Shirley Collins holds a unique place in the pantheon of English folk music – her 1959 song collecting journey in the USA, assisting Alan Lomax, is legendary enough but she also shook up the folk scene with collaborations with Davey Graham and her recordings with her sister Dolly which brought new arrangements to old songs which were sung in an unaffected English voice. She was widely lauded as carrying a distinctive folk purity, acting almost as a vessel for the music, through the late sixties and into the seventies. And then she lost her singing voice. For thirty years there were her recordings, and there were memories of her singing performances at folk clubs and larger venues but that seemed, very much, to be it. It’s an astonishing story – with a belated happy ending – little by little Shirley Collins has felt able to sing on a few occasions in recent years, then last year there was the surprise of the new album Lodestar and this year has seen a few special one-off concerts to, yes, of course, support the release but more to celebrate the return to the stage of a folk icon.
As well as singing and folklore collection, Shirley Collins has been President of the English Folk Dance & Song Society (EFDSS), and so it was more than appropriate that The Barbican had given over the foyer stage to a demonstration of Morriss dancing by Brighton Morris Men and Boss Morris – a women’s side from Stroud. These gave an early indication of how the evening would progress – the men were as 19th century traditional as you could hope for, kitted out like a village cricket team with bells on and stick thwacking a-plenty. Boss Morriss played more on the Wickerman take on folk – their outfits – reminiscent of PE kit – were further coloured by face painting and sparkling glitter stars and they had a troop of giant headed women and sheep and goat headed hobbyhorses and bagmen adding that vibration of something not quite right going on in the countryside.
The first half of the concert was an appreciation of Shirley Collins by performers old and young and the second half a full presentation of Lodestar with music, visuals and dance. Pip Barnes, acting as compere, got proceedings underway by introducing fiddler Pete Cooper with Dave Arthur on guitar/banjo for a version of Gypsy Davey that had been gathered on that 1959 song collection expedition to the USA. It’s illustrative of how the songs travelled and changed to meet the new situations they were sung in: this is folk music, ever evolving but still retaining long, long roots. Introduced as Shirley Collins’ favourite singer, the next guest was that powerhouse of all things squeezable, the man with the voice of seasoned oak, John Kirkpatrick. His association with Shirley, he admitted, went back “four hundred years or so”. His rendition of The Captain With the Whiskers had a strong enough chorus line to coax the first tentative singing from the audience. Younger admirers were to follow – Lisa Knapp’s beautiful unaccompanied Polly on the Shore brought a haunting silence to the room. She sang as if the words came newly formed to her lips, and with a stillness in herself that was tangible. Alasdair Roberts contributed a couple of flinty Northern ballads – The Fair Flower of Northumberland is a wonderfully long tale of love’s betrayal as a captured Scotsman persuades the impressionable young daughter of his captor to set him free, only to dump her at the border as he’s already got a family at home. It’s got that strain of casual cruelty and self-serving trickery that lets a song remain worth singing four centuries after its writing. The same holds true for his second song, Bonny Suzie Cleland, which raises the stakes – literally – with this Scots lady being burnt alive by her parents as her reward for falling in love with an Englishman. Betrayal and cruelty was the theme which saw the first half out – Olivia Chaney sang a splendid The Blacksmith – a version where the betrayed narrator is more sanguine that her lover has run off and married another – whilst Graham Coxon sang of The Cruel Mother, who kills her twin babies and is haunted by ghosts in the form of the children they would have become. They in turn narrate her punishments to come “Seven years as a fish in the flood / And seven years a bird in the wood / Seven long years a warning bell / And seven long years in the depths of hell”. This was another performance which had the audience still and silent – partly because Coxon’s guitar wasn’t plugged into the speakers. This first half was like the perfect folk club session – with all the floor singers masters of their craft.
Lodestar was performed in its entirety in the second half, by the same band that had recorded it with Shirley Collins. The musicians were sat well back with accompanying videos playing over their heads. Pip Barnes again provided the linking commentary to the songs, drawing from Lodestar‘s sleeve notes. It worked wonderfully – a setup that could easily have felt like an illustrated lecture with songs came naturally to life with the perfectly judged accompaniment and Shirley Collins’ steady vocal which had as much iron as fragility in it as the songs poured forth. Her band provided a wide range of accompaniment with guitars, mandolin, banjo, violin and concertinas in attendance – as well as Trembling Bells’ Alex Neilson injecting delicate drumming. If the first half of the concert had contained intimations of the dark heart that can often be found dwelling in folk music then Shirley Collins pulled back the cover all the way to expose untrammelled lusts and surges of violence. Deep, dark, waters indeed. Folk music is a form of time travel – what else can take one right into the thoughts of a song writer gleefully jotting down a murder ballad? And if there’s a written down version from the sixteenth century it’s a safe bet that the song, or its themes, go back even further. The first song is a perfect example of the ability of folk songs to last – the penitential Awake Awake was written after the Great Earthquake of 1580, which toppled part of old St. Paul’s Cathedral – and which Vaughan Williams collected from the singing of Mrs Bridges in 1909. The hurdy-gurdy accompaniment and the backdrop footage of different folk customs as the song changes smoothly to May Carol – a pagan ritual turned begging song – add an eerie sense to the melancholic lyrics “Today you may be here dear man / with many a thousand pounds / Tomorrow you’ll be dead and gone / And buried underground”. The paired songs played-out to a Morriss tune – and the empty stage front was explained as a single dancer performed on stage to Shirley Collins’ clear delight.
