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Shirley Collins: Hello Old England

Adieu to Old England, adieu

and adieu to some hundreds of pounds

if the world had been ended while I had been young

my sorrow I'd never had known

Maybe someone at this moment is looking discontentedly out the window, wishing on a cool bright winter's day they had, for all the world, a good forgotten folk record to listen to. In answer to this, and because I'm looking out the window in much the same way myself, maybe today is the day to think of the English Folk Revival of the mid-last century, and to think of one artist in particular.

I have put on Shirley Collins's The Sweet Primroses, and in between my admiration of this excellent artist, I wonder what exactly it is about her that is so appealing. The first time I heard Collins was a jarring experience. It is an airy, unadorned English voice, no frills at all but not of this era, and hardly of her own era for that matter. But like some of the best and most interesting female vocalists of later days – Kate Bush, Bjork, Joanna Newsom, one settles into them like a scalding bath. Think of England, fellows, and give her a chance.

And in the true tradition of English folk music, and all folk music really, she tells stories straightforwardly, usually tragically, and with just the sort of romance of time and place to make the right people angry.

Take for a start, Adieu to Old England, which is the title track of another of her records. Plain tragedy dutifully sung. No instruments needed on this track:

Or, from Primroses, the song False True Love, which has meandering origins, but somewhat worth tracing. From the liner notes of Collins's first recording of this song: “The False True Love is one of hundreds of examples showing that the British folk song tradition has grown steadily more lyrical in the past two or three hundred years. As the role of the ballad singer lost its importance, the narrative pieces were broken down into fragmentary lyric songs. This process has been especially marked and rapid in the Southern Appalachian area, from which this song comes.

"The original piece is a tragic ballad, called Young Hunting (Child 68), probably Scots in origin, but widespread throughout Britain and North America. It tells of a young man who rides by to visit an old sweetheart. When she bids him to light down and spend the night, he says that he prefers his new light of love. Whereupon the jealous girl stabs him, throws his corpse into the well and curses him. The remainder of the ballad consists of a dialogue between the murderess and her little parrot, the sole witness, who insists he will tell all and will not be bribed or threatened into silence.”

One wonders how many times this story has crossed back and forth over the Atlantic. It sounds uncannily like one of the truly perfect duets of the last several decades, Nick Cave and PJ Harvey's Henry Lee

The Primrose version has no trace of murder in it; it's a very touching remembrance of bygone love. Collins herself describes it:

“Versions of the British original, all involving the young man's murder and drowning have been collected all over the Appalachians. When I started out with singing and researching, the Anglo-Appalachian tradition seemed full of wonders, but lately I feel that the hybrids are like sorrowful ghosts, lost between the purely American forms like the blues and bluegrass, and the robust spirit of the British tradition. However, I still feel that the marvellous sense of loss and loneliness in this particular song makes it worth singing."

And she does bring the sadness of this story to life unbearably with a soft banjo accompaniment. As an evocation of love, the lines “but when you were mine, my old true love / your hand lay upon my breast / you could make me believe all by the falling of your arm / that the sun rose up in the West” somehow can catch in the throat even by being written instead of sung. It's worth to quote the Primrose version here in full:

Come in come in you old true love

won't you chat for a while with me

for it's been three quarter of a long year or more

since I've spoke one word to thee

I shan't come in nor will I sit down

for I don't have a moment's time

and since you are now engaged with another true love

then your heart is no longer mine

But when you were mine, my own true love

and your head lie upon my breast

you could make me believe all by the falling of your arm

that the sun rose up in the West

Now there's many's the star shall jingle in the west, And it's many the leaves all below, And there's many's the damn that shall light upon a man, For treating a poor girl so.

Now 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 own true love, Nor have courted no other one.

Shirley Collins is still alive, aged 80. I don't know how she fills her days now – I heard her say in an interview that the trouble with folk music is, unless you're Joan Baez or a few others, you never make any money at it. I hope the accumulation of her work has given her at least a handful of deserved laurels. Ten years ago the eccentric David Tibet of Current 93 hosted her among others on his record Black Ships Ate the Sky. She sang – octaves down this time, and wonderfully – the great English hymn Idumea (Am I Born to Die?);

And am I born to die? To lay this body down? And must my trembling spirit fly Into a world unknown

And this is what is so good about a voice like hers: a voice that has always sung plain and honest can't be ruined by age. It can only wander over old ground in new ways.

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