Shirley Collins: Lodestar

“What makes Lodestar a genuine progression from what has gone before… is the sinking and deepening of her voice. It is still neutral enough to act as the conduit it has always done, but the milkmaid’s lilt has been transformed into a maven’s burden.” WIRE

Lodestar is the first studio album from English folk doyen Shirley Collins in almost four decades. Taken at face value it is a collection of folk songs old and new from both sides of the Atlantic – England and the USA. Look deeper and you see that this is one of the most significant albums of any genre to come out of England in years and one which will endure.

Born in Hastings in 1935 Shirley Collins has had a huge influence on the English folk music scene. An early interest in the music of her homeland led her to London in the 1950s just as the folk music scene was exploding into life. Ewan MacColl introduced her to Alan Lomax and, in 1959, she accompanied Lomax on his ‘Southern Journey’ in the USA making field recordings of folk and blues songs as they went. Returning to England she brought her new found influences with her. In the years that followed she was all over the English folk music scene. She sang and recorded with her late sister Dolly, Davy Graham, The Young Tradition and the Albion Country Band. Her life ground to a halt when, in 1982, her husband Ashley Hutchings left her. Broken-hearted, she lost her voice and almost her will to live.

Shirley on that episode of her life:
“It was dreadful. And I call them my wilderness years because I could not sing. I mean it was a very painful marriage breakdown. My husband, Ashley Hutchings — my then-husband — we were working at the National Theatre doing promenade performances of a play called Lark Rise. And he just fell in love with an actress. And I mean it’s just sort of awful, because one day we were walking down the road celebrating our wedding anniversary, hand-in-hand, walking down a lane in Etchingham — and then the next day he came home from a visit to London and he said, ‘I’m leaving in the morning.’
“He’d said to me, ‘I’m consumed with love and I’m leaving.’ And he left — and I had two children to bring up. And I was doing myself a disservice, I think, and also doing a disservice to the songs by still trying to sing when I couldn’t do it.”

Shirley didn’t sing in public again until, in 2014, following much gentle coaxing by musician friend David Tibet she found that her voice was still there, deeper and smokier but, like a good claret, as true as ever and richer in tone.

Now in her 80s Collins has, with Lodestar, delivered a work which has rivetted itself boldly and unapologetically onto the great portal of English consciousness. Lodestar manages to be retrospective and prescient, nostalgic and curious, funny and dark. She doesn’t look back in anger. Nor does she want your sympathy. Like the poet Theodore Tilton she knows “Even this shall pass away”. So why let it bother you. This compact album is, in a way, like the final settling of accounts at the wind-up of a ‘what goes around, comes around” style memoir. There’s an acceptance born of learning and wisdom accompanied by an ability to look adversity in the eye and not back down. Of course, it also helps that Collins lived through a period that was arguably the most vital and vibrant ever in folk music appreciation and development.

Shirley’s Lodestar band colleagues are Ian Kearey (MD/guitar/mandolin/dulcimer-banjo/keyboard), Ossian Brown (hurdy gurdy/organ pipe), Dave Arthur (g/banjo/percussion), Pete Cooper (fiddle), Pip Barnes (g), John Watchman (concertina), Alex Neilson (d), Glen Redman (dancer). The album was recorded at Shirley’s home in Lewes by Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown of Cyclobe and produced and directed by Ian Kearey.

The epic album opener comes in four parts: Awake Awake, The Split Ash Tree, May Carol, Southover.

Shirley: “Awake Awake is a fascinating survival of the penitential song written in 1580 by ballad-writer Thomas Deloney, when the Great Earthquake in London toppled part of old St Paul’s Cathedral, Deloney taking it as a sign of God’s displeasure. Over three hundred years later, in 1909, Ralph Vaughan Williams noted down this version from the singing of Mrs Caroline Bridges of Pembridge and it’s in Mary Ellen Leather’s The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire (1912).”

Shirley cheerily sings:
“For there’s never any man so stout, nor man nor woman goes gay
But death will rot your bones and your flesh will melt away.”
And …
“Today you may be here, dear man, with many a thousand pounds,
Tomorrow you’ll be dead and gone and buried underground.”

I particularly like …
“So repent, repent sweet England, for dreadful days draw near.”

Three minute in we get the hurdy gurdy-driven, and somewhat ominous sounding, instrumental The Split Ash Tree before Shirley returns to the final verse of the song.

The simple traditional May Carol ballad lightens the mood considerably.
Parting words:
“Our song is done we must be gone
No longer can we stay
God bless you all both great and small
And we wish you a joyful May.”

Then it’s straight into the final part of the medley a jaunty sea-shanty instrumental Southover.

‘The Banks of Willow Green’, is known as a ‘Jonah Ballad’ in that it deals with “the old maritime superstition that certain types of undesirable passenger would bring ill-luck to a voyage and should be jettisoned without delay” (

Shirley: “This version is based on the song that George Butterworth collected from Mrs Cranstone of Billingshurst in 1907 on one of his folk song hunting expeditions in Sussex. It later inspired his idyll The Banks of Green Willow, one of the best-loved English orchestral pieces. There was a strongly held belief that it was unlucky to have women on board ship. In this song the girl pays with her and her baby’s life for following her bold sea-captain to sea. Unlucky for the woman rather than the sailors, I’d say.”

