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SHIRLEY COLLINS "Sweet England" Topic TSCD815
SHIRLEY COLLINS "Adieu To Old England" Fledg'ling FLED3023
SHIRLEY COLLINS "Folk Roots, New Routes" Topic TSCD819

This trio of re-issues reminds us that Shirley Collins sits at the high table of the British folk revival. The regal lady placed between Ewan and Bert to stop them sticking forks in each other? That's Shirley.

During a 20-year recording career her sweetly expressive Sussex voice, a touch too high for tedious perfection, came to epitomise the southern English song tradition. She was a direct link with the source singers she heard in her young days - first her own family, then redoubtables like Harry Cox, Phoebe Smith, Pop Maynard and Bob Roberts. Like them, she never forgot that a song is a story to be simply told. This was no parish pump approach. Her triumph was to combine a deep allegiance to her musical heritage with innovation in song settings and a gift for fruitful partnership.

"Sweet England" (45 minutes) originally issued on the Argo label in 1959, is Shirley's first album. Fair play to Topic for bringing it to the light of digitally remastered day. "The Bonny Labouring Boy" learnt from granddad and "The Cuckoo" learnt from great grandma ... Peggy Seeger-style banjo accompaniment ... Appalachia meets Sussex in "Omie Wise" and "Pretty Saro" ... her own tunes for "Polly Vaughan" and "The Cherry Tree Carol". The mixture must have perplexed the purists, even without the pig impressions in "The Lady and The Swine". The American folklorist Alan Lomax (co-producer with Peter Kennedy) concluded in his notes that: "In ten years I believe she will be a major artist, but here is the wistful and tender magic of the young girl, that is beyond art."

"Folk Roots, New Routes" (50 minutes), first issued by Decca in 1964, is a more obvious candidate for Topic's resuscitation, and many a grizzled old folkie will want to retire his scratched vinyl and buy the CD forthwith. This collaboration with guitarist Davy Graham is rightly regarded as a landmark of the revival. Shirley's exploration of the parallel song traditions of England and America (the result of field trips with Lomax) are matched by Davy's classy excursions into jazz, blues, Indian and North African music. A sequence of songs of mystery, magic and transformation culminates in "Reynardine". Innocence and experience are juxtaposed in "Love is Pleasing", "Bad Girl", and "Dearest Dear." Shirley revisits four songs from "Sweet England" - "Cherry Tree Carol", Hares on the Mountain", "Pretty Saro", and "Hori Horo" - and they are among the strongest on this cool blue cocktail of an album.

More successful partnerships followed - with the Incredible String Band, her sister Dolly Collins, and, in the folk-rock classic "No Roses", Ashley Hutchings and the Albion Country Band.

And that brings us to "Adieu To Old England" (38 minutes), first issued by (confusingly) Topic in 1974 and now remastered and attractively presented by Fledg'ling with notes by Shirley. It is from her Etchingham Steam Band period, thoroughly acoustic and doggedly southern English, with America long since set aside. There are three songs with arrangements by Dolly on flute organ - "Down By The Seaside", "One Night As I Lay On My Bed", and the carol "I Sing Of A Maiden That Is Makeless." My favourites are two puzzling songs collected in deep Sussex - "Come All You Little Streamers" and the less familiar "Banks Of The Mossom". But the predominant mood is partytime, with harvest homes and wassails nicely mixed with dance tunes from assorted Albions, Etchinghams and others to give a natural, intimate feel.

Shirley no longer sings in public. That is her choice and our loss. But these welcome albums show us again that she has done her bit and more.

Tony Hendry

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This album was reviewed in Issue 34 of The Living Tradition magazine.