Song of the Day, June 27: If My Love Loves Me by June Tabor and Oysterband

TabOysterLoveLoveToday’s song is an old tune that puts a surprising twist on a traditional theme. When June Tabor and Oysterband reunited for their second shared outing, Ragged Kingdom, they wanted to explore the “mystery, magic, and mayhem” in traditional and modern folk. One of the standouts in their selections is If My Love Loves Me.

It’s a very old song (Roud 30), also known as Willie’s Lyke-Wake. Considered extinct in Britain, it remained a popular folk song in Scandinavia, returning to Scotland in fragmentary form in the early 20th Century. It tells the tale of an insecure lover and a plot to find out if love is true. Unusually, the schemer is the man, who fakes his own death to see if the woman he loves cares enough to come to his wake. When she kisses the “corpse” he springs up and declares his undying love. Macabre indeed, but compellingly constructed.

Tabor turns in an elegant vocal, and the Oysters propel the song with charming urgency. The result easily lives up to their mission statement, a standout in both musical catalogs.

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Album of the Week, March 27: Robert’s Desert Island Discs

RBHSJDIDBadgeToday’s entry is something a little different. As I was looking over the almost 200 albums I have featured over the years, I asked myself the question that drives the famous BBC Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs: If I were stranded on an island, which discs would I be sure to have with me?

The task proved more daunting than I imagined, so I established a few guidelines and started over. These parameters made the selection a little bit easier.

  1. Original, legitimate releases only: no bootlegs, re-issues with bonus tracks, or any other chicanery to pad the offerings.
  2. Enjoy every track: If this is all I ever get to listen to, it had better be great. A perfect test case is Rubber Soul: it’s an unquestionably brilliant album, but if I had to listen to Michelle or Girl more than once a month, I’d throw myself into the shark-infested waters.
  3. Balance, balance, balance: I tried to embrace the breadth of my tastes and represent a good cross-section of the artists I love.
  4. When in doubt, favorite artists win: My collection includes several acts represented by one great album. In order to represent the artists whose whole catalogs I appreciate, I dropped the one-only artists. That included the hard decisions to eliminate Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, London Calling, Rumours, Blood On the Tracks, and I Am A Bird Now.
  5. Greatest hits: I pondered banning these as a corallary to rule 1, but decided to take them on their own merits. As it turns out, I didn’t wind up with any of these on the list, although I looked closely at a couple. In the end, rule 2 trumped them.

I set my album allowance at 13. Why that number? I could say that it represents the bad luck of being stranded on a desert island, but honestly trying to get to eight — the BBC number — was maddening. My list, my rules, so if this Gilligan-adjacent experience includes a weatherproof sound system, it has room for 13 discs.

Without further ado, here they are, in the order in which I finalized their placement on the list.

Richard & Linda ThompsonShoot out the LightsHIGH RESOLUTION COVER ARTShoot Out the Lights (1982, Hannibal) Richard & Linda Thompson
Surprising no-one, I’m sure, this was my first choice — brilliant lyrics, stellar playing, solid band, two of my favorite artists on one disc. Harrowing but hopeful, it captures the human spirit better than anything else for me. Linda delivers some of her best vocals and Richard some of his finest solos. If I had to pick 25 songs to take to the island (please, no!), at least four of them would be from this album.

DifferentKindofLoveSongA Different Kind of Love Song (1983, Appleseed) Dick Gaughan
Another easy choice for me, with some of the best protest music ever written. Gaughan is in fine voice and his guitar work is impeccable. It’s a collection of often dark songs with a shining heart beating at its core. The title track sums things up brilliantly, and inspired me to write an essay for Michael’s blog on the importance of looking at the darkness if we want to get to the light.

