Birth and death are two sides of the same coin, as they say, and that certainly proved true at the dawn of British folk-rock. If not for the sudden demise of both its drummer and the girlfriend of guitarist Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention might never have made 1969’s Liege and Lief, a traditional-heavy classic born out of the London-based group’s desire to break with its Byrds-influenced past. As producer Joe Boyd reveals in the liner notes to the 2002 reissue of Liege, the rootsy sound of the Band’s Music From Big Pink became Fairport’s post-van-crash motivation: “Maybe they could create a repertoire as English as The Band was American.”
And so a new genre came to be—or at least that’s how Thompson fans would have it. But though the watershed Liege transformed Fairport into shorthand for “English authenticity,” the band was actually beaten to the Olde E punch by Sussex-born chanteuse Shirley Collins. Collins had been recording a mix of traditionals from the United Kingdom and Appalachia ever since 1955, but after 1964’s Folk Roots, New Routes, a collaboration with jazz-folk guitarist Davy Graham, she started, she says, “hankering after a more English sound.”
What Collins came up with wasn’t all that different from what she’d been doing before. On 1967’s The Sweet Primeroses and 1968’s The Power of the True Love Knot, the singer simply bade adieu to any antiquities other than her own country’s. Before Fairport ever thought of shedding its Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell covers, Collins was getting positively medieval. Indeed, she was so unapologetically preindustrial that her British-only records were almost always overshadowed by the more rock-centric sounds of folk-revival latecomers Fairport, Pentangle, and the Incredible String Band.
Within Sound, a new four-disc retrospective, seeks to remedy that relative obscurity. Spanning six decades, the box set’s 84 tracks, 56 pages of liner notes, and numerous photos and remembrances of kin past and present make two things abundantly clear: First, Collins’ music, in the best folk tradition, has always been an extension of family life and not about making a career in the entertainment industry. Second, Billy Bragg was right when he called Collins “one of England’s greatest cultural treasures.”
Excluding her ’70s collaborations with bassist and second husband Ashley Hutchings (of Fairport, Steeleye Span, and discovering-Nick Drake fame), Collins opted for sparse, decidedly nonrock settings for her quavering, seraphic voice, often recording with only her flute-organ-playing sister, Dolly. The sober vibe is only natural given her elegiac theme: Like the bluegrass she field-recorded with Alan Lomax during their 1959 travels through the American South (some of which turned up on O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Collins’ music is haunted by the realization that her country’s old ways are dying even as she sings of them.
Collins’ 1959 recording of “The Cuckoo,” one of the earliest, choicest cuts on Within Sound, finds the singer revisiting her “great-granny’s favourite song.” “The cuckoo, she’s a pretty bird/No other is as she/She flits across the meadow/And sings from every tree,” she sings, embodying the homespun traditional with surprising depth—even as she turns the tune’s sunshine all melancholic and cold. Indeed, the birdcall refrain sounds like nothing so much as a lament for Collins’ two-decades-gone relative. And that’s one of her happier selections.
“I often identified with the people in the songs,” Collins writes in Within Sound’s liner notes. Tellingly, she seems to have felt an especially strong connection to the grieved wife in the ballad “Geordie,” which appears here in two versions. The song tells the tale of a man (thought to be an illegitimate grandson of James IV) condemned to hang for shooting one of the king’s royal deer to feed his family. Both creepy and beautiful, it culminates in one reading with a wife’s desperate plea: “There’s six pretty babes I’ve born to you/And the seventh lies in my body/But freely would I part with them/To spare the life of Geordie.” Musicwise, Collins’ intense empathy is the only through-line: The 1964 banjo-and-vocal version gallops along like redneck mountain music; the second take sounds a world away.
Backed by horn, harpsichord, and percussion, the 1970 “Geordie,” from Collins’ Love, Death & the Lady, is more feudal than folk-rock. But the fuller instrumentation also signals a new era for Collins. By that time, the singer was signed to the third-eye-seeking Harvest label alongside the likes of Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and Roy Harper. Marriage to Hutchings soon followed, and the couple entered the studio with the Albion Country Band to record the amazing No Roses—perhaps the only rival to Liege for the British-folk-rock heavyweight title.
