The Ballad Of Shirley Collins
Earth Recordings – 23 March 2018
For most of its existence, folk music has been an oral tradition. Once music started to be written down then some songs were formalised, the printed page being passed on, not the vocal interpretation. But it was two events, roughly half a century apart, that possibly did more to formalise folk music. Cecil Sharp, Vaughan Williams, Percy Grainger and many others, all trained musicians, went about the country writing down the songs that were sung in the home, at the pub or in the workplace. Fifty years later and the ‘folk revival’ brought singers to the recording microphones, and from there developed all manner of folk-style in the sixties – folk-rock, psycho-folk, traditional, etc.
There is nothing wrong. No-one needs to be condemned for mixing folk song with a rock drum beat and a heavy bass line – it is the way that many of us were introduced to folk music. It was also part of the music melting pot of the time. It did not matter which sort or style of music you liked, it was the music itself that counted. One minute I could have been listening to King Crimson, the next, Frank Zappa, then Fairport Convention and somewhere in the middle, David Munrow, and Shirley Collins.
And out of this melange came a healthy and eclectic interest in all genres of music but it is folk music that has, for me, bubbled back to the top and is as interesting now as it ever was. The reason I say all this is because the film The Ballad of Shirley Collins bridged that timespan, that lifespan of mine (or most of it) and that whilst it is pure coincidence (I am sure), that I stopped listening to a lot of folk music at about the same time that Shirley Collins stopped singing and that I started getting back into folk music about the time she started getting back into singing, there are some parallels – or is it just a fancy of mine?
The soundtrack to the film is many things. It is an opportunity to revisit the songs that were included in the film, but perhaps they were missed or had not registered. It is an opportunity to hear some songs and clips in their entirety. It is also an example of a record, a capture of a particular time, which in itself includes the capture of many times.
The album (21 tracks) features tunes, songs and clips from the film and follows a parallel path, though you do not get the depth of insight into the personal costs that you do from the moving images and the more detailed commentary. Nor could you expect to from a soundtrack. You do get, as I said, some tracks in their entirety, or at least more than in the released film. I was particularly pleased to hear the complete recording of Horton Baxter singing A Rich Irish Lady. Or at least most of it, as his voice gave out and he completes the story by telling how it ends, using his own words and not the lyrics. In fact, I was left wondering if his voice gave out because he became quite emotional.
Therefore, as a soundtrack, it is a good memory jogger and gives a chance to listen to aspects of the film without being distracted by the images. However, it is more interesting to explore the album The Ballad of Shirley Collins as a stand-alone piece because you do not have to have seen the film to get more from the album than it just being a soundtrack. Whilst Shirley Collins is in the title and very much in the film, the other major player is Alan Lomax. What Sharp, Vaughan Williams et al. were doing with pencil and paper, Lomax set about collecting with tape recorders and movie cameras. The film interleaves Collins’ trip to the US with Lomax in 1959 with her thoughts on folk music and defining her place in the canon today. Collins learned a lot from this trip, particularly about singing without emotion. From this she developed her style of letting the words tell the tale, leaving the listener to interpret as they wish.
So the album travels a route of its own. There are early Shirley Collins tracks (Calvary Hill and Wondrous Love) and songs recorded on the 1959 journey. The aforementioned Horton Baxter is heard coughing, talking to Lomax and then apologising for not being able to sing anymore. It is exactly this sort of “reality” that moves the song from a ‘perfect’ entity to one that has its own lifeblood. It is this sort of incompleteness, and possible inaccuracies that Shirley Collins feels makes a song
It makes it so utterly fascinating to me…how these things are misremembered…and that’s how I like to get things. I don’t like these being clean and tidied or tidied up by somebody who knows. You know, you don’t want anything perfect do you?
And this is part and parcel of the oral tradition. There is an underlying argument that why should a song, whose origins may be on the south coast of England, and ends up in the Appalachian Mountains, its journey conveyed by mouth, not paper, be of any less worth than something written down and taught to generations of Time and Tune listeners? This album brings that reality and those inaccuracies out into the open. You also get a feel for the music of the rural communities of the United States at the end go the 1950s, so near, yet at times so far, from this modern world: Sid Hemphill and Lucius Smith beating echoes of ancient rhythms on the drums in Come On Boys, Let’s Go To The Ball; Ishman Williams & The William Singers echoing the future of Sam and Dave and the soul scene.
From today we hear Andy Hemsley singing Seeds of Love at the Hastings Jack in the Green festival. There is an excerpt by Michael J York and Ossian Brown, who, along with Stephen Thrower recorded Shirley’s 2016 album, Lodestar. And there is an excerpt from Dolly Collins’ Missa Humana.
Here is a collection of sounds that in themselves form an archive – except that this is too dry a word. It is an anthology, or a miscellany, that whilst having a foot back in time – sixty years ago and even before that – it also has a foot in the present. Importantly, there is a message, from Shirley Collins, that these sounds need preserving for the future; they are part of our make up and should not be allowed to perish, but at the same time they should not be wrapped up and put in a museum. You listen to them and then do what you will.
One more thing about this album. It is a great springboard to find out more – about Shirley Collins, about Alan Lomax and about all the artists on the album. And also about the songs and the musical styles. I spent a wonderful hour looking at YouTube videos of ‘shape note’ singing inspired by NJ Brothers & The United Sacred Harp Musical Association singing Calvary in that particular 4-part harmony style. I learned a lot from that alone and even considered going to the next festival in Cork.
Now, while I go and look into Sidney Hemphill Carter, I suggest that you take this album, listen to it, enjoy it and then explore.
LP Track list
1. “All I Ever Wanted”
2. Shirley Collins – Calvary Hill
3. Ishman Williams & The Williams Singers – Got On My Travelling Shoes
4. “Do You Want Me To Start Again, Alan”
5. Texas Gladden – I Never Will Marry
6. Sid Hemphill and Lucius Smith – Come On Boys, Let’s Go To The Ball
7. Horton Barker – A Rich Irish Lady
8. Ian Kearey – The Poor Drowned Sailor
9. Sidney Hemphill Carter – Pharaoh
10.“I Used To Could Sing”
11. Outtake (London, 1959)
1. “There’s Never Been A Merry England”
2. Andy Hemsley and Hastings Jack In The Green – Seeds Of Love
3. N.J Brothers & The United Sacred Harp Musical Association – Calvary
4. Lucius Smith – Make Lulu Behave Herself
5. Ruby Vass – Single Girl, Married Girl
6. “I Can’t Really Forget Them”
7. George Stoneman – Sally Anne
8. Michael J York & Ossian Brown – The Cloud House / Cyclobe – Sons Of Sons Of Light / George Collins – Dolly
9. Dolly Collins – Missa Humana (excerpt)
10. Shirley Collins – Wondrous Love
Order via Bandcamp: https://earthrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/the-ballad-of-shirley-collins