June Tabor

No Man's Land / Flowers Of The ForestAshes And Diamonds
The ScarecrowAbyssinians
The Band Played Waltzing MatildaAirs And Graces
The King Of RomeAqaba
UnicornsA Cut Above
Love Will Tear Us ApartRagged Kingdom
The Dancing / Miss Lindsay BarkerApples
Bentley And CraigAleyn
A Place Called EnglandA Quiet Eye


June Tabor playlist



Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

Dame June Tabor (and I know not why she has not been suitably honoured) was born in Warwick in 1947. In my opinion she is the finest living female singer in the world, never mind in the UK. She has a fabulous voice and perfect diction, you can hear every syllable of every word whether she’s singing in English, in a British regional dialect or in French.

When I was at university in Coventry in the late 70s and early 80s it was said that she was a librarian in the main library in her home town nearby. Which, although I’ve never been able to substantiate it, was quite exciting at the time to think it was true.

June Tabor herself went to St. Hugh’s College, Oxford and captained the college team on University Challenge in 1968.

She says that she was inspired to sing from hearing the EP Hazards Of Love by Anne Briggs in 1965, which she admits to learning note for note and which informed her singing style (Anne Briggs – Toppermost #310). I am not aware that June Tabor plays an instrument or indeed has sung any of her own compositions but as an interpreter she is second to none and makes every song her own. She has sung in a range of styles from traditional to contemporary, a cappella and with a backing band. There are jazz songs, pop songs and rock songs. The only modern style I cannot find is ‘screaming rock diva’ – but you wouldn’t want that anyway, would you?

My 10 implies that every album that she has recorded begins with the letter A; that is how my selection has fallen, it was not a conscious decision.

There is a certain irony about how I discovered June Tabor given that she worked as a librarian. I first heard her when I borrowed the LP of Ashes And Diamonds from the Brent Town Hall Library in Wembley in 1977 while I was studying for my A levels. My first selection comes from that album. No Man’s Land is also known as The Green Fields Of France and one of three songs in my selection that speak of war, and one of two written by Eric Bogle. Again, not by design but I could not exclude any of them. This has a simple piano accompaniment played by John Gillaspie and is tied to an instrumental excerpt from the Scottish air, The Flowers Of The Forest, that is mentioned in the song. The guitar on the album is played by Nic Jones. Also in the folk section at the library was the LP Bright Phoebus by Mike and Lal Waterson which contains their song The Scarecrow and which has to be one of the most haunting songs ever written. Abyssinians was the first June Tabor album I bought and this song is a perfect example of how she takes someone else’s song and makes it her own; every time I hear it I get shivers up my spine. The guitar is played by Martin Simpson who is a regular musical partner. Here she is, singing this song in 2004 in a programme broadcast on BBC 4.

The Band Played Waltzing Matilda was also written by Eric Bogle and has been sung by numerous singers and bands. Waltzing in this context refers to someone travelling by foot with their goods in a bag slung over their back (the Matilda). The song tells of the Battle of Gallipoli in the First World War in which thousands of Turks and Australians lost their lives. Tabor sings the song a cappella and it illustrates how the pure quality of her voice can carry the story of a song without the need for any instrumental backing. There are many illustrations of this on album, and on video of live performance, particularly when she sings traditional English folk songs.

The King Of Rome is a true story and a song of working class hope: “If I can’t get out of my backstreets, my pigeon can and he will return.” If you don’t have a dream, sometimes, what do you have? Here’s a summary of the story. The song was also recorded by The Unthanks (see TopperPost #74)

What can you say about Shipbuilding? A quietly seething anti-war protest song. Elvis Costello’s reaction to the Falklands War and famously covered by Robert Wyatt, this is on her album Ashore which has a theme of songs about, or connected to, man’s relationship with the sea. June Tabor’s voice is probably richer than both Elvis Costello and Robert Wyatt but, again, a simple piano accompaniment played by Huw Warren gives the song a poignancy that the other versions maybe don’t have.

A Cut Above was a 1980 release by June Tabor with Martin Simpson and featured a cover with a sultry looking June Tabor wearing skin-tight jeans and thigh-length boots (wow!). Unicorns was written by Bill Caddick on a journey from Wolverhampton to Newcastle-upon-Tyne with his then band, Magic Lantern. Ric Sanders plays the violin solo. The lyrical imagery in the song takes you into the van with the band on that rainy night.

In recent years June Tabor has collaborated with The Oyster Band. This version of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart has to be the finest cover of any song, ever. It takes the song, strips it down, injects the emotion of a duet (with John Jones of The Oyster Band) and wrings out all of the hurt and heartbreak that Joy Division put into the lyric. A real ‘lump in the throat’ song.

I had The Dancing/Miss Lindsay Barker in my 10 from very early on because it is such fun and I thought I’d position the upbeat tune as an antidote to the previous song.

Bentley And Craig was written by Ralph McTell and tells the infamous story of a robbery gone wrong in 1952, when Christopher Craig, then age 16, shot a policeman dead but was too young to hang. His accomplice, Derek Bentley, himself only age 19 but over the age of majority, was hanged for the murder on the grounds of shouting ‘let him have it’. It has always been disputed what was meant by this and Bentley was given a full pardon in 1998.

We have to finish on a high; A Place Called England, written by Maggie Holland, has its social commentary but there is a certain exuberance about the tune and the lyric.


June Tabor wikipedia

June Tabor biography (Apple Music)

Ian’s song selection for toppermost is knowingly contemporary, so if anyone would like to comment with their favourites from June Tabor’s canon of traditional songs, they’d be more than welcome. As would topperposts on Silly Sisters, Oysterband and The Mrs Ackroyd Band …

TopperPost #125


  1. Keith Shackleton
    Nov 13, 2013

    I would have to have The Easter Tree, from Ashes and Diamonds. The first time I heard it I was transfixed, transistor radio on my pillow, listening to John Peel. Having “His jaws are locked in agony, are open for the flies to come and go, his eyes are in the belly of the crow.” sung to you in the middle of the night in June’s voice … Ragged Kingdom is an excellent record. My old mate Dil Davies on drums!

  2. Peter Viney
    Nov 13, 2013

    It’s strange, but June Tabor has largely escaped my attention over years of listening to her peers. I read the post and thought, ‘must investigate further.’ So today I walked into a record store that specializes in new vinyl, and there at the front of the 7″ rack was June Tabor & The Oysterband’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. It’s the Record Store Day special release, remixed in 2012. Of course I bought it.

  3. Colin Duncan
    Nov 18, 2013

    Enjoyed the article, Ian. I don’t know June Tabor’s work at all, but recently I have been listening to her version of the Michael Marra song, Happed In Mist on You Tube, which is beautifully sung and accompanied by beautiful piano playing, punctuated movingly by a drum at the end of the work. I think it is one of the great modern Scottish songs, but is maybe a little difficult to understand because it is related to the great Scottish novel, ‘Sunset Song’. June being a librarian may help explain why she recorded this song. Your article has encouraged me to buy the album it is on, Ian. Thanks. There’s just not enough time to hear all the music.
    (See Colin’s post on the Bard of Dundee, Michael Marra, topperpost #82 on this site … Ed.)

  4. Ian Ashleigh
    Dec 31, 2013

    Not quite ‘screaming rock diva’ but I have just discovered this stunning version of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit.

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