Tag Archives: the left

The Murder of Maria Marten – Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band

Shirley Collins was already a folk-music veteran in 1971, having 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 New Music Consort and her sister Dolly on portative organ. She was a – probably the – leading figure among the younger generation of folk-revival musicians. As a teenager she met Ewan McColl and Alan Lomax, with whom she went on a song-collecting trip to America. While she doubtless absorbed McColl and Lomax’s passion for and commitment to the folk music of Britain and North America, she did not contract the fatal disease of dogmatism. 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.

The third and last of the three revolutionary albums in her discography is No Roses, the first release by the newly formed Albion Country Band, a group put together by Fairport Convention bass player Ashley Hutchins, who wanted to carry on the work begun on 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 willing to cede any ground to the other. The effect is jarring. The fade out from the full-band performance (with a backbeat and chord changes) to a verse sung to accompaniment of a hurdy-gurdy drone is the crudest of arrangemental devices. Richard Thompson and fiddler Nic Jones solo over each other more than with each other, seemingly deaf to each other’s playing. The rock musicians, schooled in Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, are forced to improvise 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.

Both folk and rock embody certain tensions and paradoxes. Rock music is individualistic and has from its very beginning been in cahoots with the industry in the pursuit of money. It’s usually conservative in musical form and instrumentation, and often reactionary in its social attitudes to women, gay people and immigrants. Unless a rock ’n’ roller outs him/herself as a socialist, it’s usually safe to assume they’re a free-market liberal with a small social-democratic cherry on top, or a don’t-tread-on-me libertarians. Yet rock music has often been the focus of grassroots communitarianism and activism (albeit usually at a far lower level of commercial success and social visibility than that of mainstream music-industry rock) since the first hippies let their freak flags fly.

Folk music, on the other hand, has been identified with socialist, even communist, sympathies since early in the twentieth century, and going back further. Song collector Cecil Sharp was a Fabian, and folk-sympathising composers Vaughan Williams and Holst were part of William Morris’s Socialist group in the 1890s. Later figures such as Bert Lloyd, Pete Seeger and Ewan MacColl were forthright communists. Yet the impulse to conserve past traditions and big-C Conservatism are separated by a line all too easily crossed when your cast of mind is instinctively wary of progress, and so folk music has never been without its political reactionaries.

So folk and rock share an internal tension between progressive and conservative insitincts, musically and socially. Perhaps it was this that facilitated the successful blend of form and feeling that we find on No Roses. Certainly I know of no subsequent records that do what this one does so well: apart from the airy jazz excursions of the Pentangle, folk-rock has usually simply meant a band led by an acoustic guitar-playing singer-songwriter with a 4/4 rhythm section. The Albion Country Band was something very different, and for a time something very worthwhile.

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Shirley Collins, with banjo

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A political preamble

This is not going to be a political blog. However, I do see the world a certain way and my appreciation of music, the arts and all the other things I’ll talk about here is filtered through a left-wing political sensibility, which may at times become evident. So on this single occasion (OK, I can’t promise never to return to matters political – they preoccupy me more and more), I may as well give you a bit of background.

Since the Thatcher/Reagan era, the narrative of the ideological right, reinforced constantly by politicians, newspapers and media figures, has essentially been, and this doesn’t seem set to change any time soon, that successful people have earned their success and they deserve to enjoy it. If that was all there was to it, it wouldn’t be all that objectionable. But the corollary to this – sometimes unspoken but implied, sometimes proudly declared – is that if the rich have earned their wealth, the poor have earned their poverty, whether through misdeeds, or poor choices, or lack of hard work. The money earned by wealthy people, then, should not be taken away from them and spent on the poor, the sick and the unemployed, who by and large deserve their fates.

Where to start with this? Well, this view of the world supposes that we are all in control of our lives and our choices, and that whatever we are, we have chosen to be. Anyone, if only he or she has the gumption, can make a material success of their lives with hard work and ambition. Far more than talent, graft and determination is all that is necessary.

This view of the world fails to recognise the importance of contacts, access to capital, luck, good health. It doesn’t acknowledge the existence of poverty of familial expectation. It fails to appreciate that a person might have the business acumen of Richard Branson and the inventive genius of James Dyson, but if she can’t get a loan because she has a low income, if she is struck down by degenerative illness, if she has talents that no one ever identified and helped nurture, if she has dependents who need her to earn a steady income – any steady income – then her talents will go unrewarded and unrealised.

This worldview results from this lack of imagination and empathy, from not understanding that it could happen to you.

Let me be clear (as politicians love to say): it can happen to you.

Unemployment can happen to you – it happened to me, when the firm I worked for full-time as a freelancer ceased trading without notice after the directors transferred all the assets out of the company and locked the staff out of the building, defrauding their employees, their freelancers and their clients.

Ill health could happen to you – it happened to me when my heart failed in 2011, leaving me hospitalised, facing an extremely uncertain future, and truly aware for the first time that in this country we really don’t care for our sick, our poor, our elderly and our under-educated. We treat them instead with barely concealed suspicion and resentment.

I am lucky. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy did not kill me, like it kills so many others. It – and this is down to extraordinary luck and good NHS treatment – did not even leave me particularly damaged. You wouldn’t know if you saw me on the street now that I had ever been ill. But when I was trying to come to terms with a life without any of the old certainties and opportunities, I realised what it is to depend on others, and I came to understand (not merely in an abstract sense) that the state does not want to help you, that for many there is no safety net.

You might not need a safety net today. You may imagine that those who do have been reckless and deserve the hardship they face. God forbid you ever go through what I have.

But when you’re next reading the paper, watching the news or casting your vote, perhaps you’ll think about this. And be thankful for the good fortune that allows you to live in such unthinking complacency.

That said, let’s talk music.