June Tabor, |
June Tabor, one of the British folk scene's towering figures, is a brooding presence, her choice of songs -- traditional and contemporary -- generally focused on dark themes richly suited to her pensive contralto. I first heard her many years ago when, knowing nothing of her, I picked up an early album that introduced me to Eric Bogle's magnificent anti-war anthem "The Band Played 'Waltzing Matilda'" and to the traditional "Streets of Forbes," a grim Australian ballad about a bush ranger's bloody end. Songs like those come reflexively to mind when the name June Tabor passes through my mind, but it's not entirely fair. She has her lighter moments, too, and is able to convey -- if unostentatiously -- a range of musical emotions.
On Apples there is the archaic comic ballad "The Auld Beggarman" (Child #279), with its lilting melody generally associated with a strain of Irish songs about begging, though without this version's droll twist. The venerable Scots favorite "Rigs of Rye" has its cruel moments but comes to happy resolution. Mostly, though, the songs are -- as one expects from Tabor -- intense ruminations on wounded love, lost time and, of course, war. As is always the case, they are intelligently chosen and sparely arranged (accordion, viola, fiddle, piano, double bass, no guitar) and deeply rewarding if you're willing to afford them more than casual listening.
The song list comprises seven traditionals and five more or less modern compositions ("more or less" because "Speak Easy" is a Robert Burns poem set to music by Hector MacMillan). With an exception or two, however, you have to check the credits to determine which is which. Songs like "The Dancing" (by Andy Shanks and Jim Russell) and "My Love Came to Dublin" (Patrick Galvin) sound as if they've been around a whole lot longer than they have been in prosaic fact -- and they deserve to be around a whole lot longer, too. On the other hand, Lester Simpson's "Standing in Line," a bitter, unsparing denunciation of militarism and imperialism (suited, sadly, not only to our own time but to all times), owes more to Brecht-Weill than it does to the folk tradition or even to Bob Dylan's "Masters of War."
A mature and confident performer, Tabor does not do mediocre albums. On the other hand, those albums are not for everybody. Nobody would ever mistake them for pop records or even conventionally commercial folk ones. They're the musical equivalent of literary fiction: more demanding than the mass-market competition, but with a whole lot bigger pay-off. Tabor's art is fiercely short of compromise, and it concedes nothing to American listeners and American sensibility. It amounts, in fact, to a near-Platonic vision of Britishness.
In other words, don't expect June Tabor to come to you. But if you elect to come to her, you will not regret the journey.
15 December 2007