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 dbut 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 …