In 1969 an album was released entitled Anthems in Eden. Its creators were sisters Shirley and Dolly Collins, folk musicians who hailed from Sussex in southern England. Released on the newly created Harvest label, and much lauded by the likes of John Peel and other progressive music luminaries, Anthems in Eden was a world away from what normally passed for underground music in those days.
I most probably first became aware of Shirley and Dolly Collins through John Peel. Most likely I was listening to my transistor radio beneath the sheets to Peel’s late night BBC programme Night Ride, where all manner of quirky underground music got an airing – folk, classical, film soundtracks, as well as poetry and world music before it was ever even called that. I should have been asleep, of course, so as to be sharp and bright for school the next day but even then I was captivated by strange and beautiful music whatever genre it might belong to. I was never what might be called a folkie but there was something about Collins’ voice, along with the gorgeous melodies and sometimes dark narrative of the songs, that awakened something deep within me. Somehow it aroused an atavistic connection with a long-vanished England of the past. It seemed to connect with the very folds of the landscape itself, with distant land-tilling ancestors who had preceded those forefathers who had uprooted themselves from the countryside to work in the soot-stained industry of the West Midlands. The music of my ancestors – that seemed about right.
The record’s first side was a 28-minute song-story that incorporated songs often heard at singarounds at folk clubs, which having enjoyed a boom in the 50s and early 60s were experiencing a slump in fortune by the time the record was released. Instead of the usual finger-picking and finger-in-the-ear approach, the songs, centred upon Shirley’s pure, undemonstrative voice and the plaintive piping of Dolly’s portative organ, were set in a soundscape of medieval instruments – rasping crumhorn, sawing bass viol, scale-sliding sackbut – played by the Early Music Consortium of London. The eccentric, slightly out-of-tune musical setting provided a surprisingly sympathetic backdrop for the traditional songs that were featured, which included Searching for Lambs, The Blacksmith and Pleasant and Delightful among others.
The intent of the song-story was to evoke an England that had vanished since the outbreak of the First World War when rural life was torn apart by the savagery and deprivations that ensued. The Great War brought about change as catastrophic as an epoch-ending meteorite strike, brutally fracturing cultural stability like sudden tectonic slippage. Vast numbers of agricultural workers were lost to the Flanders mud; country estates floundered through lack of a workforce; folk traditions that hitherto had been second nature were lost or only dimly remembered. A great disconnection took place. Naturally, there were some benefits to emerge eventually from the debris of war – women’s suffrage, the seeds sown of social change to improve the lot of a downtrodden working class — but the old songs were largely forgotten and England’s utopian Eden, if ever it existed, was lost forever. In the villages of broken post-war England war memorials replaced maypoles.
The notion of Eden draws on a long tradition of locus amoenus – an idealised ‘pleasant place’. Such idylls of place, time and circumstance were frequently employed as the backdrop for traditional English song, although the same places might also serve as the realm of dark deed-doing. Traditional English murder ballads tend to inhabit an English pastoral setting as much as Midsomer Murders favours a fictitious village idyll complete with cricket green, parish church and George Orwell’s ‘old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’. Such a dreamlike ‘pleasant place’ was seen as the apogee of rural life. The narrative action habitually took place on labour-free Sundays and holidays. The weather was always good, the birds always singing. The season was invariably summer. All this, of course, is a literary trope, a celebration of how things might be, or might once have been, had the world been a kinder place.
The uplifting sing-along of Pleasant and Delightful, a fragment of the Anthems in Eden song-story, is a case in point. It begins by setting the scene of a pastoral locus amoenus before introducing an element of uncertainty – a love-struck sailor who is due to travel overseas. It concludes with the sailor-narrator taking leave of his true love Nancy to go off on the next tide, promising that ‘if I ever return again’ they would marry.
‘Twas pleasant and delightful one midsummer’s morn
To view the green fields all covered with corn
And the blackbird and thrush sang on every green spray
And the larks they sang melodious at the dawning of the day.
The suite of songs that make up Anthems in Eden is presented as a vignette of a rural romance before the First World War, before the fall. Its component songs flowing one into the next to describe a meeting, courtship, leave-taking and subsequent forsaking that leads the way to a new beginning. The effect is both a celebration and an elegy to that which had vanished and was now lost. The voice behind the project, Shirley Collins, would go on to experience many losses in her own life: a father who walked out on the young family, two broken marriages, the death of her dear sister Dolly and, most cruelly, the loss of her remarkable singing voice in 1978.
The recently released film Ballad of Shirley Collins directed by Tim Plester and Rob Curry documents Shirley’s past life as the ‘High Queene of English Song’. Interspersed with scenes of cosy domesticity at home in Lewes, Sussex is shaky faux-retro 16mm footage of her song-collecting road trip with then-lover Alan Lomax to the United States in 1959, with lookalike actors playing the young Shirley and her much older American beau. The soundtrack features archive recordings of Collins performing, fragments of the material she and Lomax collected in the rural Deep South and original music by Ossian Brown and Michael J. York. The American field recordings are remarkable in their own right. Cleaned-up sonically, yet retaining all their untutored rawness, they include English murder ballads sung by nasal Appalachians, cotton picking blues shouters, maniacal banjoists and, most extraordinary, a hollering polyphonic choir of such unrefined intensity that it sounds capable of raising the dead. The rawness of the collected American material reflects the state of the nation at that time. In interview Collins speaks matter-of-factly about the commonplace violence – domestic, racial and otherwise – she encountered, the shameful segregationism, the unabashed racism that tainted the American South in the 50s. Plus ça change some might say.
The crux of the film hinges on the singer’s return to recording after a 38-year absence — the tentative home sessions that will eventually produce her acclaimed 2016 return album Lodestar. Intercut with this are finely observed details of the world that Collins’ and her ageless songs inhabit. The camera flits around, gleaning detail from Collins’ home, the local haunts she visits, the Sussex countryside. It alights on green man masks, on sheep’s heads, on tea mugs and curious pottery figurines; on the Garden of Eden ceramic that was featured on the cover of Anthems in Eden and which hangs on the wall of her musician friend David Tibet’s house. The Sussex landscape looks ravishing throughout, all sloping hills and golden fields of grain that swoop down to white cliffs and the English Channel. A gentle warm breeze seems to be ever-present, rippling the grass and wild flowers in the foreground of the screen. A particularly effecting moment is a lingering long-focus shot of sheep contentedly grazing their way across the hillside chalk feature of the Long Man of Wilmington, the giant’s arms raised to support what look like Norwegian walking poles in each hand.
This is Sussex seen as an English Garden of Eden, folk tradition seeped into the ancient chalk of its rolling downs. A landscape gifted as a living repository of the old songs and stories that holds Shirley Collins, lover of tradition yet challenger of what she calls ‘the toxic side of Englishness’, rightfully in place as keeper of the keys.
And the larks they sang melodious at the dawning of the day.