Shirley Collins is an English folk song's bridge between now and then
The songs that Shirley Collins sings are like time capsules, each with vast histories waiting to be uncovered. Some have journeyed across decades, even centuries, shape-shifting and meeting each moment as they are reborn again and again. At 87, Collins has given herself entirely to this work of ensuring the vitality of English folk music.
Archangel Hill is her newest album and the third since ending a 38-year period of what she has described as losing her voice. It contains many songs that Collins has sung before, reshaped and reimagined, performed with the warmth and gravity that comes with years of accumulated perspective. Sagelike, Collins presents these songs as a testament to a life well lived, all its sentimental nooks and crannies fully intact.
"Hares on the Mountain" has been a part of the musical landscape of Southern England since at least the early 1900s. It's a bawdy song about youthful desire (the rabbit metaphor being very intentional) that Collins has recorded twice before, including a canonical version from 1964 with guitarist Davey Graham. Here its plucky lyrics are tempered by a more cryptic tone, each verse slumping into a minor chord with weary slide guitar providing a counter melody. Rather than depress the song's lifeforce, the juxtaposition provides another perspective on irrepressible and loveblind yearning, insinuating a serrated edge.
Collins is intrinsically linked with her home of Sussex, a coastal county in Southern England, and that sense of place permeates Archangel Hill. In addition to "Hares," opener "Fare Thee Well My Dearest Dear" (collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1904 and originally recorded by Collins on Amaranth from 1976) and "Babes in a Wood" (passed down from the famous Copper Family of Sussex) have deep roots in the area. "High and Away," one of the few original tunes on the album and based on a phrase Collins borrows from Almeda Riddle, begins with the grounding sound of rain on the downs. Archangel Hill is a nickname Collins' stepfather gave to a peak nearby their home years ago; the title track features the singer reading a poem her father wrote during World War II as he longed for home. There seem to be memories of the land, her family, friends and collaborators embedded in each song, just out of reach for the listener but vivid as sunshine in Collins' mind.
We're led into the heart of one of those memories halfway through the album: Collins cedes to a past version of herself, accompanied by her sister and steadfast collaborator Dolly on harpsichord in 1980. Featuring lyrics written by their uncle, "Head and Heart" is a story of complicated romantic entanglements sung gingerly over the featherlight plucked strings. This was likely one of her last performances with Dolly, who died in 1995. Collins' voice sounds very different now, and the contrast can feel jarring at first, but if you listen closely, a through line of tender earnestness emerges. That sincerity, the bridge between now and then, is the great gift of Collins' music and underpins the power of these songs that have resonated throughout her homeland and her life.
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