in a haltering voice, Beauty (speaking through June) reveals that she does in fact have regrets—that she and Beast were unable to have children.
The woman is a complete fucking idiot.
Dr. Jennifer James famously called bullshit on this fairytale, describing it as one that perpetuates the myth that “you can marry one of those guys and clean him up.” Jane Yolen wrote (among other things) books for children, so given her family-friendly bias, her mild revision of the story is hardly surprising. What I resent about both the original and this update is that both present the woman as weak and submissive, a wimp who accepts the limited choices offered her by society and who can only preserve her status as a good girl by sacrificing her life for the family. I have no problem with women who want children—I have a problem with women who buy into the narrative that they will never achieve full womanhood unless and until they get the production line going. Love the arrangement, love June’s portrayal of the character, loathe both the tale and the moral of the story.
I return to a much happier place when I hear the accordion strains that open “The Turn of the Road,” a touching and beautiful love song adapted from an old Irish tune by prolific writer, poet, satirist and comic Les Barker. The theme centers on the essential truth governing any intimate relationship: anyone can love someone “for better” but the true test lies in the “for worse.”
Will you walk with me
Beyond the road’s turning,
Where Day takes the valley
That leads into Night?
Love will you walk with me
All through my journey
Or only til’ the light?
June’s delivery on this piece is a combination of deliberate and careful enunciation (as if she’s making sure the partner fully understands) and bursts of intense passion around the vital importance of unconditional love. The power of the combination is best demonstrated in her exceptional phrasing, particularly on the couplet “The turn of the road, my love/That’s where I need you” where she extends the melodic line on the first verse to emphasize the intimate phrase, “my love,” then frames THAT’S around microscopic pauses to make the meaning clear. After a long and lovely accordion and string duet, we arrive at the climactic moment where the last two verses are repeated over more assertive supporting music and June sings the lines in a tone revealing complete confidence in the power of unconditional love:
Love, will you hold me
Through all my life’s evenings?
Love, will you take the road
Right to the end?
I never had someone
I could believe in
Forever my lover, my friend.
Oysterband mate Ian Telfer penned “Windy City,” a bitter ode to cities in the northern climes that began dying with predictable frequency following the decline in manufacturing and the loss of empire status. Mark Locklear trades his clarinet for tenor sax, giving this largely piano-driven song a touch of urban grit. The narrator is a youth desperate to escape the dead-end life of a rust belt denizen and relocate to sunnier climes (both literally and economically). The song reaches its emotional peak in the center, where June delivers the bridge, spitting out the words with unrestrained bitterness and bile:
We went to church on Sunday
We wore our Sunday best
We went to work on Monday
The damned just like the blessed
Just like the blessed
Locklear then follows with an equally expressive sax solo that qualifies as a pure knockout moment. It’s followed by a passage of quiet reflection and relief as the narrator arrives at the train station to make his escape. June emphasizes the “never” in the phrase “And I’m never coming back” in various ways—once through hard emphasis, once as settled fact and once by echoing the word gently in the fade, reflecting the relief of escape.
Bill Caddick, a regular contributor to June’s repertoire, earns the album’s closing spot with the gentle and lovely lullaby “Waiting for the Lark.” The spare backing music of gently plucked single string notes reflects the quiet moments of early morning before the sun has risen in pastoral lands where time is not measured by the clock but by the sounds and sights of the natural world. The sound of the lark is the true wake-up call in such a clime, a signal to the farmer that it’s time to till the fields or tend to the trees. It just so happens that I’m reading Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders at present, and there are several scenes in that book that could have been set to Caddick’s wonderful music and June’s gentle voice:
Sleep on child while the birds rest on
And the cow she sleeps in her stall.
Oh the meadow stands grey
In this dew-down moment before the day.
And waits for the lark to call.
And waits for the lark to call.
Though I will always be a city girl, hearing this song and reading Hardy make me yearn for a world that isn’t driven by artificial and arbitrary notions of time but by rhythms more compatible with the human spirit.
Twenty-five years after its release, Against the Streams confirms its status as a timeless work of pure artistry and exceptional courage. Such a description applies in varying degrees to all June Tabor’s work, but the diversity and depth of Against the Streams certainly qualifies it as one of her best. While superficial can be fun, it’s also exhausting in that you have to keep going back for more to scratch whatever itch you have. Listening to deeper, richer music that explores the core of human existence may feel challenging at first, but when it’s delivered by an artist as talented and sensitive as June Tabor, such music leaves you feeling fully engaged, fully alive and more closely connected to your fellow travelers on life’s journey.
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.