David Burke,
Singing Out: A Folk Narrative of Maddy Prior, June Tabor & Linda Thompson
(Soundcheck, 2015)

At the risk of dating myself, I freely acknowledge that I've listened to Maddy Prior, June Tabor and Linda Thompson ever since their recordings crossed over to these shores in the 1970s. The first was the first-named; Prior was the preeminent vocalist on the initial Steeleye Span recording, 1970's Hark! The Village Wait (and on virtually all Steeleye albums thereafter, continuing to the present). Then it was Linda Peters (born Pettifer), a background singer on Richard Thompson's debut solo album, 1972's Henry the Human Fly. (The two subsequently married and formed a legendary folk-rock duo, only to split publicly and unamicably.) The last was June Tabor, with her debut album Airs & Graces in 1976. My shelves groan beneath the accumulated weight of their recorded output, solo and otherwise, over the decades. Undaunted, I remain a committed fan of each and all.

That said, I am not sure Singing Out will appeal much to those who don't already know their names, or those of antecedents and/or friends such as Belle Stewart, Shirley Collins, Anne Briggs and the late Sandy Denny, who pass in and out of these pages. Drawing on interviews and printed sources, pop-music journalist David Burke's book reads like an extended magazine profile. If Burke, author of a previous volume on Van Morrison, does a workmanlike job, he also affords the impression of being a tourist in, and no resident of, Folk City. While betraying (unlike some of his fellows) no open antagonism to folk music, he displays no particular enthusiasm for it either. Of course he doesn't have to be a fan to write meaningfully, but it surely would have helped.

Aside from the welcome discography that appends the text, the best part is that Singing Out's three subjects are strong, smart and well-spoken on career and music matters. Theirs, of course, are the lives of working professionals, a significant portion of their time devoted to performing in clubs and on concert stages, recording, and interacting with others they meet while doing what they do to earn a living. We learn little about their private lives that we didn't already know and that they're unwilling to share, but then, there's no evidence that Burke set out to write a proper joint biography.

I was pleased to see that Burke shares a fond assessment -- I had thought myself alone in it -- of Hark! The Village Wait, for all its rough edges still my favorite Steeleye album. On the other hand, it's just dumb to assert, as Burke does, that "Richard Thompson was never a folkie." (I will assume that the obnoxious rockist phrase "folkie" is intended to mean "folk-inspired musician.") In most interviews I've read (he was not interviewed for this book), Thompson has acknowledged his debt to the British tradition and to the master storytelling of the classic ballads. Consider, for example, Still, his brilliant current album, and in particular the gorgeous opening cut, "She Never Could Resist a Winding Road." If you don't hear that as the tradition in a 21st-century voice (incorporating, too, the sound of pipes as transferred to the electric guitar), you're overdue for an ear examination. Thompson, who habitually identifies himself as a "roots musician," goes so far as to express an indifference to any rock but the stuff he heard in his childhood.

Finally, a small point for those of us versed in proper English usage: Either Burke or his copy editor, or more likely both, need to be informed that there is no such word as "alright." No, it's not all right to spell it that way, guys.

music review by
Jerome Clark

8 August 2015

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