Shirley Collins was already a folk-music veteran in 1971. Since 1959, she has released half a dozen records since 1959, including the seminal Folk Roots, New Routes with Davy Graham (1964) and Anthems in Eden (1969) with the Early Music Consort and her sister Dolly on portative organ. She was a – possibly the – leading figure among the younger generation of folk-revival musicians.
As a teenager, Collins had met Ewan MacColl and Alan Lomax, accompanying the latter on a song-collecting trip to America. While she doubtless absorbed MacColl and Lomax’s passion for and commitment to the folk music of Britain and North America, she did not contract the disease of dogmatism that makes MacColl in particular a divisive figure to this day. Collins may be emphatically a folk singer in the literal sense – a living link in Britain’s chain of song and not a singer-songwriter like Sandy Denny or a hybrid writer/interpreter like Anne Briggs – but her most celebrated recordings look forward, not backward. It’s all there in the title of that celebrated work with guitarist Davy Graham: Folk Roots, New Routes. How do we take what we have inherited and move forward with it.
The third and last of those three revolutionary albums in her discography is No Roses, the first release by the newly formed Albion Country Band. Former Fairport Convention bass player Ashley Hutchins put the band together as a vehicle for his increasingly deep exploration of traditional British and Irish folk music – work that he and his former bandmates had begun on Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief.
Although Richard Thompson was becoming more interested in writing original material than performing the old songs, he was along for the ride on lead guitar, as was Simon Nicol on a rhythm guitar and the Fairport rhythm section of Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks. But also present were players of the concertina, fiddle, crumhorn, ophicleide, Northumbrian smallpipes, hurdy-gurdy, hammered dulcimer and a variety of other decidedly non-rock instruments, and a who’s who of singing talent, including various Watersons and members of the Young Tradition. All in all, there are 27 credited musicians on the record.
The Murder of Maria Marten tells the story of the Red Barn Murder in Suffolk, for which William Corder was hanged. But the record is less notable for the performance of the song than for what it represents. Fairport even at their most traditional featured the band’s original material and an instrumental approach more rock than folk. In contrast, No Roses sees folk and rock trying to come to some sort of accommodation with each other, but with neither ceding much stylistic ground to the other. The effect is sometimes jarring. The fade out from the full-band performance, with a backbeat and chord changes, to a verse sung accompanied by a hurdy-gurdy drone is a crude arrangemental device. Richard Thompson and fiddler Nic Jones solo over each other more than with each other. The rock musicians, schooled in Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, are forced to add bars of 5/4 to work with the winding, serpentine melody.
So folk wins in the grand tug o’ war between folk and rock, then? Well, in this case, I think it does. Perhaps because Collins worked at the trad end of the British revival, she was happier for the rock musicians to adapt themselves to suit her, rather than the other way round. But even though primacy is given to folk over rock, few records have so adeptly blended the sensibilities of the two.
*Collins had some choice words about MacColl in a 2015 Guardian piece to mark the centenary of his birth:
“Ewan had quite a pernicious influence on folk music, I think. People who went to the Critics Group ended up being moulded by him, sounding the same. Folk music should be about reflecting music
Shirley Collins, with banjo