Downs, But Not Out: Heart’s Ease By Shirley Collins

Heart's Ease, the new album by Shirley Collins shows a masterful grasp of tradition, but its best moments are the new songs

Lovely Shirley Collins, with her calm, gentle voice. I would not want to be an aspirant folk singer – not in her shadow. She is a doyenne who inspires fanatic devotion in her fans. She looms over the genre. Collins has been in the game for nigh-on 60 years, and can be magnificently dismissive of interlopers. She’s previously said that real folk music has to be working class, and that “it’s got to have undergone the process of being handed down by word of mouth…. [not] all about how lovely the earth and the air is, semi-hippy stuff…. So flimsy!” She is very stern on both topics in interviews. I actually shudder to think about what she might say about minor aristocrat Laura Marling, with her pseudo-American drawl. Collins refers to M*mford & Sons as “Wotsit and Sons”.

So much has been written about Collins’s life, and there is no point in my offering a clumsy, potted hagiography. But still. The woman has had a fascinating life: an ardent socialist who went to America to record the songs of the Deep South, returning to Blighty to spearhead the folk revival of the 60s. A touring mother whose tortured separation from her first husband – his mistress would slink around conspicuously “wearing his sweaters” – made her lose her voice. She fell into obscurity. She did not sing for 38 years. The giant of folk worked in the British Library book shop. There is a desperately sad bit in the The Ballad of Shirley Collins, where Collins, bright-eyed and charming in her 80s, fiddles with teabags in her kitchen and sighs “there are some great singers round now, and I wish I was one of them but I’m not.” She’s since described her 2016 comeback album Lodestar, as “rather tentative”. Hopefully she feels deservedly better about her new album, Heart’s Ease, a title that implies confidence, and delivers on it too.

I’m not doing her justice, I thought, as I trudged down Deptford High Street listening to Heart’s Ease. This is a record rich with milk maids, longing, briars springing from graves and lavishly weeping lovers. And here I am, not enjoying it properly because I’m listlessly prodding the salmon fillets in Tescos. When really – by rights – I should be listening to this on the Sussex coast, getting buffeted about by the sea-breeze and thinking about drowned sons tumbling off ships, as Shirley doubtless intended. So I listen to it again and again, traipsing round the common near my house, relaxing into an album that is assured, contemplative, and sometimes a bit sad.

Critics praise the purity of Collins’ commitment to folk music – that she honours the inherently political quality of folk music by preserving the word-of-mouth stories of the lives of ordinary people. Pregnancy, death, toiling at shit jobs – they all show up in the album. She gets described as hailing from another time, as if she were a herald from a wet bog under the reign of Robert the Magnificent, which really isn’t fair, and feels a little reductive. There are a handful of non-traditional tracks on the album, each surprising in its own way. ‘Sweet Greens and Blues’, for instance, was written by her ex husband and is – charmingly – devoted to her children. It feels jarring, initially, to hear its references to a poky basement flat after her rendition of, say, ‘Barbara Allen’, a Scottish folk song first referenced in print in the diary of hoary old lecher Samuel Pepys in 1666.

Not that I’m complaining, obviously. Collins returns to many previously released songs here, and we find them transformed by the changes in her voice. The natural toll of ageing and the strain of dysphonia (that bastard ex-husband!) have deepened and coarsened her voice, giving it a croaking warmth. In her earlier work she had a pure, soaring soprano, as clean and sexless as a castrato. Oh Sally, my dear, I wish I could bed you – delivered without a nod or a wink. Her voice now has a warm, timbrous quality, and when it breaks in ‘Tell me True’, (“how can I live now my William is gone”), the song feels huge with sadness. Her rendition of ‘Barbara Allen’ on Heart’s Ease is radically different to that on her earlier albums: less resigned, less tragic, even if it’s still a paean to doomed love. Her vocals feel more like an instrument than they do a vessel.

But then there is also lots of ribaldry on the album. ‘Rolling in the Dew’ is a bracingly saucy account of a “kind sir” in hot pursuit of a pink-cheeked farm-hand. “Rolling in the dew makes the milkmaids fair!” Again – and forgive me for not being able to conceive of culture prior to Britney’s 2003 immortal classic In the Zone – it feels a bit mad to think about simply how old it is. ‘Rolling in the Dew’ can be traced back to ballad sheets from the 1600’s, and Collins’ rendition – set to a sprightly fiddle and percussion – feels fun, lively. It put me in mind of when a friend dragged us all to South Norwood for a ceilidh for her last birthday. I expected The Wicker Man, and ended up having a wonderful time, and it’s kind of charming to know that people have been spinning round to fiddle music for hundreds of years, and that Collins has played a substantial role in peoples’ continued interest in doing so.

She is a master traditionalist, but ‘Locked in Ice’ – one of her new songs – is arguably the best song on the album. Ploddingly melancholic, and perfect for her newly weathered vocals, it accounts a woman adrift on a frigid sea, “it was in the year of 69, I was sighted for the final time…. Locked in ice of a hundred years….Doomed to travel endlessly, drifting with the flow….” This is presumably about the pain of her hiatus from music, but her style and delivery means you could shut your eyes and think this was about the ‘Great Frost’ (the Thames froze over!) of 1608–09. She blends the old and the new seamlessly, and picks up this refrain on the final track on the album, ‘Crowlink’, which veers suddenly away from folk convention. Her vocals drift over a blend of hurdy-gurdy and the crash of waves and sea-birds. “I was locked in ice, half a hundred years”. It feels haunting, unexpected. She has the power to surprise and delight.

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