June Tabor’s deep, resonant voice and commitment to British folk music has made her one of the most critically acclaimed singers of her generation. “Tabor is probably the finest female traditional British folk singer of the late 20th century,” noted Richie Unterberger in All Music Guide, “if not the best British folk singer of her time, period.” Despite praise and attention, Tabor resisted becoming a full-time performer for 15 years and recorded her early albums while working as a librarian and restaurateur. She has also resisted categorization. “She has moved from traditional folk to modern folk to covering pop standards,” noted Philip van Vleck of Dirty Linen, “always expanding her range and building a repertoire that reflects her depth and breadth as an interpreter of songs.” Her dedication, resounding alto, and eclectic choice of material have established her as an uncompromising artist.
Even as a child in Warwick, England, Tabor loved to sing. “Luckily, I was able to pretty much carry a tune,” she told Vleck. “That must have been a relief for those who were forced to listen to me.” She idolized Cliff Richard and learned his songs until she came under the spell of Martin Carthy and Anne Briggs. Tabor also sang with a girls’ choir at school, though the registry of her voice, both high and low, made it difficult for her to sing in the correct key. She later developed the lower range into an emotional alto that became her trademark. “Deep, resonate, and capable of producing fluid and melodious higher harmonies,” wrote Lahri Bond of Green Man Review, “her instrument has at times been compared with the rich and sometimes melancholy tone produced by a finely crafted cello.” Tabor made her official debut at age 15 at a “singer’s night,” performing “Kumbaya” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” “When I look back on that night,” Tabor told Vleck, “I think, ‘Oh God! Why did I have to start with those two songs!’”
While a student at Oxford University, Tabor studied medieval languages and expanded her musical horizons. “There was a thriving traditional music scene at Oxford,” she recalled to Vleck. She sang with two campus groups—one that specialized in jazz-fusion, the other in soft rock. Speaking of the latter, Tabor told Vleck, “We used to end every performance with Janis Joplin’s ‘Piece of My Heart.’ We didn’t have a very good P.A., so I was always screaming my head off at the end of that song. It was wearing my voice out, so, in the end, I thought I’d stick with folk music.” Upon graduation, she went to work for the public library in London, a job that allowed her flexibility in scheduling folk music gigs.
In 1976 Tabor recorded her first solo album, Airs & Graces, which was received with wide critical acclaim. “Tabor’s first solo record is an understated triumph full of good songs,” wrote John Dougan of All Music Guide. She established a precedent of working with a small number of musicians to create an intimate setting that was referred to as chamber folk. Tabor also joined Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span, and together, they dubbed themselves the Silly Sisters. This association, along with their self-titled debut, brought Tabor even wider recognition. “Silly Sisters became an instant classic,” wrote Bond, “and is still considered to be an essential album among Celtic music fans.”
In the early 1980s Tabor quit her library job, married, and with her husband became a restaurateur in the Lake District. For the next five years she performed infrequently and recorded only one album, Abyssinians. In 1987, however, the restaurant was sold and Tabor decided to devote all of her time to music. “In a way, I’m glad I waited,” Tabor told J. Mikel Ellcessor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “because the me that is the performer now is… much like the ancient mariner—sadder and wiser—but a much more sympathetic person to the songs and what they have to give than I could ever have been 20 years ago.”
In 1988 she recorded Aqaba and then re-teamed with Prior for No More to the Dance, beginning the most productive period of her career. During the late 1980s Tabor also began to collaborate with pianist/arranger Huw Warren. “He’s a pianist of consummate skill,” she told Vleck, “and someone with a grounding in modern jazz and modern classical music.” Backed by Warren’s arrangements, Tabor recorded a number of jazz standards on Some Other Time in 1989. “The purists were shocked she’d embraced jazz so wholeheartedly,” wrote Colin Irwin in an essay posted on Tabor’s website. Tabor continued to experiment when she joined
Born on December 31, 1947, in Warwick, England. Education: Attended Oxford University.
Released debut Airs & Graces, 1976; recorded as the Silly Sisters with Maddy Prior, 1976; employed as librarian, London; released Ashes and Diamonds, 1977, and A Cut Above, 1980; restaurateur, mid-1980s-1987; full time as singer, 1987-; recorded Some Other Time, 1989; joined Oyster Band for Freedom & Rain, 1990; released Rosa Mundi, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Green Linnet, 43 Beaver Brook Rd., Danbury, CT 06810, website: http://www.greenlinnet.com.
the folk-rock Oyster Band, in 1990. Speaking of one performance, Steve Pond wrote in Rolling Stone: “Theirs was a tremendous, joyous, remarkable rock & roll show that was folk only in the way that folk music is a grass-roots musical language and a way for the common man to raise his voice against oppression and exploitation.” The Oyster Band’s one studio album, Freedom & Rain, along with a 1991 tour sampler, includes remarkable song selections such as the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”
“From her early days in the folk clubs singing a cappella ballads to her current work as an interpreter of contemporary songs,” wrote Tim Walters of Music-Hound Folk, “her style has remained immediately recognizable, and her mastery of dramatic understatement unrivaled.” During the 1990s Tabor continued to expand her repertoire by recording the songs of contemporary writers like Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, and Billy Bragg on a series of much-admired albums including Angel Tiger in 1992, Against the Streams in 1994, and Aleyn in 1997.
In 2000 Tabor recorded A Quiet Eye with the Creative Jazz Orchestra, covering popular standards like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” “It is the synthesis of all her myriad influences into one cohesive whole,” wrote Bond, “along with her innovative use of the brass heavy Creative Jazz Orchestra that makes this an outstanding album.” In 2001 she recorded Rosa Mundi, a concept album revolving around her love of roses. “All I can say,” Tabor told Ernesto Lechner of Pulse, “is that I make the albums that I feel are right for me, and I don’t make them with a specifically commercial end in view.” Her commitment to the art of song, willingness to collaborate with others, and perhaps most of all, her distinctive vocals, have assured Tabor an exalted place among contemporary singers. “Such is the emotional carnage wreaked by her extraordinary voice,” wrote Irwin, “that some of us have even been moved to shout … that she’s the finest singer you’ll find in all these islands.”
Airs & Graces, Shanachie, 1976.
(With Maddy Prior) Silly Sisters, Shanachie, 1978; reissued, Beat Goes On, 1984.
Abyssinians, Shanachie, 1983.
Some Other Time, Hannibal, 1989.
(With Oyster Band) Freedom & Rain, Rykodisc, 1990.
Angel Tiger, Green Linnet, 1992.
Against the Streams, Green Linnet, 1994.
Aleyn, Green Linnet, 1997.
A Quiet Eye, Green Linnet, 2000.
Rosa Mundi, Green Linnet, 2001.
Walters, Neal, and Brian Mansfield, editors, MusicHound Folk: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Dirty Linen, August-September 2000, pp. 33, 34, 35, 96.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 17, 1997, p. 20.
Pulse!, March, 2002.
Rolling Stone, May 2, 1991, p. 20.
“June Tabor,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (March 27, 2002).
“June Tabor,” Green Man Review, http://www.greenmanreview.com/ (March 27, 2002).
“June Tabor: Coming up Roses,” Pulse, http://pulse.towerrecords.com/ (March 27, 2002).
June Tabor Official Website, http://www.junetabor.com/ (March 27, 2002).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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