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Shirley Collins - Sweet England

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Artist: Shirley Collins

Album: Sweet England

Label: Fledg'ling

Review date: Nov. 24, 2010

The warmest souls often deliver traditional music with the most unaffected, direct candour. So it is with Shirley Collins, the finest singer of the mid-20th century folk revival. The purity in her voice, stripped of emotional affect, the better to divine the steely, humane core at the heart of historic song, is a rare thing, and serves notice on the ornamentation of many of her peers. Long-time supporter David Tibet once described her voice as “a pair of lips on a heart,” which fairly accurately captures the directness of Collins’s art.

But this isn’t pure hagiography. Sweet England is one of Collins’s first albums, recorded in a two-day blush in 1958 by then-partner Alan Lomax, best known for his field recordings of American folk songs, and Peter Kennedy, whose father was director of The English Folk Dance & Song Society. Fair company to keep, and in the liner notes Collins writes of the “overwhelming honour” of their presence, though as she also humbly confesses, she feels the recording session “a little premature.”

She may have a point. Sweet England, and the other album drawn from these sessions, False True Lovers, have Collins singing at all of 22 years old, still unsure of where she is headed. The following year, she would accompany Lomax on a song-collecting mission around America, and soon after would focus entirely on traditional English song. With that change in focus came an intensification of both research and performance. Sweet England captures a gentle young singer not yet sure in her ways.

It’s a curate’s egg of a record. The more playful, wistful songs, like “The Tailor & The Mouse,” “Charlie,” or “The Lady & The Swine,” are charming enough, but lack import. Collins’s banjo facility isn’t yet possessed of graceful flow, and her playing can be a bit starchy. Sometimes, she misreads the songs — “Omie Wise,” with accompaniment on banjo and guitar, is over-egged, as Collins herself observes in the liner notes, and “Hares On The Mountain” is too feather-light.

But elsewhere, Collins shines. Her “Barbara Allen” is heartbreakingly pensive, gesturing toward the emotional complexity of her later recordings, “Hori-Horo” is impassively gorgeous, and “The Bonny Labouring Boy” is Sweet England’s tour-de-force, a stunning engagement with one of traditional song’s most enduring motifs, that of romance across classes. On performances like these, you can hear Collins starting to understand how to act as conduit for songs, the “rare and admirable quality of serving the songs, rather than the songs serving her,” as Collins said in her memoir, America Over The Water, of Arkansas singer Almeda Riddle.

Sweet England is certainly not the place to start with Shirley Collins. If you want to get your ears real wet, move straight to her sublime late ‘60s and early ‘70s albums, The Power Of The True Love Knot, Anthems In Eden, Love Death And The Lady, and No Roses. But Sweet England offers something else: a chance to hear the folk revival in its earliest, most curious bloom. Not fully formed, these performances are both historically instructive and possessed of an innocence soon lost to more progressive, expansive arrangements. And in the few truly powerful moments on Sweet England, where you begin to hear the lilt and chill of Collins’s mature voice, in compassionate servitude of song, there’s still nothing to compare.

By Jon Dale

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