“Repent, repent sweet England, for dreadful days draw near”. These apocalyptic, portentous words may date back to the 16th century, but they could hardly seem more apposite for these unpredictable and unsettling times. The song implores the people of England to look inward and focus more on spiritual concerns. Whilst this might not seem like the most contemporary of responses, the country could certainly benefit from a period of reflection and an examination on how its deep divisions might be bridged.
Being a song catcher is it's own art, different from being a songwriter, but quite as necessary. Shirley Collins' fifties and sixties recordings of British and North American folksongs are still crucial listening for fans of traditional, often horror-tinged ballads. Lodestar is true to Collins' roots. These are songs of murder and revenge, not tame pastoral fantasies.
Shirley Collins is so deeply woven into the folk tradition, her own life story could be the dramatic tale of a forgotten threnody. Lodestar is Collins’ first album in 38 years, her first since she regained her ability to sing. Back in the late ’70s, following her divorce with her husband Ashley Hutchings, leader of the Albion Country Band, Collins lost her voice and retired from music.
“Repent repent, sweet England/For dreadful days draw near…” From Lodestar’s opening barrage of death notes and hurdy-gurdy drones, it’s understandable why followers would paint Shirley Collins as a seer: a divine wyrd for a new weird England that has closed its borders to return to the same dark ages that spawned many of the ballads Collins covers on this collection of songs dating back to the 16th Century. Her first album in 38 years and recorded at her home in Lewes, has she returned to foresee Albion’s inevitable apocalypse or (whisper it) is she just a folk singer doing what only illness has prevented from her from doing? The answer is both. Sensitively recorded with ex-Coil duo Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown (now trading as Cyclobe), Lodestar has a defiantly political agenda.
As both a singer and an archivist, Shirley Collins is a massively important figure in British traditional folk music, but she's also been something of an enigma since she gave up performing and recording in the '80s. To take her at her word, Collins lost confidence in her ability to sing when she froze on-stage during a production at London's National Theatre. While she's made occasional appearances speaking about folk history and was persuaded to appear on some sessions by David Tibet of Current 93, it was generally believed Collins' musical career was over.
Before illness stole her voice in the early 1970s, Shirley Collins was the queen of the English folk revival. Recent years have seen her records rediscovered by a new generation, while she has become a writer and lecturer (and MBE). Her return to singing at 81 comes as both a surprise and a delight. The larkish voice of youth is gone, but Collins, who distrusts singers getting in the way of a song, brings gravitas and gentility to a dozen traditional airs (and the Louisiana song Sur le borde de l’eau).
The most immediately shocking thing about Shirley Collins’ seventh album is that it exists at all. Collins may be one of the folk revival’s most revered song collectors and vocalists, but for more than 30 years she was famous for not singing at all. She last released a new album in 1978, by which point her voice was already, she claimed, “letting her down” in the wake of a messy split from her husband, fellow musician Ashley Hutchings.
With Lodestar being Shirley Collins’ first album after 38 years of relative silence, it was never going to be anything other than an astounding comeback, was it? As recent interviews have proven, the now 81-year-old matriarch of the British folk tradition has a steeliness that belies the English rose connotations of her vocal style and physical appearance. Emotionally exhausted after her divorce from folk rock lynchpin Ashley Hutchings (around the time of her last album, 1978’s For As Many As Will), and given the sheer number of years spent outside of music, it must have taken a lot of guts for Collins to make a comeback record, let alone one as bold as Lodestar. And what an audacious record it is.