Collins recalls the making of No Roses as “one of the happiest times in a recording studio I can remember.” And it shows on Within Sound, musically if not thematically: The four Roses tracks included on Disc 3 are easily the highlight of the box. Though the Albion Country Band (basically Fairport incognito) was pretty tame by hard-rock standards, its music might as well be heavy metal compared with the rest of Collins’ oeuvre. Thompson’s spiraling hammer-ons, Hutchings’ melody-driven bottom end, and Dave Mattacks’ anxious-footed drumming all lend an unprecedented aggression to the proceedings. Even as Collins invokes the continuity of natural processes—”The tide flows in/The tide flows out/Twice every day returning”—it’s clear that she’s surrendered something to modernity.
The seven-minute “Murder of Maria Marten” even gets downright experimental. It opens with some modal psych jamming as Collins sings, “If you’ll meet me at the red barn, as sure as I have life/I will take you to Ipswich town and there make you my wife/He straight went home and fetched his gun, his pickax, and his spade/He went up to the red barn, and there he dug her grave.” Just a little over a minute in, the band fades away, leaving Collins to coo the next couple of verses against a hurdy-gurdy drone. Then that fades, too. A slow Mattacks fill brings the band back for more vocal and guitar trade-offs before the song ends with the sounds of hurdy-gurdy, horse hoofs, and carriage wheels. It’s as tweaked and cool a track as you’re likely to hear in the whole of British folkdom.
Hutchings’ rockist influence continued through several more projects: the electrified morris romps of 1972’s Morris On, the sturdy folk-rock numbers of 1976’s Amaranth, and the raucous country-dance rags of 1977’s The Prospect Before Us, all of which are represented on Within Sound with tracks nearly equaling No Roses’ in quality. But then the bottom fell out: During the Albion Band’s work on a presentation of English mystery plays at London’s National Theatre in 1977, Hutchings, Collins notes dryly, became “enthralled by theatre life” and left her to live with one of the actresses. The betrayal all but destroyed the singer, who often had to stand behind her husband’s new lover during performances.
“I felt publicly humiliated,” Collins recalls, “and was trying to sing through grief and shock.” As a result, her voice turned unreliable and her self-confidence was shot. With two teenage kids to support and little money coming in, Collins was forced to get a “proper job” to survive. After 1978’s For As Many As Will, recorded with Dolly, she stopped making albums and performed live with less and less frequency.
The previously unreleased 1977-1978 demo “Honour Bright,” which kicks off Disc 4 of Within Sound, is sufficient evidence of the damage heartache wrought: Singing over cheesy synthesized strings, Collins sounds unsteady and even amateurish as she struggles for high notes that seem just beyond her reach. But over the set’s next few tracks, the old Collins gradually reappears, backed by the spartan arrangements of her pre-Hutchings days. By 1980’s a cappella “Green Fields,” recorded live at the Sydney Opera House, Collins was once again combining comfort and sadness in her singular fashion. When she and Peter Bellamy croon, “Here’s adieu to the green fields of England/Now we’re parting from you,” it’s enough to make a grown postcolonialist cry.
Even the box set’s obligatory comeback track, 2002’s “Lost in a Wood,” is flat-out gorgeous. Granted, Collins’ voice has become deeper and more battle-scarred—not to mention vaguely reminiscent of Tom Waits’—but otherwise this concertina-backed performance betrays nothing of its recent vintage. As always, Collins is obsessed with loss: “And when they were dead, the robin so red/Brought strawberry leaves and all over them spread.” And as always, the singer finds the spark of creativity in the theme of death, detailing with affecting vividness the effect of time’s passage on the living.
Paradoxically, within Collins’ own half-century of recording, time has had little impact: Unlike just about any other career-spanning box set ever made, Within Sound has a last track every bit as brilliant as its first. CP