The Sweet Primerosos
1967 Topic Records 12T170
Made in the UK
All Things Are Quite Silent
Cambridgeshire May Carol
Spencer The Rover
The Rigs Of The Time
The Cruel Mother
The Bird In The Bush
The Streets Of Derry
The Babes In The Wood
Down In Yon Forest
The Magpie’s Nest
False True Love
The Sweet Primeroses
*This track was unlisted on the original LP
Guitar, vocals, 5-string banjo – Shirley Collins
Portative pipe-organ and arrangements – Dolly Collins
Chorus – The Young Tradition (Peter Bellamy, Royston Wood and Heather Wood)
Recorded by Bill Leader
Produced by John Marshall
Photographs by Brian Shuel
Notes by Shirley Collins
Vinyl; Pro-Ject RM-5SE with Audio Tecnica AT440-MLa cartridge; Speedbox power supply; Creek Audio OBH-15; Audioquest King Cobra cables; M-Audio Audiophile 192 Soundcard ; Adobe Audition at 32-bit float 96khz; clicks and pops removed with Click Repair, manually auditioned, and individually with Adobe Audition 3.0; resampled using iZotope RX 2 Advanced SRC and dithered with MBIT+ for 16-bit. Converted to FLAC in either Trader’s Little Helper or dBPoweramp. Tags done with Foobar 2000 and Tag and Rename.
“All Things Are Quite Silent” – collected by Vaughan Williams from Ted Baines in Sussex
My memory of the first time I heard Shirley Collins sing is really more about a feeling than a circumstance. It was the same feeling I had hearing John Fahey or Townes Van Zandt for the first time, of being hushed into silence in the presence of an individual who could, with the bare minimum of adornment, channel an entire tradition. They are ventriloquists for those people and places that are among both the loneliest and the most human of our species’ musical heritage. Though situated in vastly different contexts, for me all three epitomize a kind of archetypal troubadour where the song itself is always paramount. The identify of the performer-as-interlocutor is effaced, sometimes completely, in the service of the message that is the song. This may be the crucial difference between what constitutes “folk” music as I understand it and the stuff that comfortably fits in the “singer-songwriter” genre that, at one time at least, was often conflated with it. The singer-songwriter needs the audience to identify with them as individuals with personal trials and tribulations. Even though Fahey and Townes composed gobs of original music, there isn’t as much a sense of a ‘persona’ at the wheel as there is of an oracle giving voice to all these stories that had already existed before they came along and uncovered them. Like some sort of archaeologist sculptors chipping away at the bedrock of barren riverbeds, their artistry was often in knowing what to strip away in order to leave behind the spare essentials of a single idea, more like curators than performers, cataloging some invisible city in painstaking detail. And Shirley Collins was and continues to be the curator par excellence, a literal song collector who searched for the uncelebrated treasures of Britain, and even scoured the hills of North America with Alan Lomax compiling material that spreads across continents like tributaries of some great river of inspiration. She is a sculptor too, but also a cartographer, mapping out the connections between musical moments and the people who inhabit them, leaving a well-marked trail so we can follow her into the spiritual labyrinthine hearts of places often lost to memory.
For listeners whose ears grew up learning to hear stylistic flourishes as indicative of emotion and sincerity, Shirley’s austere execution of her material may seem to be otherworldly, almost alien. When discussing her with a friend (who first heard her by way of my having posted about The Power Of The True-Love Knot many years ago), he quipped, “Judy Collins she ain’t,” which struck me as maybe more profound than he realized. I recall reading in some liner notes somewhere where she made what seemed one hell of an audacious claim to me at the time: that she thought she was the “most pure” living singer of British folk music making records. That assertion became lodged in my mind as I continued to explore her discography, and I began to see it as a simple statement of fact rather than hubris. What first seemed like a barb against other singers who were getting a lot more famous as performers of British folk (often with another qualifying adjective attached, like ‘folk-rock’), soon came to seem more nuanced as I began to understand what she was trying to accomplish a little better. I don’t think she ever wasted time comparing herself to other singers; she seems to have always been utterly and completely devoted to her own project. Shirley Collins has never been interested in imbuing songs with the strongest, emotion-laden interpretation she can muster and leaving her stamp on them. She was always more interested in how the people who were not professional singers related to their material, those people who sang these songs away from stages and spotlights and carried them into pubs and homes to perform by the hearthside in rooms populated with neighbors or intimates. These are the people who she and her fellow travelers collected these songs from, who she identifies by name on her album sleeves whenever possible. That is what she meant, and perhaps “most pure singer who is making records” was the important part of that seemingly “audacious” assertion. In any case, whereas she may eschew affectations in her performance, Collins’ passion for this music, and the people and the land that gave birth to it, is unmistakable. I got goosebumps the first time I heard her sing “Polly Vaughan” on this album, and still do nearly every time. Listen –
This track might have been a late addition to the LP, because it was not listed on either the jacket or the center label of the 1967 release. Because of that, I don’t have the benefit of referring to Shirley’s own words about the piece (although she has probably written about it elsewhere, at the late hour in which I am finishing this post I’m afraid I will not be searching for it). The tale it tells of a tragic hunting accident seems to combine so many perennial themes in her music – the foolish violence of men, and the unrequited fealty of the women bound to them, framed by ghostly transformations in the moonlit snow. In it’s somewhat mysterious appearance on the grooves of this LP, it seems somehow fitting that its final lyric lent the title to the best introduction to Collins work that I know of, the CD compiled by admirer David Tibet entitled Fountain Of Snow.
