Anthems In Eden by Shirley and Dolly Collins


This is a most unusual and highly influential album.

Shirley Collins was born in 1935 and released a very enjoyable album last year, called “Heart’s Ease”. She has led a fascinating life and, unknown to me until recently she has been responsible for developing the progressive folk culture that I love. She was born in Hastings and grew up in a music loving family, learning traditional songs from her grandfather and aunt. At 17, she moved to London to enroll in a teacher training course. At a party hosted by Ewan MacColl she was introduced to Alan Lomax and immediately fell in love with him.

Ewan MacColl was a collector of traditional folk songs as well as writing many beautiful songs himself (including “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”). He was married to Peggy Seeger and was Kirsty MacColl’s father by his second marriage. Neill MacColl (who made the wonderful album, “Two” with Kathryn Williams) was the son of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.

Alan Lomax, like his father John, was a field recorder of American folk songs and when the House Of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC) started to investigate him, he moved to Britain where he immediately exerted an influence through his radio programmes, including “As I Roved Out” and “A Ballad Hunter”. He formed a group called Alan Lomax and The Ramblers which included Shirley Collins, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. In 1959, he returned to the USA and, with Shirley Collins, embarked on the “Southern Journey”, recording a number of hitherto unknown musicians including Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Shirley Collins separated from Alan Lomax, returned to the U.K. in 1960 and married the musician Austin John Marshall in 1961. She began to focus on the pre-first World War One era and the associated music. She said that she lost her romantic view of American music and dwelt, instead, on the glorious unspoiled Sussex Weald of her childhood. She had released two albums before her Southern Journey and after collaborating with other artists, including Davey Graham, she released a number of albums with her older sister.

Dolly Collins believed that she had Irish Gypsy ancestry and, in order to reconnect with her roots, began living in an abandoned double decker bus in a field near her birthplace of Hastings. Their mother was living nearby in a painted wagon. She learned to play a portative organ, an instrument which was first played in the 13th century. This is a small pipe organ in which the performer manipulated bellows with one hand and plays keys with the other.

Dolly Collins plays a portative organ on “Anthems In Eden” and other instruments, played by the Early Music Consort include a sackbut (a medieval trombone), a viol (precursor to the cello), a rebec (possibly first played in the 9th century and usurped by the viol), a crumhorn (first played in the Renaissance era, the name literally meaning bent horn), a rackett (an early oboe) and a sordun (another early wind instrument).

Whilst at Cambridge University, David Munro taught himself to play many instruments that had fallen out of use over many centuries. He started to commission craftsmen to make any instrument he couldn’t find, using engravings and paintings. He gained a position at the University of Birmingham to research 17th century bawdy songs which is where he met Christopher Hogwood, a specialist in Baroque harpsichord and together they formed the Early Music Consort. They provided the soundtrack to BBC’s hugely popular series, “The Six Wives Of Henry VIII” and “Elizabeth R” and also contributed to Ken Russell’s “The Devils”. Christopher Hogwood later founded the Academy of Ancient Music in 1973 but David Munro hanged himself in 1976, depressed after the death of his father and father-in-law. One of the Early Music Consort’s recordings is currently exploring the universe on board the NASA spaceship, “Voyager”, as an example of the diversity of life and culture on Earth.

Austin John Marshall produced “Anthems In Eden” and David Munro is listed as director. Both Christopher Hogwood and David Munro play on the album and their vision and creativity permeate every song, giving a unique sonic experience.

“Anthems In Eden” consists of one 28 minute suite (comprising nine songs) and seven additional songs. Confusingly, in 1976, an album was released called “Amaranth” which consisted of the suite with six replacement tracks. In 1993 a CD with the suite and all thirteen additional songs was released.

The suite of songs describes how the advent of the First World War decimated an idyll of rural England. Two people fall in love. He goes to war and promises to return. 50 years later, she is still in mourning.

Each of the songs in the suite is a traditional song given another name. “A Meeting” is the name given by Shirley and Dolly Collins to “Searching For Lambs”, a song that was collected by Cecil Sharp from five different singers in Somerset between 1904 and 1909. It has been recorded by Martin Carthy, June Tabor, Steeleye Span, Cyril Tawney and many others including Tony Rose who said the song was “as near as one couldn’t get to the perfect folk song”. In this song, the two lovers meet.

A Courtship” is the name given to “The Wedding Song” which is more commonly known as “Come Write Me Down”.  Although brought to wider attention by The Cooper Family, it is thought to date from the 17th century. Cyril Tawney sung a version which he called “The Scornful Dame” in which the girl plays hard to get (hence, “scornful”), before agreeing to be wed.

Shirley Collins recorded three different versions of “The Blacksmith” (sometimes known as “A Blacksmith Courted Me”) which she and Dolly Collins called “A Denying“. The tune was adapted by Vaughan Williams from the singing of Mrs. Verrall, formerly of Monksgate, Horsham, Sussex in 1904. He used it for his setting of Bunyan’s Pilgrim (‘He who would valiant be’). In this song, the girl thinks that her lover has lied to her because he has disappeared.

In “A Foresaking” (or “Our Captain Cried All Hands”), it’s clear that he is on his way across the sea to war in “Lowlands” (which Shirley And Dolly Collins called “A Dream“). “A Leaving-Taking” or “Pleasant And Delightful” is sung from the point of view of the dying soldier. It is sometimes known as “William And Nancy’s Parting” and there is some lyrical overlap with “The Banks Of The Nile”, brought to wider attention by Fotheringay.

Austin John Marshall wrote the lyrics to “An Awakening” (commonly known as “Whitsun Dance”) using a traditional tune. It’s 51 years since the wedding but her husband has not returned. He wrote the lyrics in response to criticism of elderly ladies dancing at Cecil Sharp House, feeling that the grieving needed to be placed in the context of the death toll of the War.

A New Beginning” (“Staines Morris”) dates from 1656 and brings the story to a forward looking conclusion. A six strong male chorus bring comfort to the widows. “When you thus have spent your time/Till the day be past its prime/To your beds repair at night/And dream there of your day’s delight.”

When Ashley Hutchings heard “Anthems In Eden”, he burst into tears. He said “It evokes the countryside and it evokes the healing. I imagine it defined the whole of the rest of my career.” Once he had finished recording “Liege And Lief” with Fairport Convention, he left the band because he didn’t like the “rock” element of the “folk-rock” path they were pursuing. He met Shirley Collins and after her divorce from Austin John Marshall, they married in 1971, forming the Etchingham Steam Band. They divorced within ten years and this hastened her thirty year withdrawal from the music business due to spasmodic dysphonia – a condition which causes the muscles which generate a person’s voice to go into spasm. Linda Thompson also suffered from this problem.

Linda Thompson’s husband carried on for one more Fairport Convention album after Ashley Hutchings left. Richard Thompson has talked about singing old songs in the context of “Liege And Lief” but I think this applies equally well to “Anthems In Eden”: “Nothing resonates like an old song. To sing something beautifully written, and then refined over hundreds of years, that still has meaning and urgency, that still creates vivid pictures in the mind, is a deeply rewarding thing”

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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