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DAVID BURKE - Singing Out

DAVID BURKE - Singing Out
Soundcheck Books ISBN: 9780992948023

Taking this book’s title literally doesn’t really give the prospective reader much of a clue as to its content; as regards its raison-d’être, its altogether more meaningfully contextual subtitle, A Folk Narrative Of Maddy Prior, June Tabor And Linda Thompson, will prove a far more accurate guide. For narrative it is, in that it takes us through the lives and careers (and philosophies) of those three iconic ladies of folk by means of a succession of anecdotal original interviews with them.

The catalyst that provided the ladies’ proving ground was the second folk revival of the 1960s, with its profusion of folk clubs, and the book intersperses the principal narrative with snatches of the thoughts and observations of contemporaries, friends and collaborators (Martin Carthy, Simon Nicol et al.) which both illuminate and rejoice in the era’s idiosyncrasies, at the same time celebrating their own interaction with the ladies themselves. Having said that, only a small proportion of the total word-count directly chronicles that key decade, since the book loosely follows the journey of each of the three ladies in turn, taking the individual stories up to the present day. The common thread that binds all three women, of course, is their fearless exploration of other (non-folk) musical avenues while ultimately remaining true to their roots.

David Burke’s sympathetic treatment of, and clear rapport with, his subjects both confirms their pre-eminent status and ensures a convivial, conversational style and a constant throughput of revealing information. It’s fascinating and often knowingly insightful; reflective; even quite often distinctly chuckle-provoking; and readable both in the cover-to-cover and the pick-up-and-put-down senses (which is not something you can honestly say about many music-related books). Nuggets of truth abound, from June’s axiomatic views on the art of singing unaccompanied (“the vocal equivalent of a tightrope walk, a delicate balance between technique and truth”) to Linda’s assessment of the wedding-in-song of herself and Richard.

The main menu of the book (14 short and entirely manageable chapters of narrative) is supplemented by a dozen pages of photos, some rarely seen or never previously published. There then follows a section of critical appraisal (suitably percipient, as one would expect from R2 magazine’s news editor) which cherrypicks unarguable essential listening; then 30-odd pages of (pretty detailed) discographies; and finally the necessary listing of notes and sources and a selective index of names.

Singing Out is a most enjoyable read, and yet it leaves one with the impression of only scratching (at times just skimming) the surface despite its breadth of referential coverage of successive musical eras. At times it might almost resemble a modest picture-house trailer for a forthcoming major feature. But on the other hand, this aspect doesn’t significantly detract from the value of the book, which repays your modest investment.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 110 of The Living Tradition magazine.