AbyssiniansAbyssinians (1983, Topic) June Tabor
June Tabor had to be on the list, but picking the album was tricky. This is my favorite by a narrow margin, and includes a stunning cover of a Waterson song, so it won the day. As Elvis Costello has famously observed, if listening to June Tabor’s voice doesn’t move you, give up music. (Bonus fact: She has worked as a librarian and restaurateur, so she covers the bases of my passions nicely…)

Robyn_Hitchcock_-_I_Often_Dream_Of_TrainsI Often Dream of Trains (1984, Hannibal) Robyn Hitchcock
Another artist I had to have on the island, but a tougher choice. The Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight and the Egyptians’ Element of Light are co-equal with this disc for me. It came down to the essence of the album. The spare setting of Trains lets Robyn shine through in all his eccentric glory.

LastWordThe Last Word (1992, RNA) Gregson & Collister
Another nice package, with two of my favorites on one album, both at the height of their powers. Clive Gregson’s observations about life and love are timeless, and this set includes a couple of tracks written with Boo Hewerdine, another favorite. Christine Collister has a wonderful voice that sometimes gets over-emphasized on her solo discs. Here, the production is flawless.

MitchellC&SCourt and Spark (1974, Asylum) Joni Mitchell
One of the few commercial successes on my list, it’s a little jazz, a little pop, a little folk, all tied together by the singular talents of Joni Mitchell. It also features her finest vocals, not as airy and bright as her earlier work and not as Cohen-adjacent as her later. All of that, and songs about David Geffen and James Taylor! What could be finer?

Til_Tuesday-Everythings_Different_NowEverything’s Different Now (1988, Epic) ’til tuesday
A sentimental favorite, this is an album I play when I’m feeling lost. It’s a powerful look at relationships and how they go wrong — and right. It landed at just the right time for me, providing insight and outlet as I worked through my own issues. Aimee Mann found her lyrical voice, presaging her later solo work. The band is crisp and smart, lending power to the songs. This is as close to flawless as 80s pop gets.

yaz-you_and_me_bothYou and Me Both (1983, Sire) Yaz(oo)
Speaking of 80s pop… A quick look at my Songs of the Day reveals my fondness for the music of my teen years. As I’ve aged, my favorites tend to be the more obscure music, especially synth-pop and smart dance tracks. Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke perfected both. Their brief collaboration as Yazoo (Yaz in the States) turned out two fine albums. This is the better of the pair by a safe margin. Creative synth work, good lyrics, and Alison Moyet’s rich, wonderful voice — magnificent!

FogelbergInnocentThe Innocent Age (1981, Full Moon / Epic) Dan Fogelberg
Not quite the first album I ever bought — an honor that goes to Helen Reddy’s Long Hard Climb — I consider this the launch of my serious music collecting. It’s also a great collection of songs, singer-songwriter magic at its most compelling. Fogelberg gets pigeonholed as an AC balladeer, but his songs could rock, jig, or soar as well. This beautiful song cycle, created as a cradle-to-grave series, shows off all his talents to great effect. A sentimental and musical favorite, packed with hits.

watersonlOnceinaOnce In A Blue Moon (1996, Topic) Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight
The only reason the extended Waterson family shows up this late is that it was nearly impossible to pick one album. While a stay on Waterson:Carthy island would be delightful, Rule 3 demanded a choice. In the end, a dash of Rule 2 combined with the fact that Lal Waterson is one of my favorite songwriters ruled the day. A brilliant set of songs told in her distinctive style with sympathetic support from her talented son, it’s one of the rare albums that I’ll sometimes put on repeat. As an added bonus, Some Old Salty wraps up the album with a good old family sing-along, sneaking some talented relatives onto the island. Family runners-up included Martin Carthy, Bright Phoebus, Norma Waterson, and Red Rice.

Fairport_Convention-Liege_&_Lief_(album_cover)Liege & Lief (1969, A&M) Fairport Convention
Another tough choice. Fairport belonged on the list (although the Richard Thompson double-dip almost got them cut), and What We Did On Our Holidays is my favorite of their albums. This is a close second, however, and Rule 3 brought it home. A pioneering disc, creating the trad-rock genre, it shows the band at the peak of their powers and adds more traditional British music to my island mix.

