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June Tabor on the singing and the songs

Andrew Curry writes: Over at our Facebook group, our Artist of the Week last week was June Tabor, with a particular nod towards Ashore, her record of songs of the sea. While checking something, I stumbled on an interview with her last year on an American podcast, Essential Tremors.

The premise of the show is that they ask performers to talk about three songs that have influenced them, creatively or personally. Not favourites, in other words, or songs you might take to a desert island.

And just three songs! Tabor’s selection is eclectic: Danny Kaye’s The Ugly Duckling, Anne Briggs’s Lowlands Away, and Frank Sinatra’s A Foggy Day in London Town.

IMG_5940(June Tabor. Photo: Roger Liptrot, https://folkimages.com/)  

She’s interviewed by Will Oldham, aka Bonny Prince Oldham, who had asked the show if he could interview Tabor, and as a fellow performer he’s informed and sympathetic.

There are some familiar stories in here, of course—the teenaged Tabor being put down for a floor spot at a folk club in Leamington by the friend she went with, being taken to the London record shop Dobells by her older sister and buying Anne Briggs’s first EP, Hazards of Love. But mostly Oldham uses these songs to get Tabor to talk about songs and the singing of them.

She likes Danny Kaye which she heard as a child on the radio. As a child this was her only source of music, and she likes it because of the power of its story-telling. Especially the big reveal:

Till a flock of swans spied him there and very soon agreed

You're a very fine swan indeed!

A swan? Me a swan? Ah, go on!

And he said yes, you're a swan.

Hazards of Love, which includes Lowlands Away, was like a shot of adrenaline to folk singers in the early 1960s—four traditional songs, sung unadorned and unaccompanied, and produced by A L Lloyd. You can see why Anne Briggs’s performance might have electrified the young June Tabor, who, by her account here, locked herself into the bathroom with her portable Dansette record player and learnt them all. The bathroom? It had the best acoustics in the house.

What she learned from that was a way of learning songs and then making them her own:

People ask me sometimes, can you give me a singing lesson, and so I say, are you ready? Listen, imitate, imitate over and over again until you have got it right, and then gradually leave most of it out. Because that’s what I did. It was hearing Anne using her voice like that that set me on the path to finding my own voice.

Oldham thinks the first song he heard of Tabor’s was Where Are You Tonight, written by Andy Stewart. A friend had made a mixtape cassette for him, and the version he included was a radio performance. (Probably on the Andy Kershaw Show-ed). Tabor says that “songs do have a habit of finding me”. She found Where Are You Tonight, for example, through a song-writing competition that knew of because she had previously been a judge.

He Fades Away was on a tape that a friend had given Tabor ahead of a long US trip:

That song came on, and we started to cry, and we had to pull over on the freeway and sit on the hard shoulder because it was so amazing.

She met the writer, Alistair Hulett later, and it turned out that he’d sent her a tape of the album the song was on to her record company. (All of this is a reminder of how important cassette tapes were as a way of hearing new music in the 1980s.) His tape had never reached her—but the song did.

She likes Sinatra because, in the words of Jules Steyn, “Frank sings the words. Everybody else just sings the notes.” But she had to overcome a family préjudice here: her parents preferred Al Martino to Sinatra.

The more I listen to Sinatra the more I hear in what he is doing. His timing is absolutely impeccable, the slight pause before you sing a note, singing it slightly fast, but it’s all to make sense of the words, to make them really tell.

She also makes an intriguing connection between Sinatra’s stops and starts and the singing in traditional gypsy songs. The podcast is a warm and interesting discussion of songs and singing, and comes recommended.

https://www.wypr.org/podcast/essential-tremors/2023-06-21/june-tabor

As she says somewhere in here, the song is at the heart of all of this:

It’s the song, and that’s the main thing... The song comes first and last.

--

Do visit our Facebook group. Click here.

More on this at Salut! Live:

Anne Briggs: ‘I didn’t want to be tied down’

June Tabor’s Ashore, reviewed

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