Folk Singer Shirley Collins’ first album in 38 years, Lodestar, is a striking and rewarding collection of “old bloody songs.
“Why does England hate it’s own folk music?” asked celebrated American producer Joe Boyd in his wonderful memoir of 1960s music-making ‘White Bicycles’.
It’s a good question, and one which Boyd then does a very good job of answering himself.
“I think it goes back to 1066… England, at some visceral level, remains a colonial society, with the inheritors of Norman power lording it over their uncouth subjects. The upwardly mobile take on ‘Norman’ characteristics while the lower orders are taught to be ashamed of their roots… in Spain, Portugal, Hungary and Sweden – and even in France – rich and poor speak with roughly the same accent and eat the same sort of food. But not in England.”
“It’s impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him” wrote George Bernhard Shaw. I guess the same applies for Englishwomen. So despite Shirley Collins having legendary status in certain circles, particularly among the younger practitioners of dark folk such as Current 93’s David Tibet, there will still be many an Englishman and woman unable to bear more than a few seconds of Lodestar, Shirley Collins’ first album for 38 (THIRTY EIGHT, to give it the Grandstand vidiprinter treatment) years.
It’s a shame for them, because in being gently encouraged to record again for the first time in nearly four decades after suffering from dysphonia, the octogenarian Collins and her collaborators (most notably the Oysterband’s Ian Kearey) have produced a striking and rewarding traditional folk album. With a voice now notably deeper than in the 1970s – while still retaining it’s unique breathiness – Collins’ Lodestar is a stark collection, both in subject matter and arrangement.
Not for Collins the trappings of electronica or lightweight pop that characterise much of what now passes for ‘folk music’. No, what we get here by the bucketload is blood; death and destruction abound. It’s like a gothic-horror story set to music. But the Collins track I’ve listened to the most is an extraordinary take on ‘poor murdered woman’ featuring various ex-members of Fairport Convention from 1971, so it’s a milieu that suits her well. “There was blood in the kitchen, there was blood in the hall” she sings on ‘Cruel Lincoln’. Anyone expecting some Mumford-style “I will wait for you” platitudes would be best advised to steer clear. “I’m a very down to earth, cheerful person… but I’m just fascinated by all these old bloody songs” she told Late Junction’s Verity Sharp on Radio 3 recently, before adding “that’s England for you.”
Collins’ singing voice is much more vulnerable than before, in a manner that puts me slightly in mind of Johnny Cash’s late 90s/early 2000s American recordings. I’d love Lodestar to have the same effect for Collins that Cash’s latter work had for him; where he truly became a folk hero of his native land, making music of glorious gravitas in an understated manner. But it won’t. But then of course, that’s not Shirley Collins’ fault. It’s England’s. 4/5