Shirley Collins and Ashley Hutchings – No Roses photo session.

Continuing on the quest to detail England’s neo-folk sound, I have to go back to the story of one of the artists who started it all. Shirley Collins, by the time of this recording was thought of as bit stubborn traditionalist, one more prone to veneration than experimentation. She was the person who was asked by someone in the Incredible String Band to take LSD, because it will let her see trees in a different way, to which she replied she can see them quite fine already. This stubbornness and fealty to some prideful past, in various stages both helped and hindered her career. Somehow, though in this final thoroughly powerful musical phase, she showed her true colors and delivered some flourish no one expected.

When Shirley and her husband Ashley Hutchings (from Fairport Convention) gathered to record in 1970 they had something unique in mind. This idea was to have Shirley finally experiment with electric instruments. By the time of these sessions Shirley had been known as the grand dame of folk music, recording such great works like The Sweet Primroses, The Power of the True Love Knot which were thoroughly academic but necessary listeners for all English fans. When she made a shift, in 1969, to purely authentic period-correct folk instrumentation in Anthems in Eden with her sister Dolly Collins, her music started to teeter close to pastiche, if not for her genuine and heartfelt singing which rendered it essential listening. What was missing though was a tip of the hat to modern music.

Shirley and Dolly Collins

1970’s Love, Death, and the Lady started to hint at some softening to her anti-electric stance with its darker, longer, more progressive feel. The release of Liege and Lief and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, followed by legions of new folk-rock artists forced her hand to reconcile the idea that folk could evolve beyond its beginnings. All the artists who recorded these latter period English folk-rock masterpieces were the opposite of Shirley and saw in her an unique musician which they can draw influence from. She was one of the first modern musicians who knew how to incorporate crumhorns, hurdy gurdys, rebecs, and all manner of traditional instruments into neo-traditional music. Somehow, Shirley was slowly warming up the fact that she in fact could experiment much the same as her peers who looked up to her. That was the main impetus which started the unofficial formation of the Albion Country Band.

No Roses album cover.

When No Roses was being recorded she let it be known that anyone who felt welcome to come in and play along would be accepted. Initially, she was surprised by how many young musicians would stop by and contribute. Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Dave Mattacks, Dave Peggs, Simon Nicol from the Fairport Convention, Tim Renwick main Al Stewart accompanist, Nic Jones, and Royston Wood from the Young Tradition were the young whips that riled up and modernized her sound. While older musicians like Lol Coxhill, Lal and Mike Waterson for one felt welcome to try their hand at new guises. Up to 27 different musicians contributed to this unified vision of an electric Shirley Collins song. Musicians were free to come and go as they pleased. This laid-back environment allowed Shirley to feel more comfortable, the contributors working to fit their more modern styles into her voicing for once. These same musicians felt a sense of wonder being able to play with all these mutually enriching people and cover different styles as well.

That is what you hear in my track of the day, “The Murder of Maria Marten” a dense musical tale of the infamous Red Barn Murder. The song itself is lead by Shirley’s pristine voice and a heavy groove set by Nic Jones on fiddle, Richard, Simon and Tim on electric guitars. At first, when you think the song is just going to turn into a cool Liege and Lief-like folk-rock workout, the song abruptly fades out, giving a you fake start of pure electricity, only to return solemnized by the elegiac hurdy gurdy work of Francis Baines’ (by then a 53-year old senior!), its a nod to the dark song’s tradition. There was a very recent time when the spectacle of public execution was all it took to kindle mass interest. There’s just something very interesting of the recurring hurdy gurdy man signaling a change in the song. Here’s what Shirley said:

“This was Ashley’s [Hutchings] choice. The tune is of the Dives and Lazarus family, one of the great melodies of the British tradition (listen to Vaughan Williams’s Dives and Lazarus or Star of the County Down by Van Morrison for two examples). The Red Barn Murder has fascinated people ever since it happened last century, and Ashley’s treatment of it is equally intriguing. His device of breaking the ballad up in this rather extraordinary way, and the inspired sound effect of the cart crunching on the gravel at the hanging give it a chilling edge.”

Ashley and Shirley – No Roses alternate cover.

The song itself you could say was the torch of tradition being passed on to the newer generation. Shortly after the time she released this album she resigned from recording anymore and chose to raise her young children, letting Ashley continue recording as the Albion Country Band and a lot of the musicians who helped her out one final time to continue charting their course somewhere new. This final full-throated released was a haunting reminder of the power she had when fully unleashed it. This generation, though, continues to go forward somewhere else tomorrow…

Bonus track, somehow the Halloween spirit isn’t over, not if you hear the ghostly “Poor Murdered Woman” from No Roses:

Listen to No Roses at Grooveshark.