Sunday, April 24, 2011

Shirley Collins & Davy Graham: Folk Roots, New Routes (1964)

Of all the strange, celebrated, hypnotically good musicians who emerged during the English folk revival of the 1960s, probably none was more astonishing--and, among listeners this side of the Atlantic, as puzzlingly neglected--as Shirley Collins.  Collins is an artist whose eerie, disembodied voice seems to call out to us from a world far removed from our own--an agrarian England something akin to Thomas Hardy's Wessex, where great houses dominated swathes of unspoiled green acreage; sweaty peasants, faces ablaze with warm stout, whirled round the May-Pole on Whitsun; and tender young dairymen like Angel Clare, suicidal with desire, pined after flaxen-haired girls like Tess Durbeyfield.  It's a world Collins resurrected with the diligent care of an archaeologist, undertaking, in her youth, a disciplined study of the English folk tradition going back to the Middle Ages, which yielded fruit on her first four to five records especially.  Nor was her curiosity limited to England: in the summer and fall of 1959, Collins traveled through the rural American south with folklorist and then-lover Alan Lomax, gleaning songs from visits to churches, prisons, chain-gang outings, and all manner of communal gatherings (she captured the experience in a remarkable book, America Over the Water, in 2004).  Most of Collins's songs are shot through with a concentration of bare feeling that I'm seldom quite ready for; about the best ones, one can say what Robert Frost said of really good poems: you know, the moment they strike you, that you've taken an immortal wound.  They cut deep, and you never entirely recover.

A blogger, faced with the task of picking one record to feature from Collins's discography, is spoiled for choice: there's Anthems in Eden (1969), which, equipped with a "natural orchestra" of crude rustic instruments, chronicles the downfall of traditional England during World War I; the watershed No Roses (1971--that magic year for British music!), when Collins went electric for the first time; and then there are the stripped-down early albums, which strike me as her best.  The finest of these last, for my money, is her 1964 collaboration with virtuoso guitarist Davy Graham, Folk Roots, New Routes.  What makes it special is, in part, its intimacy--its sixteen songs feature only Collins's austere singing underpinned by Graham's guitar--and in part, of course, its plain repleteness with great tunes, with gorgeous, fresh-hewn melodies like those of "Hori Horo" and "Reynardine."  But most, what sets it apart is its eclecticism: this is a record that places traditional songs of regions like Sussex and Northumberland alongside those of Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta; makes homages to contemporary jazz ("Blue Monk"); and, most hauntingly, suffuses the lot of these with Middle Eastern and Indian sounds.  Its signature track might be "Pretty Saro," about a man who immigrates to the States to flee his debts and leaves his lady-love behind ("I came to this country in eighteen forty-nine / I saw many true-loves but never saw mine").  The song has a rich history.  Dorothy Scarborough, who conducted an investigation of Appalachian folk music in the 1930s--and fleshed out her findings in the book A Song-Catcher in Southern Mountains (1937)--encountered it while passing through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in 1930.  She describes the experience in Song-Catcher:

"Mrs Stikeleather sang it into my dictaphone and contributed it to this collection. She told me that while the date ‘eighteen forty-nine’ is used in some of the versions of the song, ‘seventeen forty-nine’ is more probably correct, as that year witnessed considerable immigration to North Carolina from Ireland, and Scotland, and this old English song was no doubt adapted to its new setting at that time."
Fascinating stuff.  Whether Collins discovered the song through Scarborough's transcription is something we probably can't know; more interesting, I think, is the way she and Graham reinterpret it.  In their hands it assumes an almost ghostly call-and-response form, with Collins pouring out the vocals and Graham replying with weird, sitar-like inventions on guitar.  It's the perfect meshing of traditional Anglo-American poetry and melody with the eastern influences that Graham became famous for incorporating throughout his career.  We never question this strange marriage; rather, we assent, instinctively, to its naked, pre-rational power.  We greet it as the beautifully chilling expression of loneliness, of eviscerating nostalgia, that it is.  Every bit as noteworthy is the next song, "Rif Mountain," a jaw-dropping showpiece for Graham that will make you want to take up the acoustic guitar if you don't play it already.  It's a blistering slice of eastern trance-music in which Graham (pictured above) succeeds--even more than on "Pretty Saro"--in making his guitar ape a sitar.  Devotees of Zeppelin's will quickly hear echoes of any number of acoustic folk songs that appeared on that group's records, particularly the eastern-inflected "Black Mountain Side" from Led Zeppelin (though that song comes even more directly from Bert Jansch's version of the traditional Irish piece "Black Waterside").  Jimmy Page was an assiduous student of the English folk guitarists whose ascendancy preceded his own by a decade or so, particularly Graham and Jansch; that he heard Folk Roots, New Routes seems beyond question.  He clearly learned his lessons well.  While this review has focused primarily on Collins, I ought to point out that this album is as much Graham's as it is Collins's.  No mere accompanist, Graham proved a wildly imaginative partner for Collins, one whose contributions here (to say nothing of his solo albums, especially The Guitar Player) laid the foundation for a whole generation of guys who took his lead.  He himself, it should be noted, was deeply indebted to the slide guitar work of Mississippi Fred McDowell, whom Collins discovered on that influential journey she took through the deep south in her twenties.  McDowell's ghost hovers over much of this album.

Anyway, that's all for now.  Enjoy!

1. Nottamun Town (3:40)
2. Proud Maisrie (4:03)
3. The Cherry Tree Carol (3:20)
4. Blue Monk (3:06)
5. Hares on the Mountain (3:00)
6. Reynardine (2:31)
7. Pretty Saro (4:18)
8. Rif Mountain (2:26)
9. Jane, Jane (2:42)
10. Love is a Pleasin' (2:34)
11. Boll Weevil, Holler (3:01)
12. Hori Horo (2:15)
13. Bad Girl (2:44)
14. Lord Greggory (3:37)
15. Grooveyard (3:03)
16. Dearest Dear (3:05)