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Off the Beaten Tracks: Maddy and June

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IN previous columns about Maddy Prior and June Tabor I made passing reference to the LP they made together in 1976, Silly Sisters. Since it is one of my favourite traditional folk albums of all time, I thought it deserved a more in-depth treatment. So here goes.

Madelaine Edith Prior was already an established star with Steeleye Span when she teamed up with June Tabor who, like her, was born in 1947. Tabor had become known on the folk club circuit as a self-taught singer of unaccompanied traditional tunes. However, for this project, she found herself backed by a stellar line-up including Martin Carthy on guitar, Danny Thompson on bass and the incomparable Nic Jones on fiddle. I don’t know how or why she came to be paired up with Prior on vocals but it was an inspired choice, June’s deep tones combining beautifully with Maddy’s higher voice.

First up is the terrific Doffin’ Mistress, which was sung by Anne Briggs on the 1963 LP of industrial folk songs The Iron Muse. This is appropriate because it was Briggs who inspired both Prior and Tabor to become folk singers. The Doffing Mistress, as it was then titled, was Anne’s first recording. ‘If I hadn’t heard her, I would probably have done something entirely different,’ Tabor once said.

Burning of Auchindoon is one of the Child Ballads, more than 300 English and Scottish songs anthologised by the American scholar Francis James Child in the 19th century. Track three, Lass of Loch Royal, comes from the same source.

The Seven Joys of Mary is a carol about significant moments in the life of Jesus. It dates back to the 14th century and its most recent recorded airing before Silly Sisters was on the 1952 LP Christmas Day in the Morning by Burl Ives. Take it from me, June and Maddy are a vast improvement. Here’s the proof. 

Track five finds the girls in bawdy mood for My Husband’s Got No Courage in Him; in other words the poor bloke is unable to rise to his marital obligations. The delightful Singing the Travels concerns a barney between a husbandman, or farmer, and a servant.

The vocal harmonies, backed by Tony Hall’s melodeon, are simply sublime.

Music for the Jacobite song Silver Whistle is provided by the Irish bouzouki player Johnny Moynihan. The only non-traditional song on the album is The Grey Funnel Line,  which was written by the West Country folkie Cyril Tawney based on his experiences in the Royal Navy. If the singing doesn’t send shivers down your back, see a physiotherapist.

June goes solo for Geordie, a heartwarming tale of a loyal wife who wins a reprieve for her man wrongly accused of killing a nobleman. The Seven Wonders is a Welsh song about a series of ever-more unlikely events, followed by Four Loom Weaver, concerning unemployment in the 19th century. This was previously recorded in 1951 by that great class warrior Ewan MacColl. You might have expected the Salford-born Leftie, real name James Miller, to have inhabited a grim garret in deepest Deptford after moving to London. In fact he and the equally humourless Peggy Seeger lived in a bourgeois villa, No 35 Stanley Avenue, in affluent Beckenham. A blue plaque commemorates his residence.

The Game of All Fours places rumpy-pumpy into a card-playing context – She cut the cards and I fell a dealing,
I dealt her a trump and myself the poor Jack,
She led off her ace and stole the Jack from me,
Saying Jack is the card I like best in your pack.

At the start of the final track, Dame Durdan, we hear Martin Carthy summoning the ensemble to dinner with the words ‘Right chaps, food.’ What follows is a variation on the theme of Widdecombe Fair.

One of the best things about this delightful record, produced by Maddy Prior and Robin Black, is that everyone involved was clearly having a great time. If only Madame Tabor’s more recent work showed similar joie de vivre.

Twelve years later, Maddy and June revived the Silly Sisterhood for the album No More to the Dance. This, while not quite scaling the heights of its predecessor, is still a cracking listen. It was produced and engineered by Andrew Cronshaw, who has made several fascinating albums of instrumental new age folk under his own name.

The first track, Blood and Gold/Mohacs, reveals the gals still to be in fine voice, if a wee bit deeper. The second part of it is a composition by the Breton electric guitarist Dan Ar Braz, who features heavily on the album and gives it a more contemporary feel (sadly). Cakes and Ale is lovely, followed by the Lal Waterson song Fine Horseman. How Shall I Your True Love Know is the first of Ophelia’s Mad Songs from Hamlet.

That reminds me. Many years ago I was doing a subbing shift on the Daily Mirror in Manchester and a cigar-smoking colleague gave a messenger a couple of quid telling him: ‘Get me five Hamlet from the canteen.’ Fifteen minutes later the lad returned with several colleagues proudly carrying trays on which were five omelettes – two cheese, two ham and one mushroom.

The traditional song Hedger and Ditcher prompts another digression. Remember the hilarious moment during the 2001 general election campaign when that smug philandering git Two Jags Prescott was hit by an egg and responded by punching the thrower in the face? The bemulleted yolksmith, one Craig Evans, was described at the time as a hedger and ditcher. Not to mention a hero.

Back to the album and the lovely Rosie Anderson involves just June’s voice, backed by Huw Warren on piano, while Maddy gets her own solo spot on Somewhere Along the Road, written by her Steeleye colleague and then husband Rick Kemp. The Barring of the Door is a comic account of an elderly couple involved in a competitive silence and is followed by the acapella What Will We Do and then Almost Every Circumstance, a sweet  little song by the Irish writer Colum Sands. The traditional The Old Miner ends the album on a sombre note.

And that’s it, so far as the Silly Sisters go. Prior and Tabor are still going strong on their separate paths, which occasionally cross, as in this clip from 2008. 

But I don’t think either has ever topped that 1976 album. And I doubt if the lugubrious June has had so much fun since.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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