The video projected for Washed Ashore took us to a country graveyard, where a simple monument to a drowned sailor is adorned with these words – the song has a wanderer on a shoreline stumble across the body of her drowned lover, causing her to die herself of a broken heart. The Banks of Green Willow shares the nautical theme, and similarly has a death or two – this time it’s the woman who follows her love to sea and dies in childbirth. This is fairly tame compared to Cruel Lincoln, although tonight’s variant doesn’t explain that his vengeance is due to beening left unrewarded for his toil. It has a truly lovely melody, played softly on guitar and words of the very grimmest “Go fetch your daughter Betsy, she will do very well / to hold up this silver basin for to catch her mother’s blood / there was blood in the kitchen / there was blood in the hall / there was blood in the parlour where the lady did fall”. Death is everywhere. Pip Barnes noted that “As I roved out one May morning” can take English folk songs in many directions – to a lover, to a sailor returned from seven years at sea, to the Devil who may trick you or to Death himself. The reworking of Death and the Lady, long in the repertoire of Shirley Collins, is just wonderful – with spine shivering slide guitar and the most eerie video yet projected above the band – skeletal hobby horses pass through a graveyard, whilst Shirley Collins is in a crypt piled high with skulls. There is a mind jarring moment as Shirley Collins, singing on stage, has a more than life-size version of herself above her head, quietly sitting and nursing a skull on her knee. The message is clear here – these songs come from a time when death was an everyday experience ; life was harsh and people needed a way to process their experiences and perhaps this song, a reminder that death comes to all and usually sooner than wanted, was some kind of comfort.
There’s a turn to lighter topics as Shirley Collins reminisces about song gathering trips and meeting Mrs Ollie Gilbert in the Ozarks. Blinded in one eye by her violent fiddle playing husband, she was a sweet grandmotherly lady on her back porch with several fine songs to share – and then, whilst the pair were ensconced in a double seater outhouse, shared the filthiest songs ever. We don’t get one of the latter, but we do get Pretty Polly, jauntily swaying along to Ian Kearey’s hybrid of dulcimer and banjo and some quite funky drums. Shirley Collins sets herself – and us – up for a false round of applause telling us that Mrs Gilbert had fitted the line “I’m a United States soldier from George Washington I come” into too little music. If she sings it we should applaud. Dutiful applause greets “Like a United States soldier Pretty Polly did ride” causing the singer to miss a beat and laughingly inform us that we were a bit early, the difficult line comes later. The laughter continues on Old Johnny Buckle – a rapid tongue twisting nonsense song – before edginess seeps back in on the French sung with an English accent Sur le Borde de l’Eau, a Cajun song from a 1920’s recording, which shimmers with atmospheric sounds that make images of waterways in Louisiana swamps take on a haunted, spectral aspect – as if the water is one more gateway to a reality not quite aligned with our own. The Rich Irish Lady brings the main part of the set to a close with another cautionary tale of vengeance – before you spurn the doctor who has fallen in love with you make sure you don’t intend to fall ill “said he Don’t you remember that you once slighted me / For what’s past and done sir I’ll hope you’ll forgive / And grant me some longer in the wide world to live / That I’ll ne’er do Sally while I do draw breath / But I’ll dance on your grave when you’re laid in the earth”.
The encore consisted of a short Morriss display by both sides – with Brighton Morriss men singing Over The Hills as they dance, followed by a rendition of Sorrow’s Away which got a good response from the voices in the hall. Amongst the words that often get thrown around when discussing music is “poignant”, but there can be no argument about its appropriateness when applied to an 81 year old who spent three decades unable to sing closing a comeback gig with The Silver Swan. Contemplate these words “The silver swan who living had no note when death approached unlocked her silent throat”. The intimations of mortality continue with “has sung her first and last and sung no more /…/ farewell all joy now death come close my eyes”. It’s deeply affecting, not morbid but, like all of Shirley Collins’ singing, direct and honest and unflinching. Unflinching in her dedication to the music that has shaped her life and formed her as a person. The rapturous applause which followed continued for so long that its recipient appeared momentarily overcome. Was that a tear? Perhaps. Then, during grateful thanks, the mood lightened as something on stage caught her eagle eye – “Ooh, there’s a Morriss bell…someone get it…I’ve always wanted one of those!”.
Which left just time for some music to leave by, and one last solo Morriss dance – high springing, bells a-ringing. A fittingly life affirming end to a remarkable evening that had been full of portents of unavoidable death. The return of Shirley Collins to recording and live performance is a wondrous thing, so totally unexpected, and all the better for that
Pete Coope & Dave Arthur
Shirley Collins’ Set List
Awake Awake / The Split Ash Tree / May Carol / Southover
The Banks of Green Willow
Death and the Lady
Old Johnny Buckle
Sur le Borde de l’Eau
The rich Irish lady / Jeff Sturgeon
Boss Morris Dance
Brighton Morris Dance – and sing Over The Hills
The Silver Swan
Going Home Music