A ship in order

Ah, the unpopular world of folk music. Bands about half a dozen people have heard of. Songs about nineteenth-century railway accidents and failing to find jobs. Songs with vaguely pagan connections. Songs about the Burning Times. Beards. Chunky jumpers.

Well, some of those cliches are true. In spite of Neil (http://www.wiblog.com/neil/) and others’ best efforts, don’t expect Show of Hands (http://www.showofhands.co.uk/) to set the charts alight anytime soon. Don’t expect to see Maddy Prior (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/folk/artist_database/pages/priormaddy.shtml) gracing the stage of Top of the Pops.

But then, don’t expect anyone – least of all folk music fans – to actually care about that. Folk music has existed, and I suspect always will exist, in almost a parallel universe from mainstream music. There are some artists who would kill for a slice of John Otway’s chart action (http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/features/story/0,11710,803341,00.html), it’s true, but they’re largely few and far between. Folk and acoustic music, at least in the UK, seems to consist of artists singing songs they want to sing, to audiences who want – or maybe need – to hear them.

A superb case in point has always been June Tabor (disarmingly honest official site at http://www.junetabor.com/). I know that some people have a problem with saying that people have great folk music voices. After all, they claim, one voice is as valid as the next for singing folk music, right? Well, fine if that’s your opinion. Let’s just say, in that case, that June Tabor has the sort of equally-valid-as-the-next folk voice that could melt traffic at thirty paces and which touches grown men to tears. Distinctive is not the word. Her register is rare: I can sing the same pitch as she can, and I’m a baritone. Her delivery is as soothing or cutting as she chooses it to be. And her passion for the songs she sings – an increasingly uncommon thing in these days of increasingly manufactured outfits – is undeniable.

I was chuffed to bits that one of my wife’s birthday presents for me were tickets to see her at St. Donat’s last Saturday. We went. It was pretty much everything I could wish for in a June Tabor gig. Since she’s between albums, the back catalogue was plundered broadly as wonderfully as you’d expect from someone who has three decades’ worth to choose from. The new songs were potent and pertinent, particularly Maggie Holland’s take on what a modern-day Robert Burns might make of the newly gentrified Leith. The Les Barker (http://www.mrsackroyd.com/) parody – taking off George Bush to the tune of the Girl from Ipanema – was present and very correct. The band were able enough to sound deceptively bigger than three. I’ll admit to feeling a bit uneasy when ‘Mississippi Summer’ started up, but it was astounding – voice, double bass and accordion managing to be much more than the sum of their parts.

Things I would have changed? Well, I probably shouldn’t have worn that Oysterband t-shirt for a start; it helps to actually, like, know a bit about the band whose name is emblazoned on your back (I only have two of their albums, as I had to admit to the centre manager). And I’d have loved to hear June Tabor sing another Maggie Holland song – one wasn’t quite enough for me.

But it was good to speak to her at the end. Non-mainstream music gigs do have their benefits. After all, you don’t generally get to meet the artist at the end of a Hear’Say gig. Still less do you get a chance to talk to the artists about their songs and songwriters. This fanboy was very honoured.

And, to crown it all, I now have a signed copy of one of my desert island albums (http://www.sucs.org/~rhys/articles/did.html) too. Blimey. I’m sometimes glad that the world of folk music is such an unpopular one.

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