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'The Ballad of Shirley Collins'   

-  Label: 'Earth Recordings'
-  Genre: 'Folk' -  Release Date: '23rd March 2018'

Our Rating:
Shirley Collins is one of the greatest English folk voices and also one of most unassuming. "There are some great female singers around but I'm not one of them, and I wish I was", she says modestly in a brief recording that opens this compilation.

The 20 track album is a soundtrack to a documentary film about Collins' life in song made by Rob Curry and Tim Plester. However, although it opens and closes with two precious BBC sessions songs from 1958 by the lady herself (Calvary Hill and Wondrous Love), the title is misleading in that it is not a collection of her songs.

Instead, it is mostly a selection of never before released recordings by the US folk artists plucked from relative obscurity as a result of 1959 song-collecting trips Collins made to the Deep South of America with her then lover Alan Lomax.

While there are few obvious similarities between the old weird American music and English folk songs Collins sang, they share an emphasis on honesty and authenticity. Moreover, in both traditions the flaws and eccentricities are fundamental to the song-writing process.

In another snippet of dialogue, Collins speaks appreciatively of songs which are misremembered, commenting "I don't like things being clean and tidy". She is fully aware that imperfections make things more real than polished and soulless renditions.

Horton Barker's A Rich Irish Lady is a case in point. This is one of numerous unaccompanied vocal performances and the story of "a sickness that couldn't be reached by medicine" is riddled with errors but remains fascinating even though Barker admits to forgetting exactly how the song ends.

Vocalists are the main focus but there's also virtuoso musicianship to enjoy such as Lucius Smith and George Stoneman's individual banjo-playing on Make Lulu Behave Herself and Sally Anne respectively.

It all makes for a valuable stand alone document of the social roots of folk albeit one which is probably best enjoyed after seeing the documentary it soundtracks.

  author: Martin Raybould

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