Shirley Collins’ ‘Archangel Hill’ is a testament to a life well livedExBulletin
‘Archangel Hill’ is a testament to a life well lived
The songs Shirley Collins sings are like time capsules, each with vast stories waiting to be discovered. Some have passed through decades, even centuries, changing form and meeting each moment as they are reborn again and again. At 87, Collins has given herself entirely to this work of ensuring the vitality of English folk music.
Archangel Hill is her latest album and the third since the end of a 38-year period of what she described as a loss of voice. It contains many songs that Collins has already sung, reshaped and reinvented, performed with the warmth and gravitas that come with years of accumulated perspective. Sagelike, Collins presents these songs as a testament to a life well lived, all of its sentimental nooks and crannies fully intact.
“Hares on the Mountain” has been part of the musical landscape in southern England since at least the early 1900s. It’s a bawdy song about youthful desire (the rabbit metaphor being very intentional) that Collins once recorded twice, including a canonical 1964 version with guitarist Davey Graham. Here, his brave lyrics are tempered by a more cryptic tone, each verse plummeting into a minor chord with tired slide guitar providing counter-melody. Rather than depressing the song’s life force, the juxtaposition offers another perspective on irrepressible, blind desire, insinuating a jagged edge.
Collins is intrinsically linked to her home in Sussex, a coastal county in the south of England, and that sense of belonging pervades Archangel Hill. In addition to “Hares”, the first track “Fare Thee Well My Dearest Dear” (collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1904 and originally recorded by Collins on Amaranth from 1976) and “Babes in a Wood” (passed down by the famous Copper family of Sussex) have deep roots in the region. “High and Away,” one of the few original tracks on the album and based on a phrase Collins borrows from Almeda Riddle, begins with the grounded sound of rain on the dunes. Archangel Hill is a nickname Collins’ father-in-law gave to a peak near their home years ago; the title track features the singer reading a poem her father wrote during World War II as he yearned to return home. There seem to be memories of the earth, his family, his friends and his collaborators embedded in every song, just beyond the listener’s reach but as vivid as the sun in Collins’ mind.
We are led to the heart of one of those memories halfway through the album: Collins giving in to a past version of herself, accompanied by her sister and faithful collaborator Dolly on harpsichord in 1980. With lyrics written by their uncle, “Head and Heart” is a tale of intricate romantic entanglements sung carefully over feather-light plucked strings. It was probably one of his last performances with Dolly, who died in 1995. Collins’ voice sounds very different now, and the contrast may seem shocking at first, but if you listen closely, a line of tender seriousness emerges. This sincerity, the bridge between the present and the past, is the great gift of Collins’ music and underpins the power of those songs that resonated through his homeland and his life.
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