Shirley Collins’ story is an incredible one. A prominent figure in the sixties folk revival, she met the legendary musicologist Alan Lomax at a party in London in 1954 and subsequently embarked on landmark folk song collecting trips to Europe and the United States, working alongside Lomax to unearth some of the most talented and significant folk and blues singers of the twentieth century.
A successful career as an artist in her own right followed, taking in collaborations with an array of fellow folk artists, including Davy Graham, Bert Jansch and her sister, Dolly. But a divorce from her husband Ashley Hutchings, with whom she had formed the first iteration of the Albion Band, in the late 1970s had the unexpected effect of depriving her of her singing voice, and she retired from music.
The extraordinary Lodestar, released last year to broad critical acclaim, was 81 year-old Collins’ first album in nearly four decades.
In true folk tradition, part one of her homecoming show at the Brighton Dome was an opportunity for friends and members of the Lodestar backing band to perform in their own right, with musicians taking turns to perform two songs each as soloists or in pairs.
Sam Lee’s soulful acapella stood out on the song Nightingale, as did the strong, expressive voice of Naomi Bedford, who sung her take on the traditional folk song Gypsy Davy, borrowing lyrically from Woody Guthrie’s positive take on an otherwise bleak story.
Collins has a strong connection to Sussex, having grown up in Hastings and lived in Lewes, and many of the performers were unique to this show, chosen because of their local connection. Compère Pip Barnes did a good job of tying up the performances and explaining their link to Collins, lending the whole thing the biographic air of an episode of This is Your Life.
You got the impression the audience was full of old faces from the Sussex folk scene, enjoying the novel spectacle of seeing their mates up on the Dome’s vast stage. Either that, or the warmth of the whole occasion fostered a sense of intimacy that created that impression.
Following a short interval, Collins arrived with the rest of her band, including Lodestar musical arranger and talented multi-instrumentalist Ian Kearey. Kicking off a performance of the album in full, Pip Barnes introduced Awake Awake/The Split Ash Tree/May Carol/Southover with a short history lesson. The medley was carried dramatically by Collins’ rich, distinctive vocals and Ossian Brown’s dark and looming hurdy-gurdy lines.
A video backdrop of Lewes Bonfire and Hastings Jack-In-The-Green festival amplified the medley’s folk origins, and seemed to raise timely questions about Britishness at a point when the Left and Right are offering competing visions of national identity that feel disingenuous and lacking in authenticity.
If the Tories are obsessed with a fictionalised mid-twentieth century vision of tea, scones and xenophobia; the fractured liberal left present a vision of globalisation and multiculturalism that much of the population feels inherently resistant to. Collins’ lifelong excavation of the British Isles’ cultural history exposes those modern political appropriations as distinctly modern narratives betraying shared traditions that should, in fact, unite us.
Lodestar paints a genuine and vivid portrait of our own national identity – how refreshing to find a space in which to reflect on Britishness with the spectre of nationalism replaced with exuberant local Morris dancers.
An underlying thread of death weaved through the evening, manifesting in Cruel Lincoln’s story of revenge and bloodshed, and Death and the Lady, the origins of which, we are told, possibly lie in a time when the Black Death ravaged Europe. It’s a sparse and sinister song, which expemplifies folk music’s timeless and universal themes.
There is a reason why these songs have survived, and our modern embrace of technology and mindless escapism doesn’t make them any less relevant. We will all succumb to death, and most of us will succumb to love, fear, misery and all of the other emotions experienced by our ancestors from long-gone centuries.
It was a privilege to listen to Collins telling a story from her time visiting Arkansas with Alan Lomax as she introduced Pretty Polly, exuding warmth and brilliance. Despite knowing the influence and scale of the contribution made by this incredible woman, her modesty occasionally made it feel as though you were in the presence of someone familiar and accessible.
It goes without saying the Collins’ voice was superb, crafting a near-perfect recreation of the Lodestar recordings. She sat in the middle of a semi-circle of musicians like a throned queen surrounded by her courtly subjects, in a stage layout that I don’t recall seeing since Leonard Cohen did something similar at Wembley Arena. Incidentally, the Lodestar band members were predictably talented, switching effortlessly between fiddles, guitars, mandolins, pipes, and a whole spectrum of curious folk instruments.
Lodestar tackles the grotesque, absurd and horrific experiences that have penetrated everyday life – and, consequently, folksong – in this country for centuries. Live, it felt profound and urgent, but it was delivered with the sort of calm and knowing that, you imagine, comes only from a lifetime of experience. It was impossible not to go away with the message that the past is key to overcoming our troubled present, and in Shirley Collins we had the perfect messenger.