June Tabor and An Echo of Hooves (2004)

2. 11. 2009 | Rubriky: Articles,CD reviews

[by Ken Hunt, London] An Echo of Hooves represented a career milestone for the English folksinger June Tabor. In February 2004 its Hughie Graeme was named ‘Best Traditional Track’ and she received the accolade of ‘Singer of the Year’ in the BBC Radio 2 Awards. That though is transitory, foreign stuff, for her album An Echo of Hooves was a summation of decades spent learning how to work with, and work out the emotions contained in Anglo-Scottish balladry.

An Echo of Hooves was a culmination of decades of running ballads through the filter of her grey cells. “I’ve been singing ballads ever since I discovered traditional music,” she says. “You’ll find ballads, even if it’s just one, on most of the albums. For some reason, and I couldn’t even tell you what it was now, I wondered whether it would be possible to make an album entirely of ballads that would reflect all the different qualities of the ballad. And, yes, it was possible and I did it and there you have it in An Echo of Hooves.”
Her initial collision with traditional balladry – it does have an impact – came, like that of many people, through the school library and treasuries like Arthur Quiller-Couch’s The Oxford Book of Ballads (originally published in 1910). “The traditional ones were always at the front of the anthologies under ‘anon’. Of course, then you find ones further on like The Highwayman which is a cracking story but something written by one person [Arthur Noyes]. Whereas with ‘the ballads’ you just don’t know [about authorship]. I certainly came across them through school.” The next step, however quaint it may sound, was discovering that the words on the printed page were sung. In 1968 she went to study what basically became a French literature course at Oxford and got involved in the university folk society. It led to investing in her own set of Francis Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads. “I bought those when I was at Oxford. I went into Blackwell’s Music Shop and bought myself the whole set. Although the folksong society – Heritage – had a library, which was kept in a suitcase, and it had a full set of Child and all the volumes of Bronson that had been published at that time. I’ve always had my set of Childs as a reference tool. I discovered that there was an abridged version of Bronson in one volume, which was ferociously expensive over here, but on one of my trips to America I got it at McCabe’s. They may have ordered it in for me, but that’s how I acquired that. Bronson also has more modern variants of some of the ballads that aren’t in Child because, obviously, Child was working in the nineteenth century and Bronson very much in the later part of the twentieth century. That’s very much the librarian in me, see? I have to have these things! It’s when I think, ‘I wonder if.’ and I go to the shelf. I haven’t got as many books as I would like to have of a musical variety.”

Ballads of whatever hue, nationalistic or border-crossing, are full of archetypes and tales of dark deeds and sturdy steeds. Asked what their direct appeal is, she exclaims, “Oh! it’s just the strength of the storylines. It is narrative poetry in its most extreme form, very stark, no extraneous, superfluous details. It’s great deeds and small ones. Sometimes it can be the minutiae or just like a snapshot. That’s one of the great things about the ballads: they do come in different shapes and in sizes from three verses to however many you’d like to name in unexpurgated versions. But it’s getting a story to move so it just sweeps you along or else it’s one ‘frame’ from the story which leads you to use your imagination or to pick up the clues in the song as to what went before and what’s going to happen next.”

Talking more specifically, she says, “An example of that is Bonnie James Campbell where you get this ‘moment’ when the horse comes back without him and the reaction of the women. I see that song so clearly. I had to sing it. It was one of those ones that had ‘Sing me’ written all over it. Just three verses but so much wealth in implied detail. At the other extreme is Sir Patrick Spens – one hell of a story with very simple language, but so graphic. It’s formulaic, the same verses crop up in other songs, but that doesn’t matter. That also adds to the appeal of the ballad, that the ballad-maker could, with effectively a very limited vocabulary and with a limited number of devices, as a poet, come up with things that were so strong and each in their own way so different. Just as the classic playwrights of the seventeenth century used very limited vocabulary, in Racine for example, but at their best came up with amazing poetry and emotional content from very simple building material. That’s what really appeals to me about the ballads. And they’re good stories too; that’s the other thing.”

Of course, societies nowadays groan with good stories of the cliff-hanging variety from high-flown cinema and highbrow biography to potboilers and soap operas. Ballads are different. “It’s not,” she concludes, “‘I went to the shops and I didn’t see that girl that I fancy from over the road, so I went home and cried a bit.’ There’s probably at least three murders that have happened between here and the newsagent’s! The lives and deaths described are very real and very present somehow. It’s the way that the ballad-maker or -makers, whoever they were, plied their craft. You’re straight inside the story, as soon as you’re into verse one. There’s no messing about. You’re in there and you’re swept along by the song and you’re left somewhat bedraggled at the end.”

June Tabor: An Echo of Hooves (Topic Topic TSCD543, 2003)
A version of this article appeared in the Canadian magazine Penguin Eggs in its Summer 2004 issue. Ken Hunt also wrote the booklet notes and did the interviews for her career overview boxed set Always (Topic TSFCD4003, 2005).

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