The Sweet Primeroses
The Young Tradition With Shirley and Dolly Collins
The Holly Bears the Crown
The Time Has Come
Bridget St. John
Ask Me No Questions/Songs for the Gentle Man
(See for Miles)
Bridget St. John
Thank You for...Plus
(See for Miles)
Behind Closed Doors
By Byron Coley
To the average American dork, British folk music seems like a vaguely exotic and stupid mix of panpipes, earth-colored tights, and songs about spoiled meat. Perhaps there's a vague awareness that the folk music of the southeastern United States is directly descended from the traditional songs of the British have-nots who migrated to the area. Some may also be hip to the electrified British folk movement, whose best-known proponents were Richard Thompson's old band, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span (a band that splintered from the Fairports), the Pentangle (Bert Jansch and John Renbourn's jazz-inflected parallel), and Scotland's never-easy-to-classify Incredible String Band. When you begin to scratch below the surface of these known names, however, you quickly discover a vast body of recordings possessed of both an ethereal beauty and a haunting timelessness. As a bonus, the British traditional movement gave young female performers a chance to showcase their power and talent without assuming the doofus mantle of sex kitten, pop music's primary model for female behavior. That makes these CDs excellent gifts for debutantes.
Shirley Collins is one of the formative figures of the English folk revival. She began recording in the late 1950s, was responsible for salvaging a great deal of material from the dustbins, and even spent time working with American folklorist Alan Lomax documenting the threads of Anglo-American music throughout Appalachia. Her early work is lovely, but her talents truly bloomed when she began to collaborate with her sister Dolly. The Sweet Primeroses, originally released in 1967, is the first fruit of their superb collaboration, and a new CD from England's Topic label adds four tracks from Heroes in Love, a very rare EP that Shirley recorded in 1963.
The material on this album is as dark as anyone could want. Stories of infanticide, kisses from poisoned lips, lovers dangling from gallows, and forced servitude are all woven into the music's starkly gorgeous fabric. Shirley's voice is a magnificent instrument, moving the lyrics surely along while conveying the sense of desperate hope that called them into being. They paint a picture of life as something that must be endured in order to gain entry to blissful eternity. Given that these songs originated among the peasants and workers of preindustrial England, it's not surprising that their emotions are so often bleak. Shirley's voice elevates them into the realm of pure art and, especially when accompanied by Dolly's portative pipe organ (a miniature instrument with a range and tone like nothing you've ever heard before), the results are very moving. It's easy to hear the roots of better-known English singers, like Sandy Denny, in Shirley's phrasing and nuance. Sweet Primeroses documents the beginnings of the British folk revival. It's a delicate, seminal statement of purpose with the ability to invade unsuspecting layers of your brain.
The Holly Bears the Crown was recorded in 1969, but remained unreleased until the English label Fledg'ling issued it this year. It's a collaboration between the Collins sisters and an English vocal group called the Young Tradition that broke up immediately after this session. With narrative passages by Gary Watson, Holly is a series of carols and other Christmas songs that reflect some of Britain's pre-Christian traditions and are more melancholy than most examples of the genre. Split almost evenly between the Young Tradition's sweetly archaic arrangements and the magical sound of Shirley and Dolly, Holly is less moving than most of the Collinses' recordings, but it still has more than its share of heart-stopping glory.
Anne Briggs was an early convert to the British folk revival. Her first recordings were released in 1964, but she's best remembered for the two albums she cut in 1971. The second of these was The Time Has Come, which has recently been reissued in Japan. Because she relies primarily on original material, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, Briggs could easily be lumped in with the hideous singer-songwriter boom of the early 1970s. But this impulse is specious. Where American singer-songwriters were largely interested in creating rootsy pop music, English purveyors were operating inside a more easily extended and living musical form. There wasn't the same discontinuity between British folk revivalists and their sources as between white middle-class American revivalists and their black or poor rural white models. Thus, Anne Briggs is far more capable of combining the mood of English folk music with contemporary existential hippie lyricism than her suburban American counterpart would be attempting to conjure the spirit of Big Bill Broonzy. For some reason, British producers didn't always feel compelled to fluff up the arrangements either. Rather than plague her with hep session men, CBS allowed Briggs to stand and perform her songs alone. This was a luxury that American producers would seldom indulge, even with prominent solo performers. Buoyed by strong, Bert Jansch-style guitar work, Briggs's voice floats free from temporal references. The Time Has Come is a wonderful and intimate mood creator that has lost nothing in the 25 years since it was recorded.
Bridget St. John's discography is a bit more diverse than Anne Briggs's. She came to the attention of the British underground in 1969, when she was one of the first signings to Dandelion Records, the label founded by legendary British disc jockey John Peel. Early in her career she performed in a way that perfectly captured a certain kind of English hippie lassitude. But as she went along her albums became compromised by producers' whims and an apparent desire to start, uh, "rockin'." Still, her early work is well worth investigating.
The Ask Me No Questions/Songs for the Gentle Man CD combines all of St. John's 1969 debut with most of its 1971 follow-up, and the results are quite satisfying. Ask Me No Questions is a very nice piece of British hippie folk. Aided by a couple of acoustic guitars and some bongos, St. John sings in a way that sounds almost like a friendly non-Germanic version of Nico circa Chelsea Girls. Her songs here have little to do with the British tradition, but the liner notes say that she was as popular as Sandy Denny in "best female folksinger" polls of the era, and I've no doubt that it's true. The way she sings about living under blue skies and eating buttercup sandwiches is pretty goddamn winning.
