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Lodestar: The Unlikely Triumph of Shirley Collins

In the beginning of this year I jotted down some admiring notes on Shirley Collins, who at the time was still more or less thought of as a disappeared person in the decentralized cannon of English folk music. A few months ago I discovered with great surprise and joy that she had put together a new record – the first in some thirty-eight years of silence – and that it was to be released at the beginning of November, this year.

Now I'm sitting in my library with the elements of this record spread around me. For the agreeable price of twenty-five dollars I was speedily shipped Lodestar: the deluxe edition offers an LP, CD, MP3, a signed print, and very handsome liner notes, written by Collins herself, about the songs that have in many cases been with her for the better part of her eighty-one years. Collins's artistry is different from the songwriter. She is a collector, curator, and interpreter of folk songs. And although it is impossible to determine the exact criteria for which ten tracks would make the cut for Lodestar, the record is a triumph of providence, musicianship, and good taste. The songs are filled with cruelty, warmth, gaiety; though more than anything else, Lodestar courts death with all the sly and slight armor of tradition and rhyme.

Although much has been made of Collins's four-decade absence, due somehow to a chronic lack of self-confidence, Lodestar begins with a bold four-song medley, in which Shirley opens with a firm warning:

“Awake awake sweet England, sweet England now awake / And to your prayers obediently and to your souls partake / For our Lord our God is calling all in the sky to clear / So repent, repent sweet England, for dreadful days draw near.”

Immediately the simple singing style – though now a couple octaves lower – will be familiar to admirers of past Collins records. Methodically and with straightforward charm she guides us through a penitential song about “when the Great Earthquake of London toppled part of old St Paul's Cathedral.” Ossian Brown then offers a haunting interlude with his original composition for hurdy-gurdy. Then a May Carol. Then the sounds of Morris dancers' bells. A more English start to a record could scarcely be achieved, nor a more self-assured one.

Lodestar then begins to spread out into the stories that Collins had so delighted in re-telling in past records. A death by drowning. A revenge murder at the hands of Cruel Lincoln. A surrender of a lady into the world of ghosts upon sighting her drowned sailor. And a rather subtle first-person dialogue with Death himself in Death and the Lady, set to a tune of Collins's own invention:

His hair was white, his beard was grey

His coat was of a myrtle shade

I asked him what strange countryman

Or what strange place, Or what strange place he did belong

"My name is Death, cannot you see?

Lords, dukes, and ladies bow down to me

And you are one of those branches three

And you fair maid, And you fair maid must come with me"

Just when one suspects a certain grim theme, the mood is much improved with Pretty Polly, a song Collins collected from an Arkansas woman during a trip to the US in 1959. Polly defies her parents' wishes and follows her army-captain-lover by dressing as a man and stealing a horse. “With a brace of pistols swung by her side / Like a United States soldier Pretty Polly did ride.” And unexpectedly enough, a happy ending, a least for Polly and her Captain:

“Well to lie with a Captain, is to lie with a king I'm a United States soldier, from George Washington, I came I fight for my liberty, by sea an' by land If you be my Captain, I'll be your command Now, Polly is married, she lives at her ease She goes when she gets ready, returns when she please She left her old parents to weep and to mourn Saying, Polly, O Polly, when will you return?”

“A daft little nonsense of contradictions” follows with Old Johnny Buckle, a tune lighthearted and freewheeling, leaving the listener hardly in thrall of the earlier dawdles with death. Abruptly it ends and so commences perhaps the most beautiful song of the record. Collins shows her love of Cajun music with her own rendition of a 1929 recording of Sur Le Borde De L'eau (On the Water's Edge) by Louisiana's Blind Uncle Gaspard. Gaspard sings it in French, and so does Collins, with a very memorable pronunciation through her accent. This version of the song is very mysterious, at least from what I gather from trying to translate it. A girl spots a vessel of thirty sailors at the edge of her island. The youngest of them sings a beautiful song on the boat, and she calls to him, wishing to learn it. Come aboard, he says, and I will tell it to you. About to climb aboard, perhaps in fear of what might transpire, the girl begins to cry. And that's the end of the song.

The penultimate song also was discovered during her 1959 trip to the United States, and the lovely mists of On the Water's Edge gives way to the familiar theme of revenge. There is even a joyful allusion to the possible dancing on a grave, made quite likely by the song's evocative and lively fiddle finale.

There is some mystery yet as to why a woman who is clearly so in command of her subject, her wonderful aged voice, her sense of arrangement and taste, would have resisted for so long her friends, family and fellow artists' pleas to make music again. It has been suggested in an interesting New York Times interview that Collins herself had some measure of the heartache and disappointment that the poor souls in many of her songs faced. It seems that a love many decades ago left her for another, during a production in which all three were performers, and Shirley had to endure the indignity of literally singing - in front of an audience - directly at the blooming romance which was betraying her before her eyes. The coincidence of this and some vocal trouble may have been the reason for her leaving the stage and studio for so long, and roaming the world of obscurity, odd jobs, and family life. It's unthinkable the role that doubt may have played in robbing the folk world of one of its purest stars.

Yet tonight when I listened to the final song on Lodestar, I was following closely to the lyrics and introduction of the liner notes. Collins writes of The Silver Swan, a madrigal of Orlando Gibbons, “At home in Hastings in the early 1950s, my sister Dolly, Mum, and I used to sing it around the piano. Mum and Dolly took the soprano and alto parts, I sang the tenor and Dolly played the bass part on the piano. We hardly ever got through it without breaking down laughing as we attempted to hold the whole thing together. This version is far simpler – one voice, only harmonium and a viola.”

And I have to say I was pondering all the above when I was struck completely dumb by the six lines of this final song. No record like this could be made but for a drought which lasted half of a long life. No determined grace could be so conspicuous but after such a long absence. No one deserves more to at long last utter a final word which is special. Lodestar is a very special record indeed. But more than special. A lifetime of living in and around the plain and brutal songs of folk music has made her immune to the draw of sentimental endings. No comforts for Collins, and still less for the listener, as she closes her record as abruptly and resolutely as any record I can bring to mind. Afterwards, I sensed some great long-forgotten echo had suddenly appeared, and just as suddenly gone away. God knows where and when it will return.

“The silver swan who living had no note

When death approached unlocked her silent throat

Leaning her breast, leaning her breast against the reedy shore

Thus sung her first and last and sung no more

Farewell all joys, farewell all joys, O death close mine eyes

More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”

Buy the New Shirley Collins Record, Lodestar, from Domino Records

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