Folk song and Tony Rose met and fell for each other at Oxford University in the early 1960s, when he was reading modern languages and taking his turn as President of the Heritage Society, the university folk club. He moved to London to teach, but was offered so many gigs that in 1969 turned full-time professional as a singer. During the 1970s he was one of the handful of best-known performers on the circuit.
Banks of Green Willow was his third album, recorded and issued in 1976, and it’s usually reckoned his best.
He was an accomplished guitarist and concertina player, but the focus was always on the voice. Listen to Poor man’s sorrows, the last track on side one. It’s the familiar story of an impetuous young man with a wife who’s more than a match for him and who ends up slinking back to Mum with his tail between his legs. Martin Carthy recorded it as I was a young man on Sweet Wivelsfield, and the two versions have much in common: same tune, the voices multi-tracked in harmony. But at a certain point Carthy’s guitar comes thumping in, whereas Rose sings unaccompanied — a distinctive light baritone, relaxed and full-throated, with a noticeable but never yokel-ish West Country accent.
He was no mug as a musician, though. The record opens with ’Twas on one April morning, one of the songs most associated with him. The concertina rolls and flows, never flash but carefully thought out. A decoration from one hand answers a fill from the other so there’s always momentum, always interest. Similarly on Banks of Green Willow, first track on side two, where there’s a harmonium counterpointing the concertina. On The murdered servant man and Sir William Gower the guitar pushes the song along steadily, lending drive while Tony sings freely — much as Nic Jones would do.
Elsewhere there’s a poignant Bonny Hind, where the anguish as the lovers realise they’re brother and sister is plain, however understated the performance. And an unusually reflective Lord Rendal, the classic food poisoning ballad which the sleeve notes mischievously dedicate ‘to the crisp eaters of Britain’s folk clubs’. (He had a wicked, zany sense of humour, kept in check here, but was well known for singing the kitschy The Three Bells — ‘All the chapel bells were ringing for little Jimmy Brown’ — as an encore, occasionally in French.)
In the late 1970s he was part of the short-lived folk supergroup Bandoggs with Nic Jones, and Pete and Chris Coe. When the club circuit started to struggle in the 1980s he went back to teaching while still performing near home in the South West. He was planning to ramp up his musical career again after retiring in 1999, had it not been for the cancer that took him cruelly early, a couple of years later, at only 61.