Shirley Collins

Within Sound

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Some singers are so influential that they need box sets to be able to contain the breadth and scope of their work. Shirley Collins is one of them. And these fours discs certainly do her justice -- plus the fact that 33 of the 84 tracks here are either rare or previously unreleased. Collins' influence stretched from the first days of the folk revival in the 1950s through to today (although she no longer performs), and her work in the '60s with sister Dolly Collins brought a lot of people into folk music who might never have otherwise discovered it; thanks to her being part of the 'progressive' Harvest label. Add to that the song-collecting trip to the Appalachians in the late '50s with the legendary Alan Lomax (and let's not forget being 'discovered' by the Copper Family, her marriage to Ashley Hutchings and her work with the Albion Country Band and the Etchingham Steam Band) and you have a person whose importance to English folk music in the latter-half of the 20th century is paramount. The discs tackle her career chronologically -- a good move since there's a real sense of development here; from her earliest recordings (both issued and unissued) where the accompaniment on either banjo or autoharp is spare, to her work with guitarist Davy Graham on disc one. Disc two is largely dedicated to her work with her sister, whose portative organ brought an almost medieval sensibility to the music, and whose sense of arrangement always found the beauty of a melody. Of their collaborations, there's only one unreleased track here, the wonderful "Whitsun Dance," with Dolly on piano, but it's a joy. Much of disc three is devoted to the electric and acoustic band era of the 1970s, and two of the Etchingham Steam Band cuts, from a German folk festival LP, are certainly rarities, and well-worth the inclusion. The material from No Roses and The Prospect Before Us simply proves how forward-looking Ashley Hutchings could be, and how integral Collins was as a part of the ensemble (a guiding part, one suspects). "Murder Of Maria Marten" still sounds remarkable, more than 30 years after its first appearance. The final disc takes the listener through the last part of the '70s and into the '80s, when Collins last recorded. Dolly Collins is on some tracks, while others feature different musicians and ideas for English music. Many of these songs haven't seen the light of day before, and you have to wonder why -- they're all excellent, especially the truly haunting "Christ Made A Trance." To listen to this set is to understand the way Shirley Collins helped shape the perception of English folk music. Even more, it's a chance to be seduced by her Sussex voice. It's certainly true that she possesses an artless quality in her singing, but it's always real -- a proper folk voice -- and she transports her audience inside the songs; something very rare and a talent few have. The booklet that accompanies the set is full of Collins' own reminiscences, and she's always scrupulous in citing her sources. This box may be a labor of love, and it's more than worth the time that's been involved in compiling it. Shirley Collins is a treasure of English song, and this is the perfect celebration of her art.

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