Forget Nick Cave - Shirley and Dolly got there first...
Chris Jones 2003
Following on from Fledg'ling's exemplary box set Within Sound, which finally gave the career of one of England's finest folk singers the respect she was due; the same label now brings us the albums that her reputation rests upon. Those unfamiliar with the late 60s and early 70s canon of Shirley and her non-vocal sister Dolly may be in for a shock. This is harsh primordial territory. Murder ballads, tales of wrong-doing and punishment meted out by an uncaring society do little to further the perennial prejudice that all British folk is 'hey-nonny-no-under-the-greenwood' stuff. Forget Nick Cave - Shirley and Dolly got there first...
Often seen as a mere companion piece to the previous year's Anthems In Eden, Love, Death... is, perhaps, Shirley and Dolly Collins' true masterpiece. Both albums, significantly, appeared originally on the Harvest label; the home of progressive rock, but also of some truly out-there cross-pollinated acts such as the Third Ear Band and Kayak. Shirley began her career as a companion to Alan Lomax on his song-collecting trips around the states and by the mid-sixties had claimed her place in the folk pantheon by fusing traditional ballads with newer song structures by accompanists such as a young Davey Graham.
On the previous Anthems (1969) her sister helped create a loose concept around a series of renaissance songs, underpinned by the virtuosity of members of the Early Music Consort of London such as Christopher Hogwood, Alan Lumsden and Adam Skeaping;plus the percussion of Pentangle's Terry Cox. By 1970, with both sisters in marital crises (both albums were produced by Shirley's husband, Austin John Marshall) the stage was set for a far bleaker set, albeit with the same band.
It's as though Collins poured her strife into her choice of material. These traditional tales are heavy with gloomy metaphor. The opening ''Death And The Lady'' recounts the struggle of a woman with the reaper. Songs such as ''Polly On The Shore'', ''Plains Of Waterloo'' and ''Geordie'' all take the loss of a loved one as their main theme; while elsewhere maidens are frequently mistreated (''The Outlandish Knight'', ''Are You Going To Leave Me?'') or even murdered (''The Oxford Girl'' and the frankly self-explanatory ''Young Girl Cut Down In Her Prime'').
In keeping with this material, Dolly's arrangements are sparser; giving Shirley's voice more space to approach an almost trance-like state. Yet for all the flattened (and quite often musically naïve) delivery she manages to retain a wonderful humanity. It's as if her pain raises the material to an almost universal level of significance. But then again, by this point she well knew that these snippets of our history had been forged from centuries of common experience. They're archetypes in which all of our cultural expressions are rooted and, as such, transcend any 'Olde Englishe' stereotype you care to put on them. This is one album that'll still be as relevant in a hundred years time. Haunting.