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Cyril Tawney (1930 – 2005) - a fond farewell

Obituary by Martin Hazell, Plymouth, England, 9th May 2005

After about a year of hospitalisation Cyril Tawney, the grand old man of the English folk revival, was finally laid to rest. As the order of service stated, 'a peaceful man, now resting in peace.' 200 or so attended the service at Heavitree parish church, Exeter on Tuesday May 3rd. Rosemary Tawney had arranged a most apt and moving service. The 'overture' of folk tunes was performed by friends led by The Yetties; Cyril's coffin arrived to the sound of Percy Grainger's 'English County Garden' played on the church organ. Martin Carthy flew in from Ireland just making the service in time and Hughie Jones, the last singing 'Spinner', also attended. A recording of Cyril singing the 'Dark-eyed Sailor' and 'Oggy Man' was played. In addition the Exeter Traditional Singers (from the old 'Jolly Porter' Exeter folk club) sang, and, as the cortege left the church, Louis Killen played and sang Cyril's 'Grey Funnel Line'. For me this was the most moving moment of all.

John Bartlett led the tributes, for he had met Cyril when he started recording whilst still in the navy. For many years he worked with Cyril on radio and TV, and remembered how his friend had opened the world of 'folk' to him, enriching his life immeasurably. Doc Rowe followed with an appreciation of Cyril's contribution to the west country folk scene – it was founded by one person alone. For an ex matelot who never learnt to drive his one man 'drive', often via taxi if necessary, to collect folk song and to open folk song clubs was incredible. Victorian clerics and other gentlemen collectors had a regular income to support them, Cyril, after he bought himself out of the navy 12 years after entering as a boy seaman in 1946, had to sing to survive. In the nineteen sixties he married Rosemary who was to be his rock and soul-mate for the rest of his life. Suddenly, in the nineteen seventies Cyril vanished from the west country to study at Lancaster University; he then went on to obtain a masters degree at Leeds University in dialect studies. But all this while he was still singing, and helping younger revivalists. In addition, as John Bartlett pointed out, Cyril's poetry and song writing skill was superb. He had the ability to sum up the deepest and most elementary feelings in clear simple words, surely the mark of genius. From being a 'new wave' song writer in the sixties with a recording contract later on no recording company would want him. This was despite of the fact that so many other artists were recording his songs, and some (a dubious, but fine honour) were claimed as 'traditional'.

Shep Woolley, ex RN and singer and entertainer, finally reflected on the final part of Cyril's career when Tridant tapes were founded, and Cyril and Rosemary released, as a 'cottage industry' recordings of his naval and own songs. With Shep, Cyril sang on the naval servicemen's clubs circuit, introducing a new generation to traditional lower deck humour and song. As a historian Cyril researched and produced his, 'Grey Funnel Line' – surely the definitive collection of naval poetry and song of the 20th century. As Shep said, the senior service never ever recognised what a star they had in petty officer Tawney. It was good to see Lewis Johns and John Steel, Cyril's two accompanists in his early recordings while still in the navy, along with newer friends who perhaps never knew of his wide and extensive singing and writing background. This was the measure of the man.

I first started singing in London in the nineteen sixties, encouraged by the late Tony Rose, who himself was one of Cyril's young lads. I was then introduced via Cyril to the vast west country folk tradition which he did so much to promote. He appeared with the Padstow Hobby Horse party at the Festival Hall in London for example. Performers such as Brenda Wotton and John the Fish, Charlie Bate and Mervyn Bate from Cornwall were made known to a wider audience. He worked on the Baring Gould collection (in the Plymouth City Central Library) and recorded west country love songs to naval collections, and of course his own material. What drew me to his own songs was their sincerity and depth. Of course he could write with humour – 'Five Foot Flirt' and 'Chicken on a Raft' – but to me his quiet numbers were absolute gems. If only I could have written, 'If only the birds would booze, If only the sun were a party giver, If I could just lend someone else my liver – On a Monday morning' ! After a number of years Cyril began to write songs again in the nineteen nineties. His 'Reunion', for example, summed up the ex mattelo and his love of drink.

Five years ago Cyril and Rosemary returned to Exeter, and once again Cyril lent his support to the local folkies. He appeared at the Plymouth Festival a few years ago with Hughie Jones (ex Spinner), both appearing for minimum fees. Last year he agreed to be the festival's patron. I remember a birthday party two years ago for my fiddler friend in a Devon long house – come dawn there were only about 6 people left awake, Cyril included. He was singing right up to the time he entered hospital. We shall all miss his warmth, quiet humour and dry wit, but his songs will live on, as timeless examples of true folk poetry. He was truly the Godfather/goodfather of the English folk revival. Appropriately his coffin was covered with the flag of St George.

After the church service a gathering was held at the Globe Hotel in Topsham, where there was much remeniscencing and some fine singing.

The three 'founders' of the 20th century folk revival – Ewan MacColl, A.L.Lloyd and Cyril Tawney – have now all left us, but for me the giant with the common touch was Cyril, 'a peaceful man, now resting in peace'.


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory