And the larks they sang melodious: a Shirley Collins appreciation

Shirley Collins with Sanjeev Bhaskar, Chancellor of the University of Sussex. Photo by Polly Marshall.

Shirley Collins with Sanjeev Bhaskar, Chancellor of the University of Sussex. Photo by Polly Marshall.

In July of this year I had the honour and pleasure of participating in the University of Sussex graduation ceremony at which the great English folk singer Shirley Collins was awarded an honorary doctorate. In the days leading up to the ceremony, as I prepared the speech I had been asked to give ahead of the award, I spent a long time listening to Shirley Collins’s music, often while driving around the beautiful South Downs. I found myself thinking a lot about the relationship between song and place and also about we forge, maintain and sometimes lose connections with the places in which we live and work and through which we travel. I was feeling this keenly at the time as I was preparing to move to the other end of the country to begin a new job.

In the days surrounding the graduation ceremony I posted a series of reflections on Facebook. I’m compiling them here in celebration of the release, today, of Shirley Collins’s first new album in 38 years.

17 July. Shirley Collins & Davy Draham, ‘Nottamun Town’.
This week the University of Sussex will award an honorary doctorate to the wonderful, influential English folk singer, folklorist and writer Shirley Collins. In celebration of this happy event, I plan to post some favourite Collins tracks throughout the week. I want to start with this interpretation of ‘Nottamun Town’, from Shirley’s boundary-pushing 1964 album with Davy Graham, Folk Roots, New Routes. Graham was the globetrotting, finger-picking composer of 60s guitar standard ‘Anji’. Collins was the Hastings-born, London-based folk singer with the clear, unaffected style that had drawn praise from the likes of Ewan MacColl and Alan Lomax, with whom she’d toured the American south in the late 1950s, collecting songs from Bessie Jones, Mississippi Fred McDowell and many more. ‘Nottamun Town’ (Roud #1044) was an old hard-times song – possibly referring to Nottingham – that would be revived by Bert Jansch and Fairport Convention and used as the basis for Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’. This version perfectly showcases Davy’s alternately ringing and pinched, swinging, blues-inflected style alongside Shirley’s crystal clear enunciation of the doomy lyric. On one level, a cold blankness that lets you know that this is a straightforward story, truthfully told; on another, an eerie beauty and a rhythmic pull that draws the listener in to the well of old weird Anglicana.

18 July. Shirley Collins, ‘The False Bride’
shirley_collins_of_sussex_topicThis comes from Shirley’s first record for the legendary Topic Records, an EP from 1963 entitled ‘Heroes in Love’. A note on the rear sleeve informs the listener, ‘These songs are not about folk-heroes in any epic sense; just ordinary young men transformed by love’. That phrase ‘transformed by love’ seems to me to encapsulate so many of the magical, tragic, sometimes farcical mutations that are related in the multilayered folk tradition.

‘The False Bride’ (Roud #154), also known as ‘The Week Before Easter’ and with variants as ‘I Once Loved a Lass’ and ‘I Courted a Wee Girl’, narrates a typically doomed transformation, as a young man reflects, increasingly despairingly and suicidally, upon the nature of love. Or is it perhaps just his own inexperience and inadequacy, twisted through solipsistic narrative into a woman-blaming fatalism? Shirley sings it in her unblaming, neutral tone, at service as always to the telling of the tale. As she would explain many years later in a wonderful interview with Michael Berkeley, the ways these songs should be sung is ‘straightforward, not necessarily unadorned but very lightly adorned, and you’re not selling the song, you’re just singing it. It;s just straightforward, plain, simple but subtle.’

Shirley accompanies herself here on 5-string banjo, another simple and subtle device that echoes the techniques used by many of the American folksingers she and Alan Lomax had recorded in the late 1950s. This version of the song is also inspired by a Lomax-related recording of the great Sussex singer and custodian Bob Copper, included in the LP series The Folk Songs of Britain. One of the song’s verses would also provide the title for No Roses, the classic 1971 folk-rock album Shirley recorded with the Albion Country Band: ‘I went down to the forest to gather fine flowers / But the forest won’t yield me no roses’.

