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Shirley (& Dolly) Collins

Born 5th July 1935, Hastings, East Sussex, singer SHIRLEY COLLINS and, to a slightly lesser extent, her older sister Dolly, have been integral parts of the British folk scene since the late 50s/early 60s. Two solo LPs from the same recordings sessions, SWEET ENGLAND (1959) {*6} and FALSE TRUE LOVERS (1960) {*7} were released at this time. Cut at Peter Kennedy’s house in Belsize Park, London (through ALAN LOMAX in 1958), and augmented by another 5-string banjo player, plus American guitarists Ralph Rinzler and GUY CARAWAN, Shirley’s pastoral and plaintive vox was spun-out, renaissance-style, on a number of traditional songs that had drifted back across the Atlantic ocean several times over (`Sweet William’, `Pretty Saro’, `The Unquiet Grave’, `The Foggy Dew’, et al).
Tempted out of her shell-like privacy by guitarist virtuoso, DAVY GRAHAM, the collaborative FOLK ROOTS, NEW ROUTES (1964) {*8} was the heart, soul and inspiration behind a new British Isles movement that pre-dated SANDY DENNY, JACQUI McSHEE and MADDY PRIOR. Aside from GRAHAM’s side-piece meanderings, the quintessential, melancholic and eclectic readings of COLLINS (on `Lord Gregory’, `Dearest Dear’, `Proud Maisrie’, `Pretty Saro’, etc.) were a folk-purist’s treasure chest.
SWEET PRIMEROSES (1967) {*6} and her sole Polydor Records effort (with Joe Boyd on production and sister Dolly on pipe-organ backing), THE POWER OF THE TRUE LOVE KNOT (1968) {*8} plied her formulaic medieval approach. And then there were two: SHIRLEY & DOLLY COLLINS.
Bolstered by the exacting presence of David Munrow’s Musica Reservata and the first of two LPs on Harvest Records, the concept-piece ANTHEMS IN EDEN (1969) {*8} possessed an inner beauty to rival anything the boys ’n’ girls from The INCREDIBLE STRING BAND could throw together; the fact that they covered ROBIN WILLIAMSON’s `God Dog’ was no coincidence. The duo had come-of-age, and so had the crumhorn. LOVE, DEATH & THE LADY (1970) {*7} followed the same public domain/trad pattern augmented as it was by PENTANGLE’s Terry Cox (on percussion) and Christopher Hogwood (on harpsichord).
Together with the musical apex of husband ASHLEY HUTCHINGS (aka the heart of The ALBION COUNTRY BAND) and other alumni from FAIRPORT CONVENTION, STEELEYE SPAN, The WATERSONS, BARRY DRANSFIELD et al, NO ROSES (1971) {*8} combined musical dexterity with Shirley’s smoky vocal chords; check out `Just As The Tide Was A’ Flowing’, `The White Hare’, `Claudy Banks’ and the dramatic, `The Murder Of Maria Marten’.
Although not billed, sister Dolly was again at the helm of SHIRLEY COLLINS’ next English-country-garden project set, ADIEU TO OLD ENGLAND (1974) {*7}, a record inspired as much by century-old fare than the post-folk-rock bands previously mentioned. AMARANTH (1976) {*7}, FOR AS MANY AS WILL (1978) {*6} with Dolly, and unreleased recordings with HUTCHINGS in the ETCHINGHAM STEAM BAND in the mid-70s, were all she said, beautiful sets in beautiful settings and pieces of a folk history and legacy to cherish; retired from music around the same time, her sister Dolly died on the 22nd September, 1995. Shirley was awarded the MBE at turn of 2007 for her services to music, while a year later, she became president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.
Four decades on from her last solo outing and as important a feat as the stalwart PEGGY SEEGER’s `Everything Changes’, the remarkable 81 year-old COLLINS extended her unyielding credence with LODESTAR (2016) {*8}. Pushing the envelope like no other “seasoned” folk campaigner, and working with ex-COIL twosome Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown (with Domino Records at the helm), fresh but fragile and foreboding re-interpretations of 16th century-old madrigals/shanties were the order of the day. Producer Ian Kearey must also take some of the credit in his “Wicker Man” approach to the incarnate songs on board. From the freak-folk opening 4-parter of `Awake Awake’ – `The Split Ash Tree’ – `May Carol’ – `Southover’, to the sombre minute-and-a-bit `The Silver Swan’, the whole project oozed class. Anticipation was such that the album registered a place in the Top 100! Tweeting in the true sense of “nightingale” nature rather than any modern-day medium, blood-splattered murder-ballad `Cruel Lincoln’ bordered the class politics of old and new. Wyrd and wonderful in its transportation back to harsher times, `Washed Ashore’, the NICO-esque `Sur Le Borde De L’Eu’, the bottleneck-basked `Death And The Lady’ and the combination of `The Rich Irish Lady’ and `Jeff Sturgeon’, crossed all the barriers from the Appalachian-like accompaniment to that unmistakable glowing grandeur of Miss COLLINS. A true gem. Wish there was more.
© MC Strong 2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Dec2013-Nov2016

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