In her illuminating notes for the rest of the songs on The Sweet Primeroses, we see that Collins approaches her material with the eye of a scholar. Yet I don’t hear in her music the kind of didactic quality that I find off-putting in many of her contemporaries of the early folk revival. Perhaps that goes towards explaining why this music has endured so well, why it attracts such a diverse group of listeners (oddballs like Tibet, or myself for that matter), and why it is difficult to pin down to any particular time period. Accompanied here only by her sister Dolly on the “portative pipe organ,” with vocal trio The Young Tradition chiming in on a few numbers (they were uncredited at the time, perhaps due to being contracted to a competing label, Transatlantic Records), she certainly doesn’t seem particularly concerned with the fashions of 1967. And yet she wasn’t a staunch traditionalist either. As the album jacket points out, Dolly’s instrument here, based on something dating back to the twelfth century that was played with a bellows a bit like a harmonium, was modified to work with electricity and free up both hands. Furthermore it was only paired with this repertoire of songs because she was apparently dissatisfied with attempts to accompany Shirley on the piano. This striving for the most effective way to present her collections of traditional material is something of a theme that might be easy to miss in Collins’ work, and it runs through even her earliest records from nearly a decade before this one.
“Instrumental accompaniment has not been part of the Southern English folk scene for centuries, ” wrote Lomax in the notes to her first and only release on the Smithsonian’s Folkways label in 1959. “Indeed,” he continues, “one might say that the American mountaineer with his banjo, rediscovered an accompanying technique for the ancient modal tradition of Britain. I think Shirley’s instinct was right in deciding to try to set her Southern English melodies to American five-string banjo accompaniment.” In fact, several of the tracks on this album are performed a Capella, lending some more weight to Lomax’s observation. Shirley grew up in Sussex, singing in the church choir alongside her father, who had probably been singing in the pubs the night before. Surrounded by musicality, it must have been somewhat strange to have her own heritage taught back to her in schools where Cecil Sharpe’s compendiums of English folksong were by then considered orthodox, national curriculum. As Lomax notes, Shirley felt free to adapt that material, drawing on the endless “ancestral” variants all around her. Still, one of the things you always hear about the folksong traditions of rural England is that by the time of the World Wars it was all but dying out. The trope of “the endangered folk tradition” is one that gets trotted out at particular historical junctures, and one that got a lot of mileage in places where people had only recently begun to think of themselves as a people, let alone as a nation. The role of corrosive bogeyman, and who gets to play it, changes depending on the context. Common villains in our most recent iterations of the impulse to “revive” tradition are modernity, consumerism, radios and technology, but in another time closer to the turn of the twentieth century, the villains were as often as not things like class consciousness and secularism, Music Hall (or the Grand Ole Opry, on the other side of the pond), and archaic notions of “race” and purity. The project of song collecting for a figure like Cecil Sharpe can be linked to a broader fixation with restoring a “vanished” harmony in the social order of a romanticized, pre-industrial world before things like wages and strikes and women wanting the right to vote came along to spoil everything. (**See note at bottom)
The folk revival of Shirley’s generation had different moorings – in fact, the label Topic Records which released this album was the commercial arm of the revolutionary Workers Music Association founded in the late 1930s. But like Sharpe she also traveled across the Atlantic seeking to reconstruct something of her own history. The preservation of traditions is also always a reinvention of them, involving a complex series of choices of what to select and what to exclude, linked to a deep-seated and thoroughly modern need to experience sincerity in our lives, to connect our sense of self with something larger, something with roots. I would like to know the precise contours of the journeys of self-discovery that led this daughter of a landscape gardener from southern England to throw in her lot with a (formerly Harvard-bound) son of one of the top musicologists of the US who was twice her age named Alan Lomax. But for that I suppose I will have to either ask her about it directly, or get my hands on a pricey copy of her memoir “America Over The Water.” There are other