As well as the stark simplicity of this recording, I love the record sleeve of the EP, with Shirley looking up and to the side at the words ‘of Sussex’.

19 July. Shirley & Dolly Collins, ‘Geordie’
collins_lovedeathandthelady_shvl771This recording of ‘Geordie’ (Roud #90) comes from Love, Death & The Lady (1970), the second album that Shirley recorded with her sister Dolly for the Harvest label (the first being the classic Anthems in Eden). It’s a melancholy record, as most attest, with many tales of doomed romance and class conflict. ‘Geordie’ is a great example of the latter, the tale of a man condemned to hang for wanting to feed his family. As related on the Mainly Norfolk website, this was the third time Shirley had recorded the song. This rendition is notable for the addition of Early Music instrumentation, present throughout the album and its predecessor. The cool, unruffled vocal cuts its straight course through the sad story while the various instruments weave in and out of the arrangement, occasionally threatening to sail off in rebellious counter directions, but ultimately staying true to the thrust of the song. There have been many great renditions of ‘Geordie’ (or ‘Georgie’, as it also appears) captured on record and video. This is one of them.

21 July. Shirley & Dolly Collins, ‘The Sweet Primeroses’
collins_sweetprimerosesYesterday, during the University of Sussex graduation ceremony at which she was awarded an honorary degree, Shirley Collins spoke movingly of a life spent in song: as listener, folklorist, custodian, singer. From humble beginnings in Hastings as a daughter of working class, left-wing art lovers and granddaughter of keepers of the oral tradition, to travels in the American South in search of musicians and songs, to her career as singer and writer, the life story unfolded like a compelling ballad. But, modest and mindful of the other graduands receiving their awards, she closed with notes of congratulations and a message of hope for her young listeners. Connecting her life story to theirs, she said ‘I hope you find a passion that sustains you and brings happiness and fulfilment in a more peaceful world. And if things go awry from time to time, just remember these lines from a Sussex folk song: “There’s many a dark and cloudy morning turns out to be a most sunshiny day”‘.

Those lines come from ‘The Sweet Primeroses’, a song associated with the Copper family of Sussex. It became the title of Shirley’s 1967 album, a work described by David Suff as ‘a landmark recording of the English folk-song revival’. It’s a gorgeous rendition, given extra poignancy by the accompaniment of Dolly Collins on portative pipe-organ. In her speech, Shirley stated her wish to share the honorary degree with her late sister.

In her 1967 liner note to The Sweet Primeroses album, Shirley wrote of the title track: ‘A last song from the Copper family, whose songs sound to me like national anthems – or like national anthems should sound. All the Southern countryside is here, with a grave, stylised account of a formal meeting on a particular midsummer’s morning, the heartbreak of parting tempered with a stoical optimism. Dolly’s arrangement has some of the Coppers’ spirit and some of “the pretty little small birds too”.’

On a personal note, it was an absolute joy to meet Shirley and her family and guests and to spend a good part of the day in their wonderful, welcoming company. And I’m proud of my university for honouring such a deserving person.

22 July. Shirley & Dolly Collins, ‘A Leavetaking: Pleasant and Delightful’
collins_anthemsineden_bgocd442This week I’ve been posting music clips by Shirley Collins in celebration of her honorary doctorate from my university. I’m concluding this series with a track from Anthems in Eden, the classic 1969 album by Shirley and her sister Dolly, accompanied by the Early Music Consort directed by David Munrow. The early music instrumentation – including rebec, crumhorn, harpsichord, viols, bells, rackett – was an innovation that proved influential on other experimental folk musicians of the period, including Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, albeit that they opted to use rock instruments.

This track, which bears the double title of ‘A Leavetaking’ (‘Leaving-taking’ on some copies of the album) and ‘Pleasant and Delightful’, is typical of the musical melange of Anthems in Eden. It includes several repeated lines featuring a male chorus, such as ‘And the larks they sang melodious’ (my personal favourite).

It’s a song of leaving and possible return, a departure taken on an otherwise glorious day.

