Shirley & Dolly Collins

TrackAlbum
Turpin HeroSweet England
Scarborough FairFalse True Lovers
Jane, JaneFolk Roots, New Routes
George CollinsThe Sweet Primeroses
The Maydens CameThe Power Of The True Love Knot
Nellie The MilkmaidAnthems In Eden
GlenlogieLove, Death And The Lady
Murder Of Maria MartenNo Roses
Poor Murdered WomanNo Roses
GilderoyFor As Many As Will

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Contributor: Merric Davidson

“At one time,” says Shirley Collins, “folk was the music that represented the people of England, because it came from a whole swathe of labouring-class people, and it had done for centuries until progress speeded up so much that nothing evolved any more – things just stopped overnight. You can change a whole system and the way peoiple listen to music. When the radio and gramophones came, it slammed down the drawbridge for some music…” (from Rob Young’s “Electric Eden” 2010)

Collins sisters photo as children

Shirley and her sister Dolly were born in the 1930s and grew up in Hastings on the south coast of England, their idyllic childhood only disturbed by the onset of WWII: “In 1940 our home was hit by an inceniary bomb. Thankfully, Mum had taken us for our customary walk on the West Hill that afternoon, and she got back to find the house next door completely destroyed, and only half of ours left standing.” SC

Despite dodging the doodlebug raids, their early years were full of music and the traditional songs of the region and elsewhere. Inspired by traditional singers such as Harry Cox, Phoebe Smith, George Maynard and, of course, Bob Copper (who first heard Shirley singing in the 50s), and later Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd, Shirley describes her singing voice thus: “I’ve got a mouldy and strange voice, but at least it’s my own.”

Others have been kinder!

“What comes through is sincerity, purity of instinct and a tremendous delicacy of feeling.” Alan Lomax

“Shirley has this wonderful, unaffected way of singing, like she’s doing something else … she is without doubt one of England’s greatest cultural treasures.” Billy Bragg

“Shirley is beyond folk, it’s more than that, a particularly pure manifestation of the purest art possible. There was never any pretence in her voice. She sang as she thought, as she felt. Put a pair of lips on the heart and that’s what Shirley sounded like.” David Tibet

Her first LP, Sweet England on the pioneering Argo label (1959), was co-produced by the great American music historian and folklorist, Alan Lomax. These were the most basic of recordings – thirty-seven songs in two days! – with Shirley accompanying herself on banjo along with John Hasted, with American guitarists Ralph Rinzler (one of the Greenbriar Boys) and Guy Carawan. “I like music to be fairly straightforward, simply embellished, the performance without histrionics allowing you to think about the song rather than telling you what to think.” SC – and my first pick was a choice between the title track and Turpin Hero, a song of the famous highwayman that Shirley had learnt at school.

Sweet England, along with its sister album False True Lovers, was recorded in the spring of 1958 when I was twenty-two years old. I had been living for the previous two years in London with Alan Lomax, the American folklorist, working for him as editorial assistant on his book “The Folk Songs of North America” and on his field recordings. The tracks that make up these two albums were recorded by Peter Kennedy and Alan in two days at Peter’s home ‘studio’ in Belsize Park. English traditional music, at its best, expresses and provides everything in song that I need and feel, both musically and emotionally. Sweet England represents the first shaky steps of a journey that I have been on all my life, and that, happily, I still am.” SC

The following year, in the second half of 1959, and following in the footsteps of Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles, Lomax and Collins journeyed to America collecting folk songs from around the southern states of America. Shirley Collins recalls this trip, interwoven with anecdotes of her childhood and her entry into the world of folk music, in her fascinating memoir, “America Over The Water” (SAF Publishing, 2005):

“Reading her book, I start to understand her better, and while she is typically self-effacing, she has been prompted to give away much more of herself than she might have chosen. Which of course makes it so much more interesting.” Maddy Prior

“Her dramatic snapshot memories drip with atmosphere. A thoroughly enjoyable memoir and a valuable addition to our understanding of the music.” The Wire magazine

For myself, having grown up with Paul Oliver’s classic social histories, “Blues Fell This Morning” and “Conversation With The Blues”, I was as fascinated, as Shirley so obviously was, by her accounts of meetings with inmates of Parchman Farm and purveyors of the Appalachian folk tradition, to such great exponents of blues and country music as Jimmy Driftwood and Fred McDowell: “Towards dusk, a slight figure in dungarees and carrying a guitar appeared out of the trees and walked into the clearing. His name was Fred McDowell, he was a fifty year old farmer and he’d been picking cotton all day…. by the time he’d finished his first blues, we knew we were in the presence of a great and extraordinary musician. He sang 61 Highway. Alan wrote one word in his notebook. ‘Perfect’.” SC

It’s great stuff and you get a very real sense of what the trip meant to a young English girl in her twenties and how it stoked the fire of a love of music that was already burning inside her.

