[by Ken Hunt, London] The Great Folk Jukebox was billed as “A Tribute to Singing Englishmen with Marc Almond, Bishi, Green Gartside, Bella Hardy, Robyn Hitchcock, Lisa Knapp, Oysterband & June Tabor” (with, as the Oysters’ John Jones quipped, “the beast that is Bellowhead” – nine thereof – as house band). The ‘Singing Englishmen’ part was a doffing of the cap to a Festival of Britain concert held on 1 June 1951. Although there were allusions to Bert Lloyd’s The Singing Englishmen – a slim songbook published to coincide with the St. Pancras Town Hall concert and its six themes of freedom; courting; “On the job”; seas, ships and sailormen; “Johnny has gone for a soldier”; and “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – in truth, this was more like a gathering of the tribes.
The link to the 1951 songbook was tenuous and stylistically a few miles short of a million from the Workers’ Music Association’s original event. Crediting Pete Bellamy (Gartside), Martin Carthy (Hitchcock), Shirley Collins (Bishi) and Anne Briggs (Hardy) as influences pointed to the place of folk revival singers in today’s appreciation of folksong. Almond prowled and commanded the stage with Reynardine – all florid gestures and torch song mannerisms – to fashion a bravura performance. Bishi’s Flash Company for “all the pretty flash girls” with mandolin (played by Bellowhead’s Benji Kirkpatrick) and cello (Bellowhead’s Rachael McShane) supporting her minimalist sitar felt more lived-in and flowed more freely than her Salisbury Plain. Hitchcock ‘in’ matching shirt and guitar ripped the guts out of Sam’s Gone Away. In those three cases, it became the singer not the song – and far from that implying in a bad way.
Divers And Lazarus – it had actually figured in the 1951 choral performance – from the Oysterband and Tabor put the song first. Talking in the intermission to a Marc Almond devotee, the performance that had touched him the most was June Tabor’s unaccompanied delivery of The Blacksmith. That made two of us.
With thanks to Dave Arthur