It’s unbelievable perhaps, but next month (July) Shirley Collins will reach the grand milestone age of four score years! Her achievements are both legion and widely recognised; spanning a good six decades. At the tail-end of the ’50s, Shirley accompanied Alan Lomax on field-trips to the southern States, both collecting and documenting, and often making recordings of, a large number of singers and their songs that have since become an integral part of what might be termed the American folk canon. As a wonderfully pure-toned singer with a truly timeless and honest, direct performing style and a reputation for staying absolutely faithful to the songs, Shirley has tirelessly championed English traditional song, initially via solo work, then via seminal recordings in tandem with guitarist Davy Graham (Folk Roots, New Routes) or her sister Dolly (Love, Death And The Lady), and further seminal recordings involving the integration of early-music with folk (Anthems In Eden, Amaranth) and charting the birth and early progression of folk-rock (No Roses et al.). Imaginative innovation went hand in hand with Shirley’s refreshingly unadulterated performing style, and she was involved in some way in a large number of the most influential LPs of the key folk-revival decade that straddled the 60s and the 70s. Towards the end of the 70s, though, Shirley suffered from the onset of dysphonia, and the resultant enforced retirement from singing signalled a change in emphasis in that the successive three decades have been spent in an equally ambassadorial role: that of lecturing, writing on, and presenting authoritative talks on, English folk tradition. Last year, however, after much persuasion by Current 93’s David Tibet, Shirley felt able to make a very tentative return to live singing, performing (unbilled, as an opening treat at a Current 93 concert) a couple of songs, accompanied by Oysterband’s Ian Kearey on guitar. That surprise was followed, early this year, by two brief appearances at Cecil Sharp House: the first (in tandem with Linda Thompson – a fellow-sufferer from dysphonia – and John Kirkpatrick, at the concert remembering Bob Copper, and the second as part of Wesley Stace’s Cabinet Of Wonders show. In just a few months’ time, Shirley’s due to return to CSH to perform in a celebratory 80th birthday concert (details at end of this review).
Such has been the nature, and massive extent, of Shirley’s influence on the folk scene, not least in the raising of its perception of the indigenous English tradition, that independent film company Fifth Column is engaged in making a documentary film about Shirley’s life and work (The Ballad Of Shirley Collins). Back in April, as a fund-raising venture to aid the film project, Earth Recordings released (on Record Store Day) a triple-LP (vinyl) set that presented brand new versions of a host of traditional folksongs from Shirley’s own personal song (performing) repertoire, sung by a veritable host of fellow-performing-artists taken from right across the spectrum. The CD incarnation of that set is now released too, sporting a handsome eleven bonus tracks (housed on a third CD). And even that sum-total of over 45 recordings proves inadequate in terms of quantity! For indeed, such is the high regard in which Shirley is held by her peers and contemporaries, that the 60 or so potential contributors to this tribute set ended up being whittled down to just under three-quarters of that number. Several of these are names you wouldn’t expect to find in this context, and an unusually high number of them were previously unknown to me – but this only goes to show the breadth of Shirley’s influence, for each contributor conveys a distinctive, often unusual perspective on both the songs themselves and their importance to the ongoing, living tradition of song.
The individual performances on the set provide persuasive, incontrovertible evidence that the folk tradition is alive and well and very much kicking, being carried proudly and triumphantly forward and onward and taking root in some unexpected places. The assembled cast has drawn much readily acknowledged inspiration from Shirley’s pioneering, enthusiastic and entirely heartfelt espousal of our common song heritage. And those characteristics are reflected in the artistes’ song-interpretations, which though transcending any stance of a mere “desire to be different” for their own sake, nevertheless at times contain some quite radical arrangements and gestures that engender a pause for thought at the very least – so that the whole set proves a thought-provoking as well as entertaining and musically convincing experience. All the while remembering Shirley’s own philosophy that “a folk voice should just be a conduit for the song”, a credo fully and unwaveringly demonstrated in her own pure, humble, no-emotional-pretence singing.
