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Sunday, 17 August 2008

Written in granite: Love, Death And The Lady

Although Shirley Collins does have an MBE, frankly this seems pretty mean; she ought, surely, to be Dame Shirley – at the very least, if not Lady Shirley. In fact, if we were ever offered the chance to vote for a head of state for England, then she'd definitely get my vote. She has done more for traditional British music, and especially traditional English music which, quite frankly, needed all the help it could get, than almost anyone alive. Like Dory Previn, she hasn't really made any records in a very long time, around 30 years, I think – so no, you won't find yourself coming across a load of awful albums made in the 1980s with Linn drum plastered everywhere and that DX7 bell sound. To be honest I don't think that'd've been very likely even had she recorded during that period, given that most of her records are utterly timeless in both the literal and the more figurative senses of that overused adjective.

Fortunately by the end of the 1970s Shirley had already amassed a fairly extensive discography and most of it is easily available on CD or download. One very good place to start is the superb Within Sound boxed set that came out a few years ago, as it includes key tracks from most of her albums plus lots of rare EP tracks and unreleased material. However there's now a wonderful new compilation of the recordings Shirley and her sister Dolly made for the "progressive" Harvest label in the late sixties and early seventies. It's based primarily around two classic albums, Anthems In Eden and Love, Death And The Lady, plus the additional songs added to Anthems to make the Amaranth set released a few years later. The Harvest Years also includes one or two tracks with Shirley on vocals recorded for other projects such as the Etchingham Steam Band.

Anthems In Eden is dominated by a long song cycle. On my earlier CD copy the whole of the first side, nine songs, were all one track, although on the Harvest Years they are split up individually. These are all folk songs which have been loosely corralled into a narrative and it works beautifully. Shirley's voice is totally lacking in any artifice. She simply sings the songs and lets them come through; there are no vocal tricks at all. This makes her almost unique and also perhaps the most self-effacing of all vocalists. Dolly's arrangements are also allowed to shine through, and they too sound like nothing else... or nothing else that has been heard for a hundred years or so, anyway. This may seem slightly strange given that these records were made at a time when English (and other British) folk music had just been dragged kicking and screaming into the twentieth century by records such as Fairport Convention's epochal Liege And Lief and then the early Steeleye Span albums, Trees' On The Shore and a whole host of others, but Shirley and Dolly always ploughed their own furrow. At some point we'll be taking a look at The Power Of The True Love Knot, the album she made before joining Harvest, with Joe Boyd and featuring members of the Incredible String Band amongst others, which is another huge favourite of mine... And then there's also No Roses, recorded with husband Ashley Hutchings' Albion Dance Band, which is a more electric affair. But, perhaps ironically given the label's output of the time (home to Pink Floyd, Kevin Ayers, Deep Purple, Barclay James Harvest and the early Electric Light Orchestra), the two Harvest albums really do sound completely out of time. If ever there was early music then this is it, we don't know who wrote the songs, if it can be said that anyone really did, they were probably more of a collaborative affair over generations, and they are played in arrangements using instruments such as the viol – indeed, the Early Music Consort (by whom I have a number of classical recordings, one favourite being the 2CD Music Of The Gothic Era) appear on the second Harvest album, Love Death And The Lady, which is a huge favourite of mine, a thing of austere beauty, again it's a collection of traditional songs, most of them very sombre in subject matter and closing with The Plains Of Waterloo which actually has a drum on it, although don't worry, it's not exactly Moby Dick.

We English have struggled to maintain our own identity over the years – this is often the case when states are formed out of conglomerates of smaller nations: the larger partner often feels obliged to stress the overall identity at the expense of its own, whereas the smaller partners feel that their identities could be under threat if they don't take active steps to preserve them. As I said at the start, Shirley Collins has probably done more than anyone I can think of to help preserve and perpetuate traditional English songs and there is something quintessentially English about her records. Her website can be found here and is highly recommended.




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