One of the unimpeachable gems of the late-'60s English folk scene, Shirley & Dolly Collins' Anthems in Eden grew out of the sisters' love of David Munrow's Musica Reservata, an ensemble that combined medieval and "early" instrumentation with music of more or less similar vintage -- an obvious notion if one thinks about it, but one that had been very much snowballed beneath the similarly contemporary obsession with electrifying those same songs for the modern rock idiom.
Building upon that concept, the pair zeroed in on songs that dealt with one specific place and time -- that is, England during and immediately after World War I. As Anthems Before the Fall, the song cycle was originally recorded for BBC Radio's My Kind of Folk in August 1968; a year later, and with that initial 28-minute vision appended by a handful of songs drawn from elsewhere within the Collins' repertoire, Anthems in Eden was re-recorded for Harvest Records, an early indication of that label's own brief effort to investigate British progressive music in all its strains and varieties.
Shirley Collins herself today regards the second side of the album, the unrelated folk songs, with some unease -- they do not fit with the concept, and detract from it somewhat. The side-long "A Song-Story Medley," however, is peerless, as Munrow's so-called "natural orchestra" of crumhorns, sackbuts, cornetts, and rackets traces a landscape where "the maypole, which [was] once the centre of so many village greens, was replaced by the memorial stone."
It is a haunting piece of music, the instrumentation delightfully understated, at the same time appearing to emphasize all the emotion, heartbreak, and hope that Shirley Collins' own lovely voice conveys. Her version of the oft-recorded "Our Captain Cried," midway through the cycle, is certainly all but definitive, while the "random selection of material" that makes up the second half of the album also boasts its fair share of beauties -- a stunning take on the Incredible String Band's "God Dog" included.