FearingIndLulIndustrial Lullaby (1997, True North) Stephen Fearing
Another Rule 3 decision, made with great difficulty. I encountered three very different modern folk talents in the same year (1993) and they form a musical trinity for me. Stephen Fearing, Patty Larkin, and Ellis Paul have unique voices but could easily share a stage. (I’d pay to see that!) Since they weren’t here to play rock-paper-scissors, the decision came down to the sheer poetry — lyrical and musical — of Fearing’s album and its astounding cohesion.

TriffidsCalentureCalenture (1987, Island) The Triffids
I had five albums left on my list, and the Triffids dark masterpiece won the final spot. This album is the least like anything else on the list (with Yaz coming in a close second), a strong rock sound with a uniquely West Australian perspective. Urgent and compelling from start to finish, it’s one of the strongest Rule 2 albums in my collection. It didn’t hurt that the title refers to hallucinations caused by too much time at sea.

There you have it, my island playlist is complete. Before I close, I’d like to acknowledge the many amazing artists that bring me musical joy who stayed safely on dry land: The Bats, Peter Blegvad, Nick Drake, the Finn Brothers in all their incarnations, Jethro Tull, the extended McGarrigle – Wainwright family, Stephin Merritt and his many projects, Oysterband, R.E.M., Spirit of the West, those mentioned above, and many more. I’m VERY glad that I don’t have to make this choice as anything but an interesting exercise.

Finally, a note of farewell to my Album of the Week feature. I truly enjoy writing these pieces — and there are certainly more albums to explore — but the limits of my time, collection, and budget demand closure. It seemed fitting that I bookend the regular features with two Richard & Linda Thompson albums and close out these posts as my Jukebox celebrates its fifth anniversary. I will continue my Song of the Day every weekday and Saturday Time Capsules; I may also add an album now and then as inspiration strikes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the music of my island is calling…

Song of the Day, January 4: He Fades Away by June Tabor

TaborAgainstFadesToday’s song is a stark portrait of loss. Alistair Hulett wrote He Fades Away as a tribute to the asbestos miners in Wittenoom, Australia. Once a thriving industrial city, it’s now a ghost town, rendered toxic by the impact of the mines. Hulett uses the story of a couple as a focus for that tragedy. The narrator is a woman who is watching her miner husband succumb to mesothelioma, the life seeping from him day by day.

June Tabor included the song on her 1994 album Against the Streams. With only regular collaborator Mark Emerson’s accordion accompanying her incomparable voice, she captures blend of mundane detail, legal wrangling, and quiet despair perfectly.

Enjoy this moving song today.

Song of the Day, June 9: Cold and Raw by June Tabor

JuneTColdRawToday’s song is a gem from June Tabor’s delightful album Ashes and Diamonds. Cold and Raw is an old traditional song (Roud 3007) found as early as 1699 when Tom D’Urfey included it in the collection Wit and Mirth: or Pills to Purge Melancholy. It’s the story of a young woman headed to market on a chilly morning. She meets a wealthy man who offers her money, ostensibly for her barley but clearly hoping for something more. The woman puts him in his place and heads on to make her honest living. As Tabor has observed:

I liked this song because it’s the usual pretty girl and the libidinous suitor but it’s a lovely antidote to all the songs in which the rich person does get his wicked way and the poor girl probably doesn’t get the money either. … I came back to it because it was such a jaunty song.

It is indeed, a lovely track with a surprising outcome and a bit of very early feminism. Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, January 22: The Devil and Bailiff McGlynn by June Tabor

TaborAshesMcGlynnToday’s song is the charming Devil and Bailiff McGlynn from June Tabor’s Ashes and Diamonds. It’s a fun traditional song [Roud 5294] featuring a conversation between the titular characters. The lyric is part of a long tradition of songs about the Devil bartering with mortals for their souls. In this exchange, he and the Bailiff note the many times people use the phrase “may the Devil take…”

The Bailiff is a clear symbol of the coarseness and stupidity of authority figures, constantly suggesting that the Devil act on these oaths while the Prince of Darkness assures him that such light wishes are insufficient. At the end, a woman wishes the Devil would take the Bailiff, a wish “straight from her heart” that comes true as the song wraps up.

Tabor turns in a fine, a cappella performance, showing off her fun side as she assumes the characters and sets the tone. Enjoy this fun little romp today.

