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Tawney, Cyril Francis (1930–2005), folk-singer and songwriter, was born on 12 October 1930 at 6 Caroline Place, off Cobden Street, Forton, Gosport, Hampshire, the younger son of Archibald Stephen Edward Tawney (1896–1961), a telegraphist stationed at the Royal Navy barracks in Portsmouth, and his wife, Rose, née Moan (1897–1971). Like his brother Archibald (Archie), ten years his senior, he went into the Royal Navy: ‘I didn't come in from the heart of England to a seaport and join the Navy. I was in the Navy from the cradle’ (Hunt, ‘Navy man’, 39). Four days short of his sixteenth birthday, on 8 October 1946, he joined up and was based at the artificer training establishment at Torpoint (commissioned that December as HMS Fisgard. John Gould, Tawney's contemporary, recalled that ‘discipline was hard’, with the new recruits at the bottom of the naval base's hierarchical pyramid; the base still operated a public school-like fagging system. Tawney became an electrical artificer, or ‘tiffy’ in naval slang, serving on surface craft and in submarines. His song ‘The Lean and Unwashed Tiffy’ was sparked by finding Hubert refer to ‘Another lean and unwash'd artificer’ in Shakespeare's King John. During his four-year apprenticeship, under the influence of the American folk-singer Burl Ives, he began writing scripts and songs and playing the guitar, going on to appear in shipboard shows, some produced by Lieutenant David Attenborough.

Even then Tawney's songs ranked as more than short-life ditties or show throwaways. The finest were literate and intelligent. His songs were effectively English chansons and frequently used folk-song-like models. These traits can be heard in his ‘Five-Foot Flirt’ (1950), inspired by Red Ingle and the Natural Seven's ‘Cigareets, Whuskey, and Wild Wild Women’. While naval allusions populated his songs of this period, more tellingly it was the vernacularity of songs like ‘Sally Free and Easy’ and ‘The Ballad of Sammy's Bar’ (both 1958) that enabled them to grow legs and travel.

In 1956, on a visit to London, Tawney performed at an English Folk Dance and Song Society concert, setting in train events that led to him making his wireless début on the BBC Home Service's Sing Christmas and the Turn of the Year on Christmas day 1957. This was a feat of live broadcasting linking England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, with the American Alan Lomax as anchor-man (though the word only had a nautical meaning then.) Tawney, waiting in the Plymouth studio with the local producer Peter Kennedy, was announced as ‘Petty Officer Tawney of HMS Murray’ before launching into the broadcast's longest live solo piece, a John Jacob Niles-styled ‘I Wonder as I Wander’ to his own guitar accompaniment.

Tawney bought himself out of the navy on 4 May 1959 and became a full-time professional folk-singer that month. At this point there was hardly any folk-club circuit, but, still a bachelor, he managed on income from radio and television. He obtained his first solo folk-club date in October 1961 and, based in the west country, he started a folk-club in January 1962 in Plympton, relocated to Plymouth that June. In 1960 he appeared in two anthologies, Rocket Along and A Pinch of Salt; his solo début, Baby Lie Easy, followed in 1962. On 28 October 1966 he married Rosemary June Radmore (1934–2012), dental nurse, and only child of Harold Albert Charles Radmore, a gardener for Plymouth corporation. They had no children.

Tawney had gone into the navy straight from grammar school without taking school certificate examinations. In 1972 he was accepted as a mature student by Lancaster University on the strength of his extensive private research and writings about folk-song; he graduated BA in English and history in 1975. His dissertation, ‘Project Albatross, an investigation into the extent of folk song creativity in the Royal Navy of the 20th century’ formed the basis of the introduction and ‘sternpiece’ to Grey Funnel Lines: traditional song and verse of the Royal Navy, 1900–1970 (1987), a model of erudition about lower-deck song and versification.

From early in his career Tawney sought out and championed traditional west country folk-songs, notably those in the Baring-Gould collections, conveniently housed in Plymouth's main library. His research in these collections led to recordings that included The Outlandish Knight (1969), Children's Songs From Devon and Cornwall (1970), A Mayflower Garland (1970), and The Unbuttoned Baring-Gould, eventually retitled Down Among the Barley Straw (1976). It was his proud, and unchallenged, boast that he sang folk-songs for a living longer than anyone else in Britain.

Before he founded Neptune Tapes from his terraced house at 521 Meanwood Road, Leeds, in 1988, initially to present songs from his Grey Funnel Lines collection, Tawney's recorded output was scattered across the Argo, HMV, Polydor, Topic, Elektra, Leader, and Free Reed record labels. His songs achieved an extraordinary currency. They were performed and recorded by, among others, Peter Bellamy, Alex Campbell, Adge Cutler and the Wurzels, Lonnie Donegan, Bob Dylan, Marianne Faithfull, Davy Graham, Carolyn Hester, Emmylou Harris and Dolores Keane, Dorris Henderson, Louis Killen, the Silly Sisters (Maddy Prior and June Tabor), Martin Simpson, the Watersons, the Yetties (who sang ‘Five-Foot Flirt’ at his funeral service), and the Young Tradition. His work appeared in both The Oxford Book of English Traditional Verse (1983) and The Oxford Book of Sea Songs (1986). He died at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, Wonford, Exeter, on 21 April 2005, after a protracted illness; his death certificate gave bilateral pneumonia and chronic osteomyelitis as the primary causes of death. He was survived by his wife, Rosemary.

Ken Hunt and


J. Gilbert, ‘British folk's father figure’, Sounds (10 July 1971), 27 · C. Tawney, Grey funnel lines: traditional song and verse of the Royal Navy, 1900–1970 (1987) · K. Hunt, Sing Christmas and the turn of the year, CD booklet notes, Rounder Records, 2000 · Western Morning News (23 April 2005) · The Guardian (27 April 2005) · The Independent (27 April 2005) · The Times (29 April 2005); (5 May 2005) · K. Hunt, ‘The navy man’, fRoots (Oct 2005), 39–41 · Folk Music Journal, 9/1 (2006), 141–2 · R. Tawney and C. Tawney, Celebrating Cyril: a commemorative programme (2007) · personal knowledge (2011) · private information (2011) [Rosemary Tawney, wife; Les Smith, cousin; J. Gould; P. Webb; A. Measom] · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.


Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, London, English Folk Dance and Song Society archive  



R. Smedley, Folk like folk, black and white film, BBC, 1964 · BFINA, documentary footage · BFINA, light entertainment footage




Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, London, English Folk Dance and Song Society archive, Cyril Tawney archive · BL NSA, performance recordings · BL NSA, documentary recordings · BL NSA, light entertainment recordings · Rounder Records, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Sing Christmas and the turn of the year, 11661-1850-2 · Sing Chistmas, BBC Radio 4, ‘Archive hour’, broadcast 25 Dec 2004 · Neptune Records, Meanwood, Leeds, Yorkshire, Down the hatch: songs about drink & drinkers, 1994, NGL 101 CD · ADA Recordings, Belper, Derbyshire, The song goes on, 2007, ADA108CD · ADA Recordings, Belper, Derbyshire, Live at Holsteins, 2007, ADA109CD


B. Shuel, photographs, 1962–5, Getty Images, London

Wealth at death  

under £136,000: probate, 7 Nov 2005, CGPLA Eng. & Wales