questions I would ask her, like about her encounter with that hypothetical “mountaineer with his banjo.” Because a few generations before Lomax and Collins traversed the dusty roads of the countryside, the banjo was considered by their ballad collector forebears as an insidious intrusion of modernity, something brought to these remote locations by the railroads (along with the six-string guitar). The instrument those earlier song collectors favored was the dulcimer, and in fact they propagated a revival of the dulcimer’s use and even its craftsmanship through the “settlement schools” of the progressive reform movement that spread through Appalachia. One of the main figures associated with the revival of the dulcimer, Kentucky native Jean Ritchie, was an influence on both Lomax and Collins, and taught her one of the songs that appears on this album (Cambridgeshire May Carol) as well as material that appears on the Folkways album. Lomax actually met Ritchie in New York at a settlement school in the Lower East Side where she taught music. She later won a Fulbright to trace the connections between Appalachian ballads and songs from the British Isles, which I suspect is how she eventually met Collins (although I’m not sure). Shirley played the dulcimer on a song titled “Locks and Bolts” recorded for a four-song EP on Topic in 1963, but it was not an instrument she pursued (in its “pure” form anyway, c.f. “the instrument”, her custom made dulcimer hybrid..). That song was included on the CD reissue of this album in the 1990s.
A few years after The Sweet Primeroses, Shirley and Dolly would record the ambitious Anthems In Eden project, a record which would have a huge impact on the admittedly small pool of people who were tuned into such things. In it, restless Dolly put together much more ornate arrangements utilizing a handful of musicians trained in “historically informed performance” and “early music,” utilizing little-known and seldom-played instruments like the crumhorn, the sackbut, and the rabec to flesh out the sound for a suite of songs about… the First World War. The result of this temporal mash-up is a bit baroque in its ornamentation, and required a few listens on my part to acclimate myself, having discovered her work through the stoic approach heard on this album and its successor, Power Of The True Love Knot. I can see now how it was actually a bold experiment, and it apparently reduced one Ashley Hutchings to tears. Hutchings was a bassist recently departed from his group Fairport Convention, and about to form Steeleye Span before abandoning that project as well. Anthems In Eden impressed him enough that he pursued Collins, convinced her to marry him, and soon talked her into singing for the Albion Dance Band, which against all odds managed to combine her high and lonesome bearing with the dynamic shifts of an electrified folk-rock ensemble to stunning effect. She sang on a couple records with the Albion Dance Band with Hutchings, as well a project called Morris On, both featuring an amalgam of heavy-hitters in the early 70s British folk-rock scene. Apparently Hutchings had a habit of perpetually walking away from things he’d started, because he abandoned Shirley as well. She made one final album with her sister Dolly in 1978, returning to the sparse austerity that first grabbed my attention, before losing her singing voice to dysphonia and walking away from recorded music entirely until 2016 (more about that in a moment).
Shirley had moved from Sussex to London in the 1950’s and studied folk music at Cecil Sharpe House amidst the post-Blitz disarray described by H.V. Morton in his memoir of the city. While Morton was In Search of London, Collins was in search of England itself. And her vision, for what I suppose are reasons both historical and personal, was a different vision from Cecil Sharpe’s. The world that materializes through her diverse body of work is far from a “merry olde” anything. The first song on this record, All Things Are Quite Silent, laments the brutality in which men are literally dragged into wars, in this case kidnapped by pressgangs serving the King in the eighteenth century. The Rigs of the Time lambasts the petty greed and dishonesty of village merchants and workman in a time of scarcity. Collins work is replete with macabre murder ballads, and this album’s The Cruel Mother deals with infanticide on top of that. She also recorded that song for her Folkways album, which was incidentally titled False True Love, after a song Sharpe collected in Tennessee, and which she also reinterpreted here. On the 1959 recording she was bolstered by a cadre of male musicians; on this version, she carries the tune herself, and the evidence haunts for itself. Listen –
Come in, come in, you old true love,
And chat for awhile with me,
For it’s been three quarters of a long year or more,
Since I spoke one word to thee.