Recently I’ve been listening to Shirley Collins’s music while driving around the Sussex countryside and I’ve been made aware of the constant connections between singer, song and place. Wonderful coincidences would happen, such as the day I drove past the Eight Bells pub in Jevington while playing Anthems in Eden, then, on arriving at my office and opening a Copper Family CD booklet to check some Collins-Copper connections, I saw a picture of Jim and Bob Copper singing outside the Eight Bells in 1950.

Listening to Sussex music and moving through the Sussex countryside, song would echo place and vice versa. Shirley caught this beautifully in her liner note to The Sweet Primeroses album, when she wrote ‘Through these songs I get the same leap in the heart as when I catch sight of a hill figure like the Long Man of Wilmington, or Stonehenge, or the Malvern Hills. Wherever I go in Britain, history seems to press through train windows, and the songs I love best help to celebrate it.’

I’ve been thinking about this as I prepare my own leave-taking from Sussex. In September I’ll be taking up a new post at Newcastle University. I’m excited by the possibilities of reconnecting with former colleagues and friends, but I’ll also be sad to leave Sussex, my home for the past four years. The University of Sussex is a superb place to work, with wonderful, supportive colleagues, and the county of Sussex is beautiful. This week the university celebrated a wonderful daughter of the county, and I’m happy that I was able to be part of that story. It has been pleasant and delightful.

New book: The Late Voice

LateVoice-coverThis week sees the publication of my third book, The Late Voice: Time, Age and Experience in Popular Music. The book is being published by Bloomsbury Academic initially in a hardback edition. A cheaper paperback edition will be published at a later date.

From the book’s blurb: “Popular music artists, as performers in the public eye, offer a privileged site for the witnessing and analysis of ageing and its mediation. The Late Voice undertakes such an analysis by considering issues of time, age, memory, innocence and experience in modern popular song. At the heart of the study are six extended case studies of singers and songwriters – Ralph Stanley, Frank Sinatra, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell – whose work is discussed in relation to particular performance traditions and the articulation of lateness in various forms.”

I’ll be posting excerpts from the book on this site, along with additional material and links to audiovisual material related to the book’s main topics and case studies. In the meantime, more information and a preview of the book can be found here.

Pete Seeger, un hombre sincero

A piece by I wrote for PopMatters a few years back on Pete Seeger, who died yesterday.

Pete_Seeger_1986

Pete Seeger is something of an enigma. On the one hand, he is a renowned veteran of the transnational folk music scene, a legendary figure who seems to have always been around. On the other, he remains somehow unknowable, indeterminate, difficult to define. As a folksinger, he falls somewhere between the happy-go-lucky nature of his onetime companion Woody Guthrie and the deadly earnestness of the post-War folk revivalists. As a performer, he veers between the crowd-pleasing antics of the entertainer and the seriousness of the pedagogue. As an educator, he has something of the paternalism of the early 20th century and yet something more of the inclusivity and political correctness of its later decades. Then there’s the way his “right-on-ness” as an activist mixes uneasily with the general un-hipness of his music.

The writer Harvey Pekar once put it this way: “The fact that Pete Seeger sings folk songs from around the world doesn’t make him a folk singer, especially since he uses the same style in which to sing them all. Regardless of his political courage, which causes him to be thought of as a man of the people, he’s a pop singer, not a folk singer”. It’s easy to see what Pekar is getting at. There is a sense that the world’s music suffers a quite extraordinary homogenization as it passes through Seeger and on to his audience. Yet he remains at one with that audience—“his” audience, just as he is “their” singer—and so, as Pekar observes, attains political credibility.

What kind of pop star has Pete Seeger been? Not the Bob Dylan kind, certainly. As Dylan moved swiftly away from the rather different shadows of Guthrie and Seeger in the 1960s, the trail that he blazed proved pop’s lasting value to be its ability to change, adapt, and morph into unknown new shapes. Seeger, by contrast, stood solid as a rock, the very definition of tradition, rootedness, and commitment. Nor was he the Bruce Springsteen type of pop star, the wide-eyed fan turned rock poet, seeking salvation from the darkness of anonymity. Springsteen’s concerts and album devoted to Seeger’s music may have come about through shared political convictions, but musically they were too far removed from the Boss’s classic aesthetic to sound truly convincing. A chasm seemed to yawn between the world of pop and the world of folk music, with Seeger once again representing the latter.