It’s a given (and a cliché) that any tribute-album (for I guess Shirley Inspired must by necessity be categorised as such) is by its very nature something of a curate’s egg. And when its three CDs enjoy a total playing-time of close on 3½ hours, there’ll inevitably be a small quotient of (comparatively) less artistically successful items, which here fit into the “experimental but perfectly tolerable” bracket.
But again, given the nature of such things, the set includes a large amount of seriously stunning listening, from higher-profile and lesser-known musicians alike. And the bar is raised right from the outset with Will Oldham (in his Bonnie Prince Billy persona) with Chicago’s Bitchin Bajas, conjuring a drone-backed lament-style take on Pretty Saro that approximates the spare, doleful atmosphere of the Shirley & Dolly recordings. The remainder of the set, Disc 1 especially, sees no lowering of the standard or interest, and highlights of that first disc include Bonnie Dobson’s swirling 60s-style organ-waltzer Hares On The Mountain; Trembling Bells’ sturdy folk-rock-styled account of Richie’s Story; Blur’s Graham Coxon doing a grand job on Cruel Mother; and Lee Ranaldo’s majestic grinding electric take on Plains Of Waterloo, which unfolds with inevitability and cumulative power. Jackie Oates’ Banks Of The Bann is predictably enchanting, and Meg Baird’s Locks & Bolts is by turns acerbic and strangely soothing. Johnny Flynn’s take on Rambleaway could’ve come straight off a mid-60s folk-troubadour album, and The Owl Service and Laura Cannell (Horses Brawl) together tackle Shirley’s early-music piece Edi Beo (from Amaranth) with true depth of understanding. Rachel Dadd’s delicate, breathy, banjo-accompanied take on Polly Vaughan might be thought to undersell the nature of the ballad, attractive though it sounds; but I have to admit that Josephine Foster’s reverberant, low-fi recording of Love Is Pleasing is not a comfortable listen. Arguably the biggest surprise of the first disc, though, is the committed and idiomatic quality of stand-up comedian Stewart Lee’s rendition of Polly On The Shore, where he’s accompanied by concertina player Stuart Estell.
Moving on to disc 2, the sepulchral vocal of Kristoffer Rygg is a key feature of Norwegian experimental musical collective Ulver’s version of Poor Murdered Woman (one of the tracks singled out by Shirley herself, by all accounts). Other high points come with Olivia Chaney’s limpid account of Oxford Girl; Rozi Plain’s repro-lo-fi Long Years Ago; Sally Timms & The Mini Mekons‘ Go From My Window, with its buzzing bees a-droning; and the weird, whispery, twittery bird and nature sounds created vocally by Hebridean singer Polly MacLean on London-based Slate Islands’ Proud Maisrie. Also appealing is the Floyd-like dreamy floaty drifty psych of My False True Love by Orlando and Tom Furse, while Chris Joynes (one-time collaborator with Stephanie Hladowski) brings some intricate guitar patternings to his take on Pleasant & Delightful. Disc 2 also contains a non-traditional song, Never Again, written by Richard Thompson, which Shirley sang on For As Many As Will with Dolly’s piano for accompaniment, this is here reflected in Tunng & Farao’s hushed rendition which develops into an eerie electronic haze. Disc 2 contains a couple of tracks that didn’t quite work for me – Belbury Poly’s church-bell-ushered robotic-vocoder-morris ritualised Cambridgeshire May Carol is rather over-cacophonous, and Barbarossa’s dreamlike electropop Dearest Dear feels mildly soporific.