I shan’t come in, I shan’t set down,
I ain’t got a moment’s time,
And since you are engaged with another true love,
Then your heart is no longer mine.
When you were mine, my old true love,
Then your head lay on my breast,
You could make me believe by the falling of your arm,
That the sun rose up in the west.
There is many the star shall jingle in the west,
There is many the leaf below,
There is many the damn that shall lite upon a man,
For treating a poor girl so.
I wish to the Lord I’d never been born,
Or had died when I was young,
Then I never would have mourned for my old true love,
Nor have courted no other one.
I may not be able to trace a single chromosome of my DNA to ancient Albion, but anyone with blood in their veins at all can surely feel a kinship to this song. I don’t share the weight of ancestry and heritage that Shirley Collins brings to the wellspring of music to which she has dedicated so much of her life, any more than I share those things with most of the other music featured on this blog. The degree of excitement I felt when hearing the news that she had a new album coming out this month was significant enough that it left me reflecting on just exactly why her work should resonate so deeply with me. It comes back, I imagine, to my own quest for sincerity and authentic experiences, qualities that I am determined to find in most of the artists I’m drawn to, whether it’s Bert Jansch or Marc Bolan, Jorge Ben or Curtis Mayfield. That’s part of my own bargain with the universe, why I stay engaged with it and don’t just peace out and walk away. My conception of “music with heart” is why I listen to more samba and funk than I do, say, dodecophonic serial composers or Japanese noise-rock. For most of my life I’ve been more drawn to artists who can take something crafted from the lived experiences of people who aren’t me, and make it come alive and connect with the world I believe that I inhabit. A story well told doesn’t require you to have lived through a similar experience to find it compelling or moving or believable. It has to provide enough nuance, texture, and detail to make you believe that such a story took place in the world lived in by those characters. It has to have the vibes. Evocation rather than invocation. And Shirley Collins evokes the people and places she sings about in ways that Ewan MacColl or Woody Guthrie – as good as they might have been – simply never did for me. Maybe it comes back to that artistic self-effacement I described way at the top of this long ramble, where your attention is always brought back, like a meditation, to the song and not the singer. And it turns out my instincts about Collins instincts were not too far off: since I began writing this piece, I stumbled on this Guardian article that came out when she published her 2004 memoir, and in it she talks about the importance of “voice”:
This idea of the “folk voice” is very important to her. “It is everything. A folk voice should just be a conduit for the song. You want no sheen, just the song.” Only by singing simply and directly, she says, can the working-class origins of folk music be preserved. This is partly why she disliked protest singers such as Joan Baez in the 1960s. “They forgot about those origins – and also they were so bloody wealthy.”
Last Tuesday I got an email that her new LP, Lodestar, had shipped out to me. In fact it is possible I might even have it in my hands tomorrow. I’m so glad that she decided to record again, and hoping illogically that the fates will somehow see to it that I’m able to catch one the handful of performances slated in the coming months. In the couple of clips that I have heard from the album, there is something of the careworn directness of Elizabeth Cotton in her approach, something that I think was always there even when she was many decades younger, but is perhaps now more obvious after taken a “break” of thirty-odd years from performing. So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, when digging up Lomax’s commentary on a recording she made in her early twenties, to see him speculating (or in today’s parlance, it’s really more like mansplaining) that given enough time and life experience, somewhere around the half-century mark Shirley would be able to sing with the same command of style as “an Aunt Molly Jackson, or an Elizabeth Collins.” Well you can imagine what I think of that remark, and anyway it is obvious Shirley didn’t have to wait nearly that long, as she was plainly in her element in this 1967 recording. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
**Note: I’ve since come to realize, after talking with English friends with more knowledge about their history than me, as well as hearing more of Collins own thoughts on Sharpe, that I am probably being too hard on him. His work was, in its own way, quite radical for the time, and there’s an anachronistic risk to judging it based on our contemporary sensibilities. Of course this doesn’t negate that certain elements of his work might have lent strength to conservative strains in the later folk revival, but the issues become variegated and more complex the further you go down this road…)