Songs for the Gentle Man, produced and orchestrated by electronic musician Ron Geesin, is a very different kettle of crabs. The sound on Songs reportedly represents St. John's attempt to breach the fences surrounding the folk-music ghetto. That's a fairly worthy goal, but I miss the genteel pitter-patter of her first album. Flutes, strings, horns, and all kindsa shit come welling up in a way that makes you feel like you're listening to Mary Hopkins's rotten Those Were the Days album. As Songs unfolds, however, Geesin's avant-garde proclivities become apparent. The arrangements, though burdensome at times, are rarely crafted in the service of mere lushness. Indeed, the strings sometimes bend in a way that suggests the uncomfortable weight of Penderecki. St. John shed some of her Bambi-like innocence, writing songs of experience in a mode that reminds me at times of very early Joni Mitchell, with hints of something darker lurking just around the corner. "Making Losing Better" and "It Seems Very Strange" have edges that would make them seem at home even on a Kevin Ayers album. Once you become acclimated to the clutter, Songs has enough charm to rope you in.
St. John's third and final album for Dandelion was 1972's Thank You For, which See for Miles has issued with eight bonus tracks recorded live in Montreux, Switzerland, during April of that year. Thank You For was St. John's first real attempt at a rock move. A host of guest musicians helps out in bits and pieces, but most of the material is handled in a way that only serves to highlight the deep richness of her voice. Certainly it's hard to imagine better versions of songs like the quietly pounding "Lazarus" or the lilting "Fly High." Superficially, Thank You For may have some of the same musical sheen associated with singer-songwriter dog shit of the era, but its delicacy and sophistication set it as far from the mainstream as John Cale's Paris 1919 (another great album with cursory similarities to period hogwash). The live tracks are sheer icing. Playing solo or with one extra guitar, St. John sounds absolutely sure of herself, and the stripped-down versions of the songs are testaments to their inner strengths. These two CDs include some very fine work, and if you're not afraid of a little hippie-doodlism you'll probably dig them.
Here I'm afraid I must issue a caveat regarding St. John's two other albums still available from English labels: Jumblequeen (BGO) and Take the Fifth (The Road Goes On Forever). Jumblequeen, originally released in 1974, has a few good songs, but is disappointingly rocked up with a lousy Elton John cover and the inexplicable involvement of several members of Ten Years After. Take the Fifth consists of recordings made after St. John moved to New York in the mid-70s and again suffers from poorly imagined arrangements. If you really keel over for the Dandelion stuff, you may want to try these. Otherwise stay well away.
Maddy Prior is another singer whose arrangements don't always help her voice, which sounds best when left to its own devices. Prior first recorded in 1968, when she and Tim Hart did two albums of traditional material for a small English label. When Ashley Hutchings quit Fairport Convention in 1969 to form a new band, he drafted the pair as founding members of Steeleye Span. Prior was the lead vocalist on the band's 15 albums. She also recorded with June Tabor as the Silly Sisters and released a small batch of solo LPs. Some of her non-Steeleye work has just been collected on Momento, a CD released by England's Park Records.
The tracks from the 1976 Silly Sisters album stand out because of their lack of extraneous instrumentation. When she sang with Steeleye Span (especially on their early albums), Prior's voice was usually mixed way up front. On too many of these tracks she seems content to fade into the musical background. This modesty is hardly necessary. I mean, when it's your album your voice is supposed to be up front. Thankfully, Momento includes a bunch of songs in which Prior allows her pipes to soar unbridled, making it an OK place to sample the work of one of Britain's best singers, though you'd probably be better off starting with a Steeleye Span collection. Prior's voice is wonderfully suited to traditional material, and there's very little of that on Momento.
Fiona Joyce is a young Irish singer who released her first album, Behind Closed Doors, in 1991 and followed it up with This Eden in 1994; both CDs are available from Ireland's River Valley Records. Joyce's voice drew comparisons to that of the Trees' Celia Humphries, and the fact that she was accompanied by some forceful Jorma Kaukonen-style psychedelic guitar work made her an instant favorite with fat record dealers all around the world. Certainly her first album is exceptional. Apart from a couple of Richard Thompson covers and an instrumental, all the material originated from Joyce's pen. Her writing is traditionally rooted, but with a very contemporary feel that reminds me a bit of Seattle's Walkabouts. Her songs on Behind Closed Doors are not as wonderfully melancholic as the real thing, but they're in the same ballpark.
This Eden, which is scheduled for a domestic release by Minneapolis's Gifthorse label, follows the same pattern as its predecessor. There's less electric guitar and more violin, but Joyce's voice has the same spellbinding power. The material might be a little more contemporary than I'd prefer (comparisons to Kate Bush are not without merit), but Joyce has harnessed the essential gloom that powers much British folk material. In the best of her songs it's possible to hear the ghosts of Sandy Denny and Dolly Collins and all of the countless women who sang to relieve the burden of their lives, liberating all who heard them in the process.
Of course, no survey of British women folksingers would be worthwhile without some further mention of Sandy Denny. Her voice had an ineffable beauty and power that shaped the vocal work of everyone who followed her. That her life met an end as tragic as any of her heroines (she accidentally fell down a flight of stairs in 1978) only lends more power to her legend. Her solo material and work with the Strawbs, Fairport Convention, and the Bunch form an unassailable whole. Hannibal Records has served her memory well with several essential collections. Any of them would be a fine way to introduce yourself to this form of beauty.