Cruel Lincoln, an old song with various titles, is thought to have originated in Northumbria. A version of the song, entitled Beaulampkin, was sung in North Carolina. The one thing they all share in common is an abundance of spilt blood and a bad ending for the main character.

Shirley: “This is an ancient ballad, found only rarely in England. The theory is that Cruel Lincoln was a mason who was not paid for the work he did for ‘the Lord of the Manor’ and so extracted a terrible revenge”. Listen to the birdsong!

I particularly like this piece on the ballad Lankin in English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Professor Child:
“The ballad may be based on an actual event that occurred at Balwearie Castle in Fife, which was built in the 15th century, although the story is also associated with other places in Perthshire, the Scottish Borders and in Northumberland. Over the years much has been written about this ballad. Anne Gilchrist, for instance, has ingeniously suggested that the name Lamkin / Lammikin (which Child saw as an epithet) possibly indicated that the murderer was pale-skinned and, as such, could possibly have been suffering from leprosy, which was well-known in medieval Britain. Gilchrist, adding that one supposed medieval ‘cure’ for the disease was to be obtained by taking human blood (obtained from an innocent child and preserved in a silver bowl), was thus able to offer a ‘complete’ explanation for the events described in this ballad.”

Just when you are thinking “Ok Shirley, what about a happy song” she hits us with Washed Ashore. No happy ending here!

‘… our joys they are all over all pleasures are fled
We shall lie here forever, the grave is our bed’

Death and The Lady, with its delicious slide-guitar opening, was the title track of Shirley and her late sister Dolly’s 1970 album Love, Death & the Lady. Fine old ballad even if, with repeat listenings, it is inclined to drag its heels.
Shirley: “Many English folk songs begin with the words “As I roved out one May morning”, a device for setting the song up, much as a fairy tale opens with “Once upon a time”. On this walk you might encounter your true love, or a seducer, or perhaps a long lost lover returned from fighting abroad for seven weary years. You might encounter the Devil, who you could outwit, or Death, who you couldn’t.
“Death and the Lady harks back centuries … The song puts me in mind of the sombre scene from Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 film The Seventh Seal, where a Knight, returned home from the Crusades, plays a long game of chess with Death, on a lonely Scandinavian seashore. That was set at the time when the Black Death ravaged Europe, and this song may well have started its life then.”

Pretty Polly
This popular traditional English ballad has become part of the repertoire of the folk tradition of the Appalachian Mountains in the USA.
Shirley: “The song is a murder ballad, telling of a young woman lured into the forest where she is killed and buried in a shallow grave. Many variants of the story have the villain as a ship’s carpenter who promises to marry Polly but murders her when she becomes pregnant. When he goes back to sea, either he is haunted by her ghost, confesses to the murder, goes mad and dies, or the ship will not sail, he denies the murder and is ripped to pieces by her ghost.”

Old Johnny Buckle is a delightful nonsense song.
My favourite verse:
“God made man, man made money,
God made the bees and the bees made honey.
God made Satan and Satan made sin,
Along came Satan and took Johnny in.”

Sur Le Borde De L’Eau is one of those songs Shirley likely picked up on her ramblings with Lomax around the southern states of the USA. A Cajun song, it was recorded by Blind Uncle Gaspard in the 1920s. says of this song: “Sur le Borde de l’Eau sounds to my ears like a traditional song that could originate back in France – with its modal tune, and tragic and possibly allegorical narrative about the loss of a ring and the death of a handsome young sailor.” The basis of the story, one which features in a number of songs, is that “a girl is lured on board a ship by a captain who has designs upon her. In some forms, she escapes by cunning; in others she comes to a ghastly end.”

The last two verses translated:
“My beauty, get into my boat, I’ll show you,
My beauty, get into my boat, I’ll show you,
I’ll show you on the edge of the island,
I’ll show you on the edge of the water,
On the edge of a ship.

She boarded and she started to cry,
She started crying on the edge of the island,
She started crying on the edge of the water,
On the edge of a ship.”

The Rich Irish Lady, Jeff Sturgeon
The Rich Irish Lady is a song of Jilted love. Vengeful love. always only going to be one ending!
“For what’s past and done, sir, I hope you’ll forgive
And grant me some longer in the wide world to live.”
“That I’ll ne’er do, Sally, while I do draw breath
But I’ll dance on your grave when you’re laid in the earth.”

Shirley says of it: “Another song recorded on the field trip of 1959, it’s from Horton Barker, recorded by Alan Lomax, in Chilhowie, Virginia. Hurton was a gentle, subtle singer, which for me intensifies the vengeful outcome of the story. When we were playing it at a mastering session, the engineer James Johnson turned to me when it came to the “dance on your grave” verse and said, “He doesn’t mean it, does he?” Then as the fiddle tune drove in at the end, he shook himself. “Oh yes, he does, doesn’t he!
The song goes straight into an old-time Kentucky breakdown. That would be the doctor delivering on his promise!

The album closes with the funereal The Silver Swan which tells of the legend that swans only sing just before they die (as in swan song). The words are from Orlando Gibbons’ Madrigal:
“The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approached, unlocked her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more:
“Farewell, all joys; Oh death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”

And just like that it ends. Ten songs, 43 minutes.

A certifiable classic.

Lodestar by Shirley Collins was released in Nov 2016 on the Domino Recording Company label.

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