Seeger was, perhaps, a populist folk singer, a strangely tautological term for a man who made certain people’s folk music palatable to certain other people. Class, broadly understood as a way of identifying and categorizing oneself and others, is crucial here. Class brings with it certain imbalances, deprivations, and privileges. Seeger, a son of privilege, sought to translate the voices of the underprivileged to the bourgeois concert hall, to make his audience feel a little less comfortable with itself even as he encouraged its members to sing along. Not that he sang only to such audiences; he traveled widely and was as wont to perform in dangerous situations as in safe ones.

“He…played for everybody”, Springsteen is quoted as saying on the sleeve of Live in ‘65. One of two new documents that transport listeners back to the heart of the civil rights era, this album consists of an entire concert recorded in February 1965 at the Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh. The other release is a DVD of Seeger’s trip to Australia in 1963. It consists of 105 minutes of footage from a concert in Melbourne, along with some fascinating bonus features.

In 1963 Columbia released We Shall Overcome, an album recorded during Seeger’s concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The album helped to further establish Seeger’s place at the forefront of the folk revival and the civil rights movement, as well as promote the work of another Columbia artist, the young Bob Dylan. The liner notes announced the upcoming world tour but said nothing of the drama that lay behind it. For the previous decade Seeger had had his passport confiscated while he fought to overturn a conviction that would have seen him fined and sent to jail for refusing to cooperate with Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunters. Live in Australia 1963 is an unusual and valuable document due to the fact that Seeger had been blacklisted from appearing on television in the USA for 17 years.

As Seeger’s biographer David Dunaway writes in the informative notes accompanying this DVD release, Seeger was a respected figure in Australia, though it is not clear to what extent the middle class audience present at the Melbourne concert knew what to expect: “Did they know that the fellow introducing Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ was the most publicly feared American artist since actor-assassin John Wilkes Booth?”, asks Dunaway, “Did they know they were going to yodel?” What they got was a program of songs that included Seeger staples (“If I Had a Hammer”, “The Bells of Rhymney”, “Kum Ba Ya”), some international numbers (“Highland Laddie”, “Genbaku O Yurusumagi” “Freihait”, “Luar de Sertão”), songs from the new folk songwriters (Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan), the occasional novelty banjo piece (“Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony”), a Woody Guthrie medley, and much more.

While in Australia, Seeger also presented a half-hour television program about the career and music of Lead Belly entitled “Two Links of a Chain” and was interviewed in television studios and on university campuses in Sydney. The Lead Belly profile is notable not only for the filmed footage of its subject, but also for the section where Seeger, wanting to illustrate the rhythm of a work song, starts hacking at a log while singing, sending wood chips flying into the audience with wonderful abandon. All this footage is included among the bonus features, along with a short film made by Seeger and his wife Toshi about Australian folksinger Duke Tritton. Ever the musical sponge, Seeger was collecting as many songs as he was performing on his trek around the globe. The compilation of all this Australian material, along with the well-produced booklet, make this an excellent DVD package and a worthy start to Reelin’ In The Years’ Folk Icons series.

The recording of the 1965 concert is newly discovered and is presented on two CDs. Seeger’s role as educator is represented throughout the program. As the liner notes (by Appleseed’s Jim Musselman) attest, Seeger’s concerts were “an early Internet”, bringing audiences a menu of old and new, local and global material as fast the singer learned it. Only two songs from the We Shall Overcome album are included, “Guantanamera” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. Seeger includes some songs that have a local connection to the venue, such as “When I First Came to This Land”, “Step by Step”, and “He Lies in an American Land”, the latter a song learned from a Slovakian singer in Pittsburgh. Seeger adapted the verses into English and Springsteen later added more for his own version. In all, there are 31 songs, a lot of anecdotes, a few fluffed lines, and some attempts (successful, thankfully) to deal with a misbehaving banjo. This warts-and-all approach delivers a more faithful idea than the edited We Shall Overcome of what it was like to attend a Seeger concert. This seems only appropriate, given the centrality of honesty in the man’s work.

