Shirley Collins should need no introduction to readers of this site. Folk singer of genuinely legendary status and one of England’s most respected song collectors – and currently president of the English Folk Dance & Song Society. Up to the cusp of the 1980s, Shirley enjoyed a stunningly prolific career that spanned more than two decades, from a formative period travelling across America on a field-trip collecting songs with Alan Lomax at the close of the 1950s, to a lengthy tenure as one of the most significant singers at the forefront of the English folk revival – an intensely “creatively accelerated” period spent as a solo performer, also working with Davy Graham, then in a duo with her late sister Dolly and subsequently a key member of the Albion Country Band. Then all of a sudden in 1978 she found she could not sing – she froze in the midst of a performance of Lark Rise at the National Theatre, opened her mouth, and nothing came out. This – she found out later – was the onset of a severe type of dysphonia, which had been triggered by a mental condition brought on by a painful marriage breakdown and messy divorce from then-husband Ashley Hutchings. He had, virtually overnight, been “consumed by love” for an actress, in what could almost have seemed like a scenario from one of the folk ballads, but that it was happening in real life for Shirley. It’s nigh impossible to imagine what suffering from dysphonia is actually like (although one of my own recurring dreams involves getting up to sing or speak and finding my throat locked and paralysed – which is pretty scary); but it would undoubtedly be terrifying and traumatic at the very least. So the fact that here we are today holding a newly recorded full-length album of Shirley’s singing is an absolute miracle and cause for extensive celebration. And that’s not the apologist stance of a hapless reviewer clutching at straws and swooning with blind or dewy-eyed nostalgia – no way.
Even as recently as three years ago, the very idea of this album would have been considered the absolute remotest, if not totally unlikely, of future possibilities, for Shirley had, repeatedly, publicly insisted that she would never sing again. But here she is doing just that – and (as Stewart Lee observes in his booklet essay), with a mischievous delight in defeating that expectation. Even so, it had taken a lot of persuasion and coaxing, largely on the part of Current 93’s David Tibet, for Shirley to agree to try to sing again at all. In the wake of several awareness-raising events, including the glorious 2013 Shirley Inspired album set, the persuasion tactic had almost become a war of attrition, which was only broken (and then only gradually) following positive response to a tentative, toes-in-the-water two-song, ten-minute support slot for Current 93 in February 2014, on which she was accompanied by Ian Kearey. Comments by Shirley’s friend, guitarist and actor Pip Barnes, to the effect that all the singing she loves best (field and source recordings) is by old people, seemed to have been a catalyst for Shirley to finally give in (“Sod it; let’s give it a go”) and start singing again. So, last year, Shirley was offered a deal whereby she could record in her own home, surrounded only by ears sympathetic to what her voice has gone through, ears belonging to “people she felt very close to and comfortable with”, an environment which in-cottage engineer Ossian Brown (of Cyclobe) felt would enable her “to build up her confidence again in private, and find her voice, without any pressure or scrutiny from people she didn’t know”. Producer Ian Kearey approached it as “a field recording with damn good technology”, and the result is certainly captivating. So yes, we can duly rejoice!
As anyone familiar with Shirley’s work will realise immediately when they place the needle on the outer grooves of Lodestar, Shirley’s voice is not what it used to be. But that’s neither a value judgement nor negatively slanted critical appraisal – just a plain statement of fact, for no-one at the age of 81 can be expected to have the voice they had at age 43. And bearing in mind that Shirley’s last recording was 1978’s For As Many As Will, it’s bound to be so much harder for the listener to assimilate 38 years of natural change at one fell stroke without having observed developments in between. For inevitably, the timbre of the voice will be quite different, as will almost certainly its range and register. Age has given a new depth to Shirley’s voice, a lived-in earthiness with a kind of gravitas that’s deeply knowing and is a corollary of a new vulnerability; the latter is consistent with having undergone four decades more of life experience and knowledge in the interim since the days of even-then-not-exactly-innocent purity. But what hasn’t changed with age, though, is Shirley’s innate sincerity, her sensibility and instinctive receptiveness to textual nuance, which informs her unerring ability to inhabit a song. Shirley’s always seen herself as a conduit for the songs; as she said in a recent interview, “I think I can completely inhabit the songs because of what I’ve been through” and moreover, “I think this was the strength of all those traditional singers that I recorded both in America and in England …the experience of their life is in the songs, as well.” For she’s retained the gift of drawing her listeners in by her natural, ego-free singing which pays no observance to the trendy “cult of personality”. Her singing refuses to distract the ear by dramatising or enacting the songs, instead, using her own, ostensibly austere, brand of expressiveness, born of a straightforward, proudly unadorned delivery, to communicate their very essence. That may on the face of it seem something of a contradiction, but just listen to the concentrated purity of her phrasing on any one of the disc’s ten tracks for a demonstration. Shirley’s special way with a folk song has always made a virtue out of an understated expressive precision, carried out with cool ease. So I was interested, and not a little amused, to hear Shirley admitting, during a recent interview for Radio 3’s Late Junction, that “jazz just makes me fidget”. Especially since jazz (and particularly chamber-jazz) embodies its own kind of (often understated) expressive precision, albeit using a different syntax from that of traditional song.