“I hadn’t yet fully become aware of how great and wonderful the English tradition was, but I was slowly making my way towards it.” SC

That sister album, False True Lovers, was released on Folkways the following year. I was tempted by The False True Love (remade on her 1967 LP, The Sweet Primeroses) and Bert Lloyd’s The Spermwhale Fishery, but her short, sublime, unaccompanied rendition of Scarborough Fair will represent my second choice from these extraordinary, and vital, thirty-seven recordings.

False True Lovers contains longer songs than on Sweet England, with Cruel Mother, recorded by many since, clocking in at over seven minutes, and Richie Story and The Unquiet Grave at over four minutes. Shirley was to record both of these some eight years later for her wonderful album, The Power Of The True Love Knot (and also Polly Vaughan and Barbara Allen from Sweet England). These songs, and several others from these sessions, were also in 50s folk revivalists Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd’s reportoires: “I liked some of their material, but even then I wasn’t convinced by their singing styles which seemed self-conscious and mannered in a way that didn’t quite ring true for me.” SC

Shirley Collins photo 1

A series of EPs followed in the early sixties before Shirley’s third album was released by Decca in 1964, a collaboration with the great guitarist, Davy Graham. Folk Roots, New Routes was a tour de force; the combination of pure, quintessentially English, vocals and innovative, acoustic guitar work is stunning and it is one of my most-loved albums to this day, new things on every listen.

Andrew Shields selected Proud Maisrie, the second track on Folk Roots, New Routes, in his article on Davy Graham for this site (see toppermost #291) so it gives me a chance to take another. The album includes four songs first recorded for the Sweet England LP, and one of those is Pretty Saro, which with its Eastern arrangement of Graham’s sitar-sounding guitar maybe doesn’t quite make the song work fully, but it’s a fantastically brave experiment. I’m going to go with Jane, Jane (over Love Is Pleasin’ and Dearest Dear) because it does work, and is quite different from most of Shirley’s repertory and from Peggy Seeger’s earlier version (which is also great!), and it would seem to predate the work of The Pentangle and Fairport Convention, as indeed does the whole album, particularly with Nottamun Town as the opening track.

Things are going to start getting really tricky now, in an attempt to hit the perfect topper-ten, as we move on to 1967. The Sweet Primeroses was produced by Shirley’s then husband, Austin John Marshall (1937-2013), a man of many parts and a major figure on the folk scene. Released on the Topic label, this is a lovely album and the first that Shirley made with elder sister Dolly – who had studied composition and orchestration – playing the truly exquisite miniature pipe-organ on six of the tracks, including the one that will represent this very fine album, George Collins:

“Of all the ballads I have heard, none has really chilled me like this one. Originally it concerned a mortal man who became a lover of a water-sprite. He leaves her, and in revenge she kills him with a poisoned kiss. Several girls die of sorrow. The effectiveness of the ballad comes partly from the matter-of-fact manner in which the characters accept their fate, and the way the death of six girls hints at George Collins’ great attractiveness.” SC

Shirley and Dolly Collins photo 2

Dolly would team up with Shirley just a couple of years later for a fabulous series of albums. Watch out also for The Young Tradition providing chorus duties on this album. The Sweet Primeroses would also provide inspiration for the electric folk of Steeleye Span in the shape of the arrangement of The Bird In The Bush (titled Drink Down The Moon on Now We Are Six) and for others with the Copper Family’s Spencer The Rover. The CD of The Sweet Primeroses also includes a smashing version of Rambleaway, first heard on her ’63 EP, Heroes In Love. We’ll meet young Rambleaway again on Anthems In Eden a couple of years on.

Shirley Collins LPs were coming thick and fast now, one a year in a great time for the folk revival. The Power Of The True Love Knot was produced by Joe Boyd in 1969. It once again featured Dolly: “At one stage she lived and wrote music in a double-decker bus in a field, with a piano installed on the lower deck… making new written settings for these songs, whilst keeping faith with their spirit, is a problem which my sister Dolly has taken very much to heart. We have again used the pipe-organ, a modern mechanically-blown reproduction of a hand-pumped organ of 1642. The little wooden pipes make a straight uncontrollable flutey sound which we have loved since we first heard it.” SC.