Listening across the years, one can’t help but notice a sense of coziness in the way the music sounds. Despite his recourse to the same old folk songs that would fascinate Harry Smith and later Greil Marcus, Seeger’s songs come across less as examples of the “old weird America” and more as lessons from old familiar America’s favorite uncle. He’s the family member who’s there as our moral compass, but whose endlessly repeated imperatives to be good we are happy to receive. Seeger has always been very much the family man, coming from an extended family of prominent musicians, singing songs for children (as Woody Guthrie had done), and often making reference to his wife and children. Toshi Ohta-Seeger and manager Harold Leventhal were responsible for organizing the world tour that followed the return of Seeger’s passport. Toshi and the children accompanied Seeger on the tour.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, when Seeger dedicates the Melbourne concert to children everywhere. But when he adds an additional dedication to the four black girls murdered the previous day in the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing, we are reminded that Seeger’s situation was far from cozy, that he was fighting for his and others’ freedom on a constant basis. If anything, it was Bob Dylan who was moving further into the sphere of the comfortable as he embraced rock stardom. It’s just that, when he sang, Dylan sounded—and still sounds, listening back—as though he was fighting for his life, whereas Seeger didn’t. If recordings are quotations from particular eras, bounded fragments removed from their original context, we can only approach them later according to how they sound. In this sense, at least, Seeger sounds tame. We can, and should, listen beyond the sonic text to the social text from which it came, but it may still be hard to hear the danger.

Other issues arise as the songs and anecdotes roll on. To what extent, one wonders, was Seeger preaching to the converted? When not doing so, to what extent did his message get through? Listening now, it seems as though the audience, particularly on the 1965 recording, are laughing at the wrong moments. What no doubt passed for lighthearted multicultural inclusivity then sometimes sounds like laughing at the funny ways of foreigners now. The language of tolerance, it seems, dates more swiftly than its opposite. One is reminded of the way in which the audience is heard laughing during the first part of Nina Simone’s classic recording of “Mississippi Goddam” (written as a response to that same Birmingham atrocity), or of how, as related in David Margolick’s book Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching song was heard in some quarters as light entertainment.

Seeger and Simone faced the same problem in the 1960s: how to smuggle subversion into the entertainment program expected by the supper club set, how to get at the truth while keeping things hummable. Simone, at least, would often veer away from this type of truth-work and opt for a truth of artistic expression and aesthetics that would lead her increasingly away from the inclusivity Seeger sought. Her journey from Martin Luther King through Malcolm X and on to Stokely Carmichael could even be heard in the musical and lyrical progression of one single song. “Mississippi Goddam” may start with a plea for tolerance but it ends in apocalypse and threat: “you’re all gonna die and die like flies”.

One sometimes wishes that Seeger could be as cruel to his audience as Simone was to hers. Notwithstanding the occasional torrent of hazardous flying wood chips, his is a different strategy. If anything, it is one more closely aligned to folksinging traditions outside the Anglo-American world. In styles associated with Ireland, Mexico, Portugal or Chile, for example, there exists a different register of authenticity to that found in the Anglo-American mainstream, marked as the latter is by deconstructive strategies that are often knowingly ironic or strategically moronic. While pop may be on a mission to remain younger than yesterday, other traditions are less worried about the cool factor. To listen to a Silvio Rodríguez or a Christy Moore is to be made aware of this difference. To hear the ominously beautiful and deadly serious sonorities of the late Mercedes Sosa echoed in a younger singer like Lila Downs is to be made aware of the tradition’s ongoing relevance for millions of people.

To hear Pete Seeger, as we do on Live in ‘65, sing “Guantanamera”—with its telling line taken from José Martí, “yo soy un hombre sincero”—is to hear his connection to an internationalized network of awareness and resistance, a truly global music of conscience that transcends the limitations of its local translations. Ultimately, we shouldn’t judge Seeger too harshly on the datedness of his delivery, but rather focus on the remarkable persistence of the man himself. He is Pete Seeger, after all: the ultimate hombre sincero.

Originally published 17 June 2010 at http://www.popmatters.com/feature/125957-pete-seeger-live-in-65-and-pete-seeger-live-in-australia-1963/