Disc 3 contains some gems too: Miz Stefani’s My Bonnie Boy has a defiant guitar-rich tread, Marco Pirroni & Jen Vix’s fuzz-drenched Turpin Hero feels rather like what the Velvets might’ve made of it; Elle Osborne takes an understated banjo-backporch view of The Murder Of Allen Bain; and strange avian samples and weird electronica infuse Ruby’s Bad Girl. Vermont-based Matt “MV” Valentine and partner Erika “EE” Elder stretch T Devil out into a quasi-Cowboy-Junkies nine-minute improv-cum-workout. By contrast, Susan Stenger’s electronic-filmscore approach to Barbara Allen/Idumea seems to go nowhere much in its seven-minute span.
I’ve carefully missed out several contributions from the above cherrypicking, simply because they fall into distinct or defined categories. Firstly – appropriately, and reflecting both the purity and the mode of delivery favoured by Shirley in many of her own early recordings, a good number of the selections are a cappella treatments: Rosemary Lippard’s account of The Unquiet Grave is well measured in its controlled legato and assured dynamics, whereas Ela Stiles’ chorale-bedecked (multitracked) Murder Of Maria Marten possesses a convincing sense of atmosphere for the power of the ballad. Then there’s Crying Lion’s harmonically adventurous Shepherds, Arise – suitably lusty – which contrasts well with Sophie Williams’ intimate, colloquial and homespun version of Charlie.
The other salient category of contributions to Shirley Inspired is that of multiple accounts of specific songs associated with Shirley. There’s no fewer than three different versions of The Blacksmith/A Blacksmith Courted Me, ranging from Ned Oldham’s gentle acoustic psych-ish S&G-like rendition to the plaintive account by Alasdair Roberts (with David McGuinness ornamenting the vocal line on piano), and – arguably best of all, a sparse yet emotionally convincing rendition by North Carolina-based Angel Olsen. The pair of versions of Just As The Tide Was Flowing almost couldn’t be more different from each other: Stuart Estell’s solo (vox-and-concertina) account is straightforwardly dispatched (if slightly too closely-recorded), while Eric Chenaux’s take is mildly impenetrable, almost seeming to force the melody out of an ambient eastern-inflected soundscape. The final pair of readings tackle Adieu To Old England – Jack Sharp’s is a minor-key brooding against an insistent pounding folk-rock riff, while Paul Armfield’s – which closes the set – is a slow-burning, atmosphere-dripping, delicately phrased treatment that seeks to rise whispersome as from-the-grave and resembles nothing less than a hushed mardi-gras funeral procession.
As you’ll gather, this set is extremely comprehensive (not least as tributes go), in terms of breadth of both repertoire and the contributors themselves, and it would be unreasonable to make any complaint about the contents – although the curious or obsessive may idly wonder why no-one felt inclined to volunteer a version of Space Girl (which Shirley performed on the obscure 1960 HMV collection Rocket Along and was most recently revived by Eliza Carthy)…
But what an assemblage! To the all-essential summary, then: Shirley Inspired is nothing less than a vitally important set, very likely the most important one you’ll consider buying this year. And the best possible tribute to a remarkable, and highly inspirational and influential, lady.
Review by: David Kidman
Out now via Earth Recordings
Available on CD / Vinyl / Digital
Order it here: https://shirleycollinsinspired.bandcamp.com/
All In The Downs – Sunday 5th July (Southbank Centre)
On Sunday 5th July Shirley Collins’ 80th birthday will be celebrated by a day-long event – All in the Downs – at the Southbank Centre, London.
Free foyer entertainment will be provided by Brighton Morris, the Belles of Londonand Rattle on the Stovepipe. During the afternoon Shirley will be ‘in conversation’with Stewart Lee looking back over her life and music, alongside readings from her writings and footage from the Alan Lomax archive.
Under the musical directorship of John Kirkpatrick the evening concert will feature an array of the folk scene’s brightest stars performing songs from Shirley’s repertoire and recreating her No Roses album. Guest performers will include – Olivia Chaney, Graham Coxon, Lisa Knapp, Sam Lee, Alasdair Roberts and Trembling Bells.