June Tabor was born in Warwick, England at the end of 1947. In 1965 she heard the incomparable Anne Briggs‘ EP Hazards of Love and taught herself to sing it note for note. She also developed a fondness for the work of singer and song collector Belle Stewart. She began singing in clubs and with small groups while at Oxford, honing her talent for unaccompanied traditional folk ballads. After appearing on a handful of folk albums in the early 70s she teamed with Steeleye Span vocalist Maddy Prior in 1976 for the lovely Silly Sisters, setting the stage for a career filled with smart partnerships. Her proper solo debut, Airs and Graces, appeared later that year, featuring a chilling rendition of Eric Bogle’s The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, a hint of her knack for selecting great contemporary material to cover. After another solo disc and a charming disc co-credited to guitarist Martin Simpson, she entered the studio in 1983 to record her masterpiece, Abyssinians.
Like the Simpson collaboration, this album contains a near 50/50 mix of traditional tunes and contemporary songs. Tabor’s deep, matchless voice had matured nicely at this point and her interpretive powers create a consistent musical thread through the ten diverse tracks. While the themes are often dark, the rich warmth of her singing lends a beautiful humanity to every song.
The album opens with the oft-recorded traditional track The Month of January. Tabor learned it from the singing of Sarah Makem, lending her own depth to the treatment. A classic ballad of romantic betrayal and dire consequences, it sets the stage for this set perfectly.
Tabor frequently interprets the songs of Lal Waterson; The Scarecrow – written by Lal and brother Mike for their timeless collaboration Bright Phoebus — is her first recording of Waterson work. It’s a haunting, mysterious song of natural forces. Tabor later observed of the song:
The strength of visual image is worthy of Ingmar Bergman, as is the story; the Earth Mother is all-powerful here.
Her interpretation is flawless, weaving this very English song into the traditional fabric of the album beautifully. Thirty years later, it remains one of her finest moments on record.
One Night As I Lay On My Bed is from another traditional trope, the night visit. The singer’s lover comes to call late at night, warned that mother and father are asleep in the next room. It’s a gentle, lovely song, and easily the most cheerful moment on the disc. The lullaby tone Tabor invokes is delightful. She Moves Among Men was written by regular Tabor collaborator Bill Caddick. It’s a darkly honest look at sexual politics and the price of womanly independence. Delivered with earnest vigor, it’s a particularly fine Tabor vocal, no mean feat in her long, lovely catalog.
Lay This Body Down is a spare, a capella reading of an old spiritual. Tabor wrings the weary resignation from every note, managing to imbue it with just enough hope for the next day. A Smiling Shore, written by Andrew Cronshaw, is an evocative glimpse into the life of a Holocaust survivor. Told in raw fragments, it has an amazing power that Tabor treats with just the right balance of restraint and awe.
The next trio of songs are wonderful traditional ballads, sequenced together to create one of the finest snapshots of June Tabor’s strength as a singer and arranger. The Bonny Boy, learned from the singing of Anne Briggs, is a timeless tale of romantic betrayal. Rendered a capella, it’s a devastating emotional song lovingly rendered. I Never Thought My Love Would Leave Me is more wistful if no less tragic, the tale of a love that waned with age and the stark place the abandoned singer finds herself. Tabor notes that it haunted her from the moment she first heard it, and it’s clear that she put her whole energy into channelling the narrator’s sorrow. Similarly tragic but very different in theme, The Bonny Hind is a classic tale of disguise, lust, and mistaken identity. Sung with almost spry energy suited to the nautical and hunting themes, it’s one of the finest tracks on this powerful album.
Tabor winds things up with a very modern song that hews to ancient themes, Joni Mitchell’s anti-war ode The Fiddle and the Drum. She often sings traditional songs decrying military action and has recorded powerful covers of Eric Bogle’s anti-war epics. In this case, she adopts a less-is-more ethic that works nicely, quietly skewering those who turn from celebration to devastation. It wraps up the brief — barely 35 minutes — but stunning musical journey of Abyssinians with the perfect mix of tone, theme, and delivery. While Tabor has turned in an amazing, nearly flawless series of albums filtering a mixture of the old and new through her powerful talent, this set of ten songs remains the single most stirring and consistent album in her illustrious career.
FURTHER LISTENING: Solo or in collaboration, June Tabor has never released a bad — or even mediocre — album. Elvis Costello has famously observed that if you can’t appreciate her work you should stop listening to music. I can’t argue with him. The weakest link is her standards-only disc, Some Other Time. Tabor often includes standards on her albums, but part of her magic is the unexpected juxtapositions that this disc lacks. That said, it’s still a solid set and her voice is as compelling as always.
Her strongest outings are:
- Ashes and Diamonds, her second proper solo album and one of her most fun listens;
- No More to the Dance, her second outing with Maddy Prior (credited to Silly Sisters) and a well-sequenced set that rivals Abyssinians and features the joyous power of their blended vocals;
- Angel Tiger, a more modern set that captures a classic folk vibe nicely;
- At the Woods Heart, the finest of her later solo works;
- Quercus, a live disc with frequent accompanists Huw Warren and Iain Ballamy that shows off her jazzier side; and
- Ragged Kingdom, her second outing with the Oysterband and one of the highlights of both careers.
Free Reed also compiled a wonderful four-disc box set, Always, which captures the first three decades of Tabor’s career brilliantly.