Heart of song
Elvis Costello writes for you. You record what is regarded as the definitive And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. Your name is June Tabor. Warwick McFadyen listens in.
Of the myriad versions of And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, the song's composer Eric Bogle singles out one above the rest. It is sung without accompaniment, just a female voice connecting so deeply with the song's sentiment and emotion that it overwhelms you. The woman who owns that voice is English singer June Tabor.
Tabor heard a friend of Bogle's sing it in a pub in England in the mid-'70s. Although it had been written in 1971, it didn't form a life of its own until much later, and Tabor had a lot to do with its spread. "What a song," she says from the little village of Knighton on the England-Wales border. When she heard it in the pub, "I just sat and cried, and thought 'Oh god, I have to learn it'."
But in a reworking of the Oscar Wilde maxim that people kill the things
they love, Tabor stopped singing Matilda because of its popularity.
"I stopped singing it because people had begun singing along with it," she says. "And you can't do that with a song like that."
Her unaccompanied version from 1976 is included in Always, a four-CD boxed set of Tabor's work, which has just been released in Australia.
The one time she did sing it and not have to worry about audience participation was at the opening of the museum In Flanders Field, in Belgium, several years ago. She had been invited to sing at the ceremony, which was going to be held on Anzac Day.
"I hadn't sung Matilda for years so I thought I better practise. I went up in the woods above where I live. I was walking and I couldn't get through it. I just burst into tears and thought, 'How am I going to manage to sing that in front of 600 people?'
"When it came to the moment, I did it, but there was a back projection - which luckily I couldn't see or that would have finished me off - of archive footage while I sang. And then there was complete silence, and then the applause just went on and on and on. It was an incredibly moving moment. It really was."
There's a slight crack in Tabor's voice at this telling, which goes to the core of her artistry. Words matter. They are the bridges between people and the bridges to the past.
"For me, the lyrics are the first thing," she says. "Words are always the way into a song." She is attracted to songs that can draw a vivid picture and convey emotions palpable to the listener and the singer. "It could make me laugh, make me cry or make me think, but always with the strength of lyrics which will enable me to transmit the feeling that the song engendered in me in the first place."
It is this interpretative empathy that has earned Tabor universal acclaim as one of England's finest singers.She puts her soul into a song and sculpts it with passion and dignity.
One admirer is Elvis Costello, who has written two songs for her: All This Useless Beauty and I Want to Vanish. He reportedly said of her: "To write for somebody with that kind of voice is just the greatest calling you can have in songwriting."
Tabor's reaction: "Well, I'm speechless, though he does say some very nice things about me. He had said in past interviews that he liked what I did, but he had never actually heard me live. Then he came to a concert in Dublin and at the end I was standing around talking to people and saw this chap out of the corner of my eye and he had a beard at the time and no glasses so I didn't recognise him. He came up to me and said, 'I really loved your concert and I'd really love to write something for you', and I thought, 'Hang on, who is this fellow', and he said, 'Oh sorry, my name's Elvis Costello' and I nearly fell through the floor."
When Tabor was making her album Angel Tiger, she remembered Costello's words. "I thought I'd be very brave and get in touch with him and say, 'You did say . . . Have you got anything? Three days later this tape appeared on the doormat and there it was: All This Useless Beauty."
It is this open-mindedness to a song that renders as meaningless attempts to label Tabor. Although her ouevre is predominantly traditional, she also has recorded the works of Natalie Merchant, Richard Thompson, Tracy Chapman and Lou Reed.
"They're all good lyric writers," she says. "It doesn't matter where the song comes from."
Tabor studied French, Latin and literature at Oxford ("nothing after 1750, which means I got out of having to read those 19th-century novels"). She also was the captain of her team on Granada Television's University Challenge. It was her first TV appearance; they lost.
She had envisaged a career among the shelves and files of librarianship, but her spine was made of more lively stuff. Music was calling her.
At first, she performed unaccompanied, but slowly came to use other musicians.
Her career took a slight detour when she operated a restaurant with her husband in the 1980s, but with a marriage break-up and the sale of the restaurant, by the '90s music had claimed her again. The compilation of the boxed set has confirmed one thing: you can take the girl out of the library, but not the library out of the girl.
"I found all these tapes that people had given me over the years - it's the librarian in me: never throw anything away - in boxes and labelled."
From there it was a laborious task with compiler David Suff to select material from 30 years of performance.
As the result shows, always with June Tabor, it's the story and the words that shine through.