Song of the Day, November 21: The Barring of the Door by Silly Sisters

SillyBarringToday’s song is The Barring of the Door. A traditional British song (Roud 115, Child 275), it’s an amusing domestic tale also known as John Blunt (after one of the principles) and Get Up and Bar the Door. The couple in the song argue over who should bar the door to their home, angrily making a pact that the first to speak must perform the chore. They are so stubborn in their resolve that even the presence of burglars in their home does not move them to speak or act. The burglars finally go to far, prompting an outburst from the husband, followed by the wife gleefully demanding that he bar the door since he lost the wager.

Given the nature of the story, there are many versions of the song with added verses and a wide range of ribaldry. It has been recorded many times as well, including fine versions by Ewan MacColl and Martin Carthy. One of the nicest appears on the second collaboration between Maddy Prior and June Tabor, now formally calling themselves Silly Sisters. With a sprightly musical backing, they weave a fine harmony, clearly enjoying the silly tale.

Enjoy this delightful rendition of a traditional tune today.

Song of the Day, October 17: The Old Man’s Song (Don Quixote)

TaborAqabaQuixoteToday’s song is The Old Man’s Song. It was written by John Tams and Bill Caddick while both were in the innovative folk band Home Service. The band performed it live, but did not record it for many years. In the meantime, June Tabor — who recorded a number of Caddick compositions over the years — included it on her 1988 album Aqaba. While not exactly a concept album, the disc features many story songs, most of which look at the lives of complex heroes.

The Old Man’s Song, subtitled with its principal character on Tabor’s album, features the Man of La Mancha looking back over his life. It’s a powerful, contemplative song and an unusual look at a character usually celebrated in dashing tales and quirky adventures.

Tabor’s quietly powerful vocal is as flawless as ever, capturing the aged spirit of the knight. The track also features one of her earliest collaborations with pianist Huw Warren, who became a regular fixture on her albums and in her live shows. His sympathetic keyboard work provides just the right musical backdrop.

Enjoy this great song today.

Album of the Week, September 14: Abyssinians by June Tabor

AbyssiniansRBHSJDIDBadgeJune 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.

Title Abyssinians
Act June Tabor
Label Topic Release Date 1983
Producer Andrew Cronshaw
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. The Month of January
  2. The Scarecrow
  3. One Night As I Lay On My Bed
  4. She Moves Among Men
    (The Bar Maid’s Song)
  5. Lay This Body Down
  6. A Smiling Shore
  7. The Bonny Boy
  8. I Never Thought My Love Would Leave Me
  9. The Bonny Hind
  10. The Fiddle and the Drum

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.

Song of the Day, September 2: She Moves Among Men (The Bar Maid’s Song)

TaborMovesToday’s song is She Moves Among Men (The Bar Maid’s Song). June Tabor recorded a stunning version of this song for her 1983 masterpiece Abyssinians. It was written by master storyteller and frequent Tabor collaborator Bill Caddick. The deceptively simple story of a lonely woman and her interactions with men, it’s a deeply layered song. Tabor’s flawless delivery captures the dark essence of the lyrics and imbues the title character with a powerful, distinct life. Her singing is accompanied only by the lovely piano work of Dave Bristow, who supports and accents the lyrics nicely.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, June 2: Flash Company by June Tabor & Martin Simpson

TaborSimpsonFlashJune Tabor has always had a knack for picking musical partners. Her first full-length recording was Silly Sisters with Maddy Prior and she’s gone on to work closely with Oysterband and many others. For her fourth outing (after two solo discs) she paired with noted guitarist Martin Simpson. His delightful playing fits seamlessly with her enchanting voice, and A Cut Above is aptly named and remains one of her best discs.

Flash Company is the standout. It’s a traditional song dating back to at least the 19th Century, with several known broadsides matching the earliest times the words were collected. Deceptively sprightly, it’s a warning about the perils of the fast life, with the narrator bemoaning the loss of money and youth that hanging out with the flash lads has caused. Tabor cavorts perfectly through the danceable tune and Simpson matches her in spirit and energy.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

 

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