Interestingly, Lodestar makes something of a comparable impression to that made by Shirley’s groundbreaking 1960s recordings, even considering how much musical water has flown under the proverbial bridge in the past 40 years. The album’s structure might still be considered a touch daring even by today’s standards, for it leads with its most challenging item, a tough, distinctly bold statement-of-intent: an eleven-minute, four-part sequence that starts with an admonitory penitential hymn (Awake Awake) and moves on to a celebration of May Day with May Carol leading into the surging dance Southover (involving a concertina player and dancer/drummer from Brighton Morris) – the sections being brilliantly bridged by a weird, gloriously dissonant hurdy-gurdy tune (The Split Ash Tree) composed and played by Ossie with Michael J. York joining in on English half-long pipes as a bonus.
This mini-epic fades to usher in The Banks Of Green Willow, a song which will be familiar to some readers as providing the principal melodic inspiration for English composer George Butterworth’s popular orchestral idyll of that name. Here Shirley’s characteristically honest and tellingly economic rendition of the text is accompanied by Pip’s lyrical guitar and a rich, swooning cello backdrop courtesy of Elle Osborne. The next track is also quite extraordinary, being Shirley’s strange and beautiful, if deceptively gentle, account of the quite obscure revenge-and-bloodshed ballad Cruel Lincoln, which inhabits a sinisterly demure air of mystical antiquity conjured by Ossian’s church organ pipe and hurdy-gurdy and Ian’s deft playing of “The Instrument” (commissioned from and built by luthier John Bailey in 1967, it’s carved like a half mountain dulcimer and attached to an English Victorian five-string banjo neck – which may account for its lack of suitable name!). The sounds of birds in Shirley’s garden seep into and through this track, imparting an even more other-worldly ambience to the tale. After the horrors of Cruel Lincoln, the simple lost-lover tale Washed Ashore is almost casually recounted by comparison, for all that its subject is death-related; the ringing tone of Ian’s 12-string resonator guitar provides limpid and slightly unearthly washes of sound to accompany Shirley’s almost dispassionate (and yet not unfeeling) brief account of the events.
The heart of the disc contains two of its finest realisations. The first of these is, surprisingly, the only one of the album’s songs that has been recorded previously by Shirley; it’s Death And The Lady, the telling of which tale, to her own melody, had formed such a momentous track on her landmark 1970 album with Dolly (Love, Death And The Lady). The Lodestar revisit is every bit as chilling, though in a very different way, for its musical character reeks not of brooding, precious antiquity but of brooding southern-gothic. Here, Ian’s keenly reined-in, almost subliminally searing bottleneck slide guitar brings the potent atmosphere of the Delta blues to this doomy tale of a rendezvous with Death at the crossroads that arises from the same perfectly innocuous As I walked out one morn in May gambit that’s common to so many folksongs. Stunning and mesmeric. The pond-crossing is maintained on Pretty Polly, where Shirley performs the very version of the song (by one Mrs Ollie Gilbert) that she herself had recorded for Lomax back in 1959. It’s like stepping through a time portal, with Ian’s dulcimer-inflections offset by a raw percussion-stomp (via the inventive drumming of Trembling Bells’ Alex Neilson). The uptempo demeanour continues with a rumbustious jaunt through Old Johnny Buckle in the company of Dave Arthur (read an in-depth interview with Dave here) and Pete Cooper (aka Rattle On The Stovepipe) and some oomphy serpent grumbles from Derrick Hughes on its final chorus. Dave and Pete also add their special brand of gusto and old-time flair to The Rich Irish Lady, another song originally recorded by Lomax on a 1959 field trip; here Shirley’s involving account of this vengeful tale is capped by a typically “crooked” Kentucky fiddle-tune that appropriately conveys the wild jubilation of the story’s ending.
The song in between is a bit of a curiosity – a seriously haunting primitive early-cajun piece Sur Le Borde De L’Eau (sourced from a 1929 recording by Louisiana’s Blind Uncle Alcide Gaspard, since you ask!), where Ian’s delicate guitar figures provide a close foil for Shirley’s idiomatic delivery. This track, in particular, seems to provide a good example of Joe Boyd’s perceptive comment that “something about (Shirley’s) understatement of melody makes the melody more powerful”. Similarly with the disc’s final item, which is perhaps even more strangely-strange – a decidedly antique-and-curio-shop-sounding version of Orlando Gibbons’ 1611 madrigal The Silver Swan, which is starkly yet warmly backed by viola and creaking harmonium. Its heartwarming, confidently fragile aura seems to encapsulate everything that’s so remarkable – and stimulating – about Lodestar.
With characteristic self-deprecation, Shirley says regarding the Lodestar title: “I don’t want people to think I’m the lodestar. It’s the music that is guiding me.” In which connection, I can do no better than quote the final words of Stewart Lee’s essay, where, as Shirley is keen to point out, the Lodestar “represents a distant point of inspiration which she, in her dedicated humility, has spent a lifetime pointing whatever talent she has towards, (as) the humble servant of the disembodied voice of the people”. Those people, whom she honours and sings for, represent the “past generations who have sung those songs to us and carried them through”. And in doing so, Shirley has produced an album of true stature, and one that’s destined to remain in your affections.
Lodestar is Out Now