Cyril Tawney

English folk-music revivalist and a leading authority on maritime song
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It was Cyril Tawney's proud, unchallenged claim that he sang folksongs for a living longer than anyone else in Britain. When, at the end of the 1950s, Britain experienced its first flowering of what might honestly be called English chanson, where chanson conveys a sense of literate, intelligent song, the larger-than-life Tawney was at the forefront.

Cyril Francis Tawney, folk revival singer and songwriter, naval historian and broadcaster: born Gosport, Hampshire 12 October 1930, married 1966 Rosemary Radmore; died Wonford, Devon 21 April 2005.

It was Cyril Tawney's proud, unchallenged claim that he sang folksongs for a living longer than anyone else in Britain. When, at the end of the 1950s, Britain experienced its first flowering of what might honestly be called English chanson, where chanson conveys a sense of literate, intelligent song, the larger-than-life Tawney was at the forefront.

He sprinkled his songs with enduring images. In "The Ballad of Sammy's Bar" (1958), an encounter set in Malta, the sailor asks Marina how sand got in her hair, to be told that he is past history: the love-rival is "a better man by far / As he drives a Yankee car". "Sally Free and Easy" (1958) is strewn with lines like, "Think I'll wait to sunset / See the Ensign down."

Tawney's songs entered the folk bloodstream, being covered over the years by the trio of Mary Black, Emmylou Harris and Dolores Keane (who sang his "The Grey Funnel Line" - slang for the Royal Navy), Bob Dylan, Davy Graham, Dorris Henderson, Carolyn Hester, Nic Jones, the Silly Sisters (Maddy Prior and June Tabor), Martin Simpson, Trees, the Watersons, the Yetties and the Young Tradition.

Tawney was born into a naval family in Gosport, Hampshire, in 1930. He joined the Navy at 16 and spent 12 years in the service working as a naval artificer (electrician), in naval slang a "tiffy", hence Tawney's song drolly winkled out of a Shakespearian quote, "A Lean and Unwashed Tiffy". He made his radio début as a folk singer on the Home Service's Sing Christmas and the Turn of the Year on Christmas Day 1957 - a broadcast that inspired the Radio 4 Archive Hour that I presented on Christmas Day 2004, by which time Tawney was too ill to participate, a pity since he helped my essay for its 2000 CD release enormously.

The original programme's anchor-man, the US musicologist and folk-song collector Alan Lomax, announced him, live on air, as "Petty Officer Tawney of HMS Murray". Earlier Home Service and Third Programme broadcasts by Lomax and Sing Christmas's Plymouth presenter Peter Kennedy had awakened Tawney's musical consciousness, weaning him off Frank Crumit, Elton Hayes, Burl Ives and Jimmie Rodgers onto "authentic folk music".

He bought himself out of the Navy in May 1959 to become a full-time, professional folk singer. In the days before the folk-club explosion, he made his living by broadcasting. Basing himself in London or Bristol would have been a wiser radio and television career move; but he picked Plymouth, in the process becoming a prime mover in the revival of interest in West Country folk culture. By the early 1960s he was recording, contributing to Rocket Along and A Pinch of Salt (both 1960). In October 1961, he secured his first solo folk club date, followed by his first recording under his name alone, Baby Lie Easy (1963).

As a former submariner, he had a keen appreciation of naval life, but he turned the particular into the universal in many of his songs. They entered song collections such as Songs for the Sixties (1961), The Oxford Book of English Traditional Verse (1983) and The Oxford Book of Sea Songs (1986). Tawney became a leading authority on maritime song, singing on the important anthology Farewell Nancy (1964); acting as consultant to "provide authentic song material" for the television series Moonfleet; and writing Grey Funnel Lines: traditional song & verse of the Royal Navy 1900-1970 (1987).

He also specialised in West Country folk song - witness his album The Outlandish Knight (1969) - and the Sabine Baring-Gould collections. Interviewed by the chronicler of folk-music history Eric Winter in 1972, Tawney said:

A folk singer must have a regional identity, be representative of the ordinary people of a certain area, be able to express their character and outlook on life not only in the songs, but also in the way he sings them. Although I was born in Hampshire, I had already put down roots in the Devon and Cornwall area through my naval service, so I settled in Plymouth and got on with the business of learning as much as I could about West Country songs.

After ping-ponging between record labels, Tawney found relative stability with Argo. It released four albums and placed tracks on a handful of its budget compilations. From 1988 onwards, Tawney put out his own material on his own label, Neptune Tapes, most on nautical themes. An exception was Down the Hatch (1994), themed mainly on beery matters - including John Mitchell's "A Pint of Contraception", Richard Thompson's "Down Where the Drunkards Roll" and the traditional "Sucking Cider from a Straw". Many of his songs are riddled with innocent and not-so-innocent measures poured out from barroom and pub encounters. In "Monday Morning" he sang,

If only birds would booze

If only the sun was a party giver

If I could just lend someone else me liver

On a Monday morning.

He once told me that too many folk performers had leapt at the chance to join "big glam 'lectric groups". "It really is a bit niggling," he said:

You think, "Maybe I should have gone with one of these groups for six months and got out of it. My name would have been made afterwards." People are quite indiscriminate about it, as if he's been with a group so he must be good.

One group he did join was the one the singer and composer Peter Bellamy put together for his "ballad-opera" The Transports (1977, reissued 2004). Bellamy created The Shantyman in his likeness. Ironically Tawney had worked on a ballad-opera as early as 1969.

The Scots singer Ray Fisher once remarked to me, "Cyril was something of an enigma." She was right. He never conformed to folk stereotypes of any sort, never touted his politics, just sang and made history come alive.

Ken Hunt

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