It’s hard to comprehend that it has already been seven years since the national treasure that is Shirley Collins astonished and thrilled everybody by returning to singing and touring again. This remarkable turn of events followed a gap of some 38 years during which she had been physically/ psychologically unable to sing at all following the trauma of her public marriage break-up from a then well-known musician. During this time she’d had to do menial jobs, eventually settling into documenting her earlier days working with Alan Lomax via her book America Over The Water and the occasional public presentation. We had all been the poorer.
Even then, I don’t imagine many people thought there would be a further fresh harvest of Collinsabilia – but following that “comeback” album, Lodestar, there was the beautiful Heart’s Ease (with its gorgeous artwork by Boss’s Alex Merry) and now this third set which is the best of them. At age 87!
Shirley is mistakenly regarded in some quarters as being a “staunch traddie”, possibly because – like Martin Carthy – she urges people to go behind her work and listen to the earlier traditional “source” singers she loves instead of herself. I suspect she has difficulty in accepting that, to many young singers today, she has become exactly one of those, especially in these recent years.
We’re talking about folk continuation rather than phoney folk “revival” here, and about seeing the movie of the song in your head
She has had a massively important and influential role in two key ways: that the song is more important than the singer, and that the best singers of traditional songs don’t put on accents, “folky” singing mannerisms or need to bellow, they just get on and deliver it in their own natural voices. That’s why Shirley has become an icon to recent generations of singers while the preposterously overblown delivery of the Ewan MacColl school from six decades ago is thankfully no longer influential. We’re talking about folk continuation rather than phoney folk “revival” here, and about seeing the movie of the song in your head rather than concentrating on making clever noises with your mouth. I can’t overstate how grateful I am to her.
For a “staunch traddie”, Shirley has been involved in some quietly daring stuff down the years. Her 1964 album Folk Routes, New Routes with Davy Graham laid the jazz-fused groundwork for the Pentangle and beyond (as well as probably being the moment when ‘Hares On The Mountain‘ [Roud 329] had its rebirth as mass repertoire staple). Her series of albums with her sister Dolly and an early music ensemble broke fresh ground, paving the way for the birth of English electric folk: her all-star accompanied No Roses is regarded by many as a pinnacle of that original short-lived movement.
And so to Archangel Hill, another quietly revolutionary landmark. All three of her post-hiatus albums and tours have been with a small band of trusted players, under the gentle guidance, production hand and inventive musical direction of long-time friend/ neighbour Ian Kearey. Kearey’s multi-instrumental skills (various acoustic and electric guitars, bass, celeste, piano, tiple and “the instrument” – Shirley’s famous dulcimer/banjo hybrid) along with Pete Cooper’s fiddle/viola, Dave Arthur’s banjo, snare drum, melodeon and more, and Pip Barnes’ guitar, are used appropriately and never in a flashy, distracting way. All the better for it, they’ve really perfected the art of the scene-setting texture now. Shirley’s voice, which is actually now sounding younger and more assured again, is always clear and central. And because for Shirley the song is always the important thing, you get completely immersed in the stories, making your own in-head movie. But listen carefully and the arrangements shift and glisten in their originality.
‘High And Away’, Pip Barnes’ song based on stories about tornados told to Shirley by American traditional singer, Almeda Riddle, from her ’50s field trip, just has atmospheric layers of Kearey’s guitars, celeste and ominous rolls of thunder. Similarly, a new version of ‘Hares On The Mountain’ is just Kearey’s piano, acoustic guitar and echoing slide guitar with Shirley close mic’d, and it’s perfect. Both are complete works of art with nothing else needed. A true artist knows just when to stop. That’s a hallmark of this album.
The subtle ensemble come into their own on the cheekily preposterous tale of ‘The Golden Glove’ [Roud 141], the old American marching song ‘The Captain With The Whiskers’ [Roud 2735], and the stately carol ‘How Far Is It To Bethlehem’ – words by Frances Chesterton (Mrs G.K.) set to the traditional tune of ‘Sweet England’ by Vaughan Williams. They also contribute a couple of brief dance tunes, the Appalachian ‘June Apple’ (another from that late ’50s US trip) and the Morris tune ‘Swaggering Boney’ in which regular stage guest, Brighton Morrisman Glen Redman, puts his feet to good use.
Unlike its two predecessors, Archangel Hill was recorded in a “proper” studio – Metway in Brighton rather than Shirley’s home cottage in Lewes – and this contributes well to its immediacy and fullness. The only non-contemporary recording is ‘Hand And Heart’, a 1920s poem of unrequited love by Shirley’s writer uncle F.C.Ball which she’d set to the tune of ‘Dives And Lazarus’ [Roud 477]. This one was taped live at Sydney Opera House back in 1980 at the very end of her original singing era, with harpsichord by Winsome Evans playing Dolly’s arrangement. How her new version of ‘The Bonny Labouring Boy’ [Roud 1162] (which she first recorded for Lomax as long ago as 1957) sits following it just points up how much she’s regained her old tonality since her 2016 rebirth.
Among other wonderful fare along the way are new and freshly definitive versions of the traditional ‘Fare Thee Well My Dearest Dear’ [Roud 1035], ‘Lost In A Wood’ [Roud 288] and ‘Oakham Poachers’ [Roud 1686], last heard on live recordings in David Suff‘s definitive 2002 box set, Within Sound. And the concluding title track is an atmospheric poem about rural Sussex written by her father during the Second World War, read evocatively by Shirley over Kearey’s treated piano, electric guitar and natural sounds backdrop that some hipster journo is almost bound to call “psych folk”. Oh…
Shirley Collins of Sussex, aged 87, adding to the best albums of her career, quietly running rings around younger upstart jugglers and undoubtedly making 2023’s best albums lists. Not very likely, is it, but it just happened.
Archangel Hill by Shirley Collins is released on Domino on May 26th. It can be ordered from the artist’s Bandcamp page.