Robin Williamson and Mike Heron help out on a couple of tracks with tin whistle, finger-cymbals and hand-clapping, no doubt returning the favour the year before of Dolly’s spectacular contribution to the Incredible String Band’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.

The sound of The Power Of The True Love Knot is warm and gentle, greatly pleasing, something special: “Before the folk-rock of Fairport Convention, Shirley Collins was already breaking boundaries, and this disc, with its pristine Joe Boyd production, was one of the first to demolish those barriers. So not only is it a small musical masterpiece, it’s seminal in the modern history of folk music.” Chris Nickson

The track I’m picking from The Power Of The True Love Knot – and this means passing over Lovely Joan, Seven Yellow Gipsies, Lady Margaret & Sweet William, Polly Vaughan – is possibly the most atypical track on it, and one you may not have heard before on traditional collections – it’s short but sweet and faultless: “The Maydens Came is a cryptic fragment of anon poetry found by Dolly in a posh Sunday newspaper and set to tunes at different times by different members of the family. My Aunt Jackie worked this one out and I love it. Robin Williamson adds his chanter (the Indian shahanhai) to make a sound like the extra stop on the original 1643 organ.” SC

Anthems In Eden (Harvest, 1969) was again produced by John Marshall and is the first to be credited to Shirley and Dolly Collins. With the accompaniment throughout of David Munrow’s Early Music Consort, the first side is a cycle of traditional folk songs, including The Blacksmith, Lowlands, Pleasant And Delightful, and The Staines Morris. On the other side of the coin and on the other side of Anthems In Eden we find God Dog, a song given to Shirley & Dolly by Robin Williamson that remained unreleased by the Incredible String Band until 1998. The combination of early English music and Shirley’s exploration of the tradition reaches a crescendo on Nellie The Milkmaid and its unheeded warning not to “frolic with young Roger coming home from the wake!”

The harpsichord and sackbut make a reappearance on Love, Death And The Lady a year later, “a dark album with sparer arrangements” SC. It’s hard to get past the title track, Death And The Lady – “As I walked out one morn in May…” but get past it we must – “Here lies a poor distressed maid whom Death now lately hath betrayed” – as there’s plenty more gems on this excellent album to topper-puzzle over before making the pick. Ho hum. It’s difficult but as I appear to be picking one track to represent each album, I’m going to finally plump for one of the well-known but perhaps less-recorded ballads, Glenlogie (Child ballad 238): “Because there was no tune, I wrote my own. The ballad appealed to me at the time because of the triumph of love over all, even indifference.” SC.

So, no room for The Outlandish Knight, Polly On The Shore (which is a beautiful version), Geordie or Plains Of Waterloo, but that’s okay because you can now buy both Anthems In Eden and Love, Death And The Lady as well as the 1974 LP, Amaranth, on one CD, The Harvest Years, so it’s all good news!

Shirley Collins met and married Ashley Hutchings in 1971. In that year, with Hutchings as co-producer, Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band released the masterpiece, No Roses, joined by an abundance of talent, a who’s who of the folk world, luminaries such as Richard Thompson, Mike & Lal Waterson, Nic Jones, Maddy Prior, Tim Renwick, Royston Wood, Dave Mattacks … This is an essential album which stands alone in the genre; as perfect a piece of music as you will find.

“It was my first venture into folk rock and I suppose initially I didn’t think my voice was right for it. Whatever accompaniments I’ve used, I’ve always sung in my own style, my natural singing voice, which is an extension of my speech. So it was the arrangements that overlaid the songs that gave the record its folk rock feel. I’ve always been willing to experiment providing I believe I can keep the integrity of the music intact. That’s paramount. I have a great love of English traditional music, and along with it a great respect for those people of the labouring classes who kept the songs going through the centuries as their only means of expressing themselves. It is an extraordinary feat, especially as many of them were illiterate. They’ve never been given enough credit or respect for their art. Instead, they’ve been scorned, despised and largely ignored. It’s one reason why I’ve always named my sources. I trust that No Roses had that integrity, as well as strength and beauty in some of the arrangements and a great sense of fun and charm in others.” SC

The centrepiece of No Roses is Murder Of Maria Marten, running to over seven minutes and with clear echoes of Fairport’s Liege And Lief and it is simply magnificent, haunting and unforgettable, an English epic:
“The Red Barn Murder has fascinated people ever since it happened last century, and Ashley’s treatment of it is equally intriguing. His device of breaking the ballad up in this rather extraordinary way, and the inspired sound effect of the cart crunching on the gravel at the hanging give it a chilling edge.” SC

