Shirley and Dolly Collins have long been regarded as pivotal figures in the English folk song revival of the 1960’s and ’70’s. Shirley’s beautiful singing style, apparently lacking any affectation, has earned her accolades such as “the first lady of folk”. Dolly’s contributions to their recordings were by comparison often overlooked. Her sensitive accompaniment on piano and portative organ and marvellous arrangements have rarely been equalled in the past three decades. Alongside her work with Shirley, Dolly was the arranger on the late Peter Bellamy’s masterful ‘The Transports’, as well as his unrecorded ‘We Have Fed Our Seas’. She also worked on albums by the Incredible String Band, Ian Matthews, Mark Ellington, Chris Darrow and Tony Rose.
Shirley and Dolly grew up in the Hastings area of East Sussex. Their Mother’s family kept alive a great love of traditional song. Songs learnt from Grandfather and Aunt Grace were to be important in the Sister’s repertoire through-out their career. Their uncle, F C Ball – the author of ‘A Breath Of Fresh Air’ – encouraged the sisters to listen to a wide variety of music, especially the work of Monteverdi and Purcell.
Through a remarkable series of influential recordings, Shirley and Dolly helped to introduce many innovations into the English folk revival. In 1964, Shirley recorded the landmark jazz-folk fusion of ‘Folk Roots, New Routes’, with Davy Graham. 1967 saw the essentially southern English song collection, ‘Sweet Primeroses’, on which she was accompanied by Dolly’s vocals and portative organ; and an exuberant collaboration with Mike Heron and Robin Williamson – of the Incredible String Band – resulted in ‘The Power Of The True Love Knot’ in 1968.
‘Anthems In Eden’, 1969, featured a suite of songs centred around the changes in rural England brought about by the First World War, had a terrific impact upon recorded folk music. The glorious and unusual ensemble of early music instruments – rebecs, sackbuts, crumhorns and all – proved once and for all that the guitar was not the only appropriate accompaniment for folk song. Several critics have suggested that it is impossible to imagine that electric accompaniment for traditional song, as successfully purveyed by Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, could have developed quite as it did without the pioneering ‘Anthems In Eden’. All these recordings strove to marry a deep love and understanding of the English folk music heritage with a more contemporary attitude to musical settings. ‘Anthems In Eden’ was followed by the starkly beautiful ‘Love, Death & The Lady’, and ‘No Roses’ recorded in 1971 with the 25 musicians of the Albion Country Band was a further experiment that grew into a triumph. A bench mark of British folk-rock.
During the mid-1970’s, Shirley and Ashley Hutchings led the all acoustic Etchingham Steam Band with Terry Potter, Ian Holder and Vic Gammon, around the folk club and festival circuit. The Etchingham’s repertoire was drawn from the traditional music of Shirley’s beloved Sussex. With The Albion Dance Band – a crusading, brave dance band performing traditional material on a curious mixture of modern (electric) and mediaeval instruments, Shirley recorded ‘The Prospect Before Us’.
1978’s ‘For As Many As Will’ was the last album recorded by Shirley and Dolly Collins. Shirley soon retired from public performance. Dolly continued with her composition including a full-scale secular mass.
Few singers of the English folk revival have attempted as much on record as Shirley Collins – an extraordinary combination of fragility and power. “I like music to be fairly straightforward, simply embellished, – the performance without histrionics allowing you to think about the song rather than telling you what to think.”
More information can be found at www.shirleycollins.co.uk