Washington City Paper, May 15, 2006
Tradition and Subtraction
By Pamela Murray Winters
Shirley and Dolly Collins
There are three categories of English female folk voices: pretty and somewhat opaque (Judy Dyble, Sharron Kraus); impassioned and likely to “inhabit the song” (Sandy Denny, Norma Waterson); and Shirley Collins. Collins can sing, certainly, but she doesn’t become the gypsy maiden or the rake gathering sweet primroses. Her bland delivery and the chilly quality of her thin soprano allow the stories to flash and fade—she’s just the messenger. Snapshots is a companion to Within Sound, Fledg’ling’s 2002 retrospective of the career of Shirley and her keyboardist sister, Dolly. Box-set producer David Suff found these demo recordings from 1966 and live recordings from the late ’70s only after Within Sound had been released. They’re minimal, informal documents; on some tracks you can hear Shirley discreetly clearing her throat before she looses that marvelous, strange voice, which, with Dolly’s portative organ and the rare banjo part, constitutes all the instrumentation. Dolly is often credited as co-arranger, and the sometimes solemn, sometimes spooky sounds she teased from her keys were an apt counterpoint to her sister’s singing. The organ has connotations, for most of us in the English-speaking world, with churches and ceremonies. But the sisters’ music is earthly: In “All Things Are Quite Silent,” Shirley’s barely through the first verse before she and her lover “lie snug in one nest.” In “While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping,” a poacher gets his rabbit and plans his celebratory booze-up. In “Black White Yellow and Green,” we hear of maggoty, poisoned plum puddings. If Shirley’s wraithlike croon isn’t to your liking, you haven’t heard it juxtaposed with the voices of lusty, rough-tongued men, as on Morris On, the 1972 various-Britfolk-dudes disc that started a folk-dance revival. That effect is here on “Lovin’ Hannah,” with choruses by a group called the Home Brew. But backing vocalists come into play most powerfully here on a brace of recordings from the 1979 Sidmouth Folk Festival. As Shirley recounts the tale of the “Poor Murdered Woman,” the audience wells up as a village chorus on the line “a poor murdered woman laid on the cold ground.” Like the best folk, old and new, it’s the perfect intersection of this world and another.