I’m breaking my own topper-rule by picking two from No Roses and I’m adding the last track on the album, Poor Murdered Woman. This is such a different version to the Carthy/Swarbrick take on But Two Came By (1968), hardly surprising with the addition of Nicol, Thompson, Hutchings, Mattacks. It’s completely fantastic, the arrangement just right:
“A favourite song of mine … the true story of a body found on Leatherhead Common by the Surrey Union Hunt in 1834. Written by a tender-hearted observer at the time, and so straight-forwardly told that its compassion and dignity might escape you were it not for its noble tune.” SC

Adieu To Old England was recorded for Topic in 1974 and was, “A return to simpler accompaniment – that distinctive flute organ again – and all English material.” SC. It was re-released by the excellent Fledg’ling Records in 1999. You will find a definitive discography of Shirley & Dolly at the Fledg’ling web-home, The Bees Knees (see link below):
This album continues Shirley Collins’ exploration not only of traditional English folk songs, but also English tradition itself, whether on Coronation Jig written for the return of King Charles II in 1660, or Portsmouth taken from Playford’s ancient book, The Dancing Master. While her focus, given her own history there, is on the music and songs of southern England, she does venture further north for a stirring Horkstow Grange a song reported to have been written by the man who gave Steeleye Span their name…

My top three, however, are the title track (see list below), and Down By The Seaside: “This gentle and unashamedly romantic broadside relic is from George ‘Pop’ Maynard of Copthorne, Sussex.” SC – and – One Night As I Lay On My Bed (which Steeleye did on their first LP): “Three versions worked together here on this lovely song.” SC. It’s a fine album.

Purely through chronology, I’ve saved one of my favourites until last. The joyous final LP from Shirley and Dolly Collins, For As Many As Will (1978), opens up side two with Gilderoy. Collected by Lucy Broadwood from Henry Burstow in 1903, Shirley came across the complete song at Cecil Sharp House. Henry wrote to Shirley: “Dear madam, I give you the song as I have heard it sung many years ago… I dare say you can alter some of the words”. The album also contains a medley of songs from John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, and Richard Thompson’s Never Again (see below), and our friend The Blacksmith again.

Shirley & Dolly Collins’ classic final album. First released in 1978 “For As Many As Will” continues to influence new generations of folk musicians. The Collins sisters were brought up on the Sussex coast with a strong love and understanding for English traditional song. Through a remarkable series of landmark recordings during the 1960s and 70s they helped define the possibilities of the English folksong revival. The album contains some of the sisters’ finest recorded work together – uniting Dolly Collins fine arranging skills with the haunting beauty of Shirley’s voice.

Here’s a shot of the sisters performing in a concert that I put on in Kent in 1977, the highlight of an extremely short spell as an impresario!

Collins sisters in concert 1

Collins sisters in concert ticket

 

Dolly Collins worked on albums by the Incredible String Band, Ian Matthews, Marc Ellington and others. In 1977, she was the arranger on Peter Bellamy’s celebrated folk opera, The Transports. Dolly’s later years were spent gardening and composing. She died in 1995.

Dolly was a remarkable musician, with a fine appreciation and inderstanding of English music, and her arrangements were perfect for the English songs we both loved. Hers was a rare talent. She was clever without being smart, and I often felt that her work and worth were undervalued.

Dolly was my big sister – we grew up during the War together. We were very close and she was always very protective of me, although sometimes she was a terrible tease. She was braver than me, could run faster and throw a rounders ball further, although I was pretty good too! We were both in love with Laurence Olivier.

Dolly sometimes playing the organ, or Granny’s harmonium with its mouse-proof pedals, or later a cheap Czechoslovakian guitar that she bought on credit through an ad in the Daily Worker.

She was warm-hearted and funny and certainly made the most of her time in the world. She loved to walk, as i do, and her habit of taking a thermos flask of coffee laced with brandy made her a perfect companion.

Dolly always knew where to find violets, primroses and cowslips, rare orchids and star moss, wood ants’ nests, kingfishers, and mushrooms and sloes in the autumn. She was a great gatherer, and her cupboards were full of jams and preserves. She always carried binoculars to gaze at birds by day and the stars at night. She knew the names of hundreds of wild flowers, and whenever we walked together in the Sussex countryside, which we did frequently in the last two years of her life, she taught me the names of two new wild flowers on each ramble.

She left two works she had completed weeks before, a song-cycle called ‘The Pity of War’, a setting of poems from the Great War, and a full orchestral score of The Beggar’s Opera.
SC

Shirley Collins’ interest in the folk tradition continued after her recording career and she is now an accomplished speaker. I saw her give one of her talks on English Traditional Music, with particular emphasis on the music of her native Sussex, at Cecil Sharp House in 2010: “My voice went when my second husband left me in 1978. A folk voice should just be a conduit for the song. You want no sheen, just the song.” SC

She didn’t sing in public again until earlier this year when she performed for the first time in 32 years at the Union Chapel in London. It was a giant breakthrough on the dysphonia which had plagued her for decades.

Shirley was awarded an MBE in the 2007 New Year’s Honours List for Services to Music.

“What the songs do, “ Shirley confides, “is take me into that world of the past; they take you back centuries. In a twelve-verse song, you can be transported, and I think that’s such a strength in a song, that it can take you on a journey …one of the reasons the country’s in such trouble, is that nobody’s connected to it, to their ancestors or what’s gone before. And if other people’s lives aren’t important, I don’t know how your own can be.” (from Rob Young’s “Electric Eden” 2010)

 

I’ve already noted that this topper-ten was meant to consist of one track from each of ten albums. What else was a boy to do! I intended it to reveal some of the lesser-known but superb songs from the Collins sisters’ recordings and a few undeniable classics. I hope I’ve succeeded and done them justice by selecting a suitable topper mix.

Other songs, such as Hopping Down In Kent, would fit on an Albion Band toppermost (although you can find it as a bonus track on The Harvest Years CD). However, because the body of work is so strong, and because Shirley is the best, it seemed only right to include another ten songs from the First Lady of Folk and these have been added to the spotify playlist – including Hopping Down In Kent dammit!!

Sweet England Sweet England
From Cecil Sharp & S. Baring Gould’s English Folk-Songs For Schools.

The Spermwhale Fishery False True Lovers
From A.L. Lloyd’s repertory.

Proud Maisrie Folk Roots, New Routes

Rambleaway The Sweet Primeroses

The Barley Straw The Power Of The True Love Knot
“When he was a boy, Harry Cox sat outside the pubs in Norfolk and listened to his grandad singing with his friends inside. This was how, with perfect recall, he started to build up his great repertory of traditional songs.” SC

Adieu To Old England Adieu To Old England
“This song was discovered among Cecil Sharp’s manuscripts by Ashley Hutchings.” SC

Never Again For As Many As Will
Richard Thompson’s ballad is one of the few contemporary songs recorded by Shirley and Dolly.

Hard Times Of Old England The Etchingham Steam Band
From the repertory of the Copper Family.

Hopping Down In Kent The Prospect Before Us

All The Pretty Little Horses The Starres Are Marching Sadly Home
Shirley guesting on the Current 93 album (1996).

 

The authorised Shirley Collins website

“All In The Downs: Reflections on Life, Landscape and Song” by Shirley Collins (2018)

“The Ballad Of Shirley Collins” – a film by Tim Plester & Rob Curry

Shirley Collins releases on Fledg’ling Records

Shirley Collins discography at Fledg’ling Records

Shirley Collins Complete Discography & Lyrics at Mainly Norfolk
Packed full of information and highly recommended

Shirley Collins biography (iTunes)

Toppermost now sending out a call for a post on Ashley Hutchings in his various Albion Band permutations and solo. This could include the short-lived Etchingham Steam Band formed by Ashley and Shirley in 1974.

Postscript: Turpin Hero, the first track on this toppermost, was later recorded by Colin Meloy (of The Decemberists – see toppermost #213) on his six-song tour-only CD of songs by Shirley Collins.

TopperPost #303

3 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Jun 19, 2014

    Not only one of the longest Toppermosts, but one of the best! Much food for thought and further exploration. I’m kicking myself because a nearby store had a rack crammed with LPs, all quite expensive a few months ago. I decided to look the next time I was there, and they’d all flown out of the door. A lot of the early stuff would have been pressed in small quantities. Argo was an odd label … spoken voice renditions of Under Milk Wood, Shakespeare and poetry, railway engine noises, then a few folk gems.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jun 20, 2014

    Merric, thanks for this great list. Had heard Shirley’s great work with Dav(e)y Graham and with the Albion Country Band, but this superb piece makes me want to explore more of her solo work and the recordings she did with Dolly…

  3. Ian Ashleigh
    Jun 20, 2014

    What a fantastic post Merric. I was thinking the other day Albions are missing as is The Guv’nor himself and how would I tackle The Albion Band and its incarnations as the Country and Dance Bands. It may take me 3 or 4 weeks but I’ll give it a go.
    (Go for it Ian… Ed.)

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