Since Shirley Collins’ return to music in 2016 with Lodestar, she’s been exceptionally productive. After the release of a film and soundtrack, The Ballad of Shirley Collins, the prize-winning autobiography All in the Downs, it became obvious that Collins’ musical contributions are indelibly revered. Collins departed from music for 38 years after suffering dysphonia, the loss of her singing voice, partially caused by a stinging divorce. Thankfully, Lodestar reacquainted Collins with the music industry and recast the spotlight onto an honored artist. Her recent album, Heart’s Ease,enshrines her position as a legendary folksinger while affirming Collins’ musical prowess. Without question, Heart’s Ease is a contender for best folk album of 2020.
Several of Heart’s Ease tracks have been a part of Collins’ songbook for decades. She first heard “The Merry Golden Tree”, for example, in Arkansas in 1959, while conducting field research with Alan Lomax. A bleak ballad about seafaring treachery, Collins renders its authenticity with a vocal and instrumental simplicity. On the same trip, she first recorded “Wondrous Love” at a Sacred Harp Convention. Heart’s Ease‘s version is methodical; the slide guitar and mandolin emphasize Collins’ vocals without overburdening the interplay. When Collins sings “through all eternity, I’ll sing on”, it is a defiant reflection of the artist and her 60-year career.
Heart’s Ease delivers unequivocal descriptions of humanity. Collins keenly uses music to demonstrate a multitude of human emotions and rejects the portrayal of a singular standpoint. “Rolling in the Dew” is as saucy as it is sweet. Sex is central to the human experience, and Collins holds no reservations in representing the joy resulting from physicality. “Tell Me True” elicits a poignant emotional response, especially when Collins’ voice breaks. Heart’s Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to Collins; they are ownerless. Collins is the mere conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.
On the album’s press release, Collins says, “I thought ‘somebody has got to sing these songs, so it might as well be me!” A true ethnomusicological lens, Collins’ music envisions a historical narrative. Heart’s Ease includes the standard “Barbara Allen“. Collins marks a specific point and doesn’t attempt to capture the song’s influence over the centuries fully. She also includes songs from her native Sussex, including “The Christmas Song” and “Canadee-i-o”. These songs are portraits of rural individuals and their lives. “Canadee-i-o” was sung by shepherds and widely made available by a field recording by Peter Kennedy in the 1960s. Collins’ version enlivens an account frequently unscrutinized by historians.
A part of understanding the quotidian requires valuing the personal. Collins does so with “Sweet Greens and Blues”, a profound exploration of the difficulties and joys derived from parenting. With lyrics written by Collins’ first husband, Austin John Marshall, Nathan Salsburg (curator of the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity in the US) joins on guitar. The track is a frank and sincere depiction of Collins’ and Mitchell’s everyday life while safeguarding their place in social history.
Heart’s Ease is also a reminder of music’s centralized cultural role. “Orange in Bloom” is an audible illustration of dancing as it is built on the sound of shoes hitting the floor in time with bells jingling. The interconnection between music and dancing is reiterated in “Whitsun Dance”. Marshall wrote the lyrics, then Collins recorded it with her sister Dolly for the 1969 album Anthems in Eden. The song illustrates Morris dance, a tradition traditionally performed by men. During World War I, women chose to carry-on the dance after so many men lost their lives in battle. The song is a testament to collective mourning and a memorial of sacrifice.
Collins revisits storytelling as a monumental facet of culture in “Locked in Ice”. Written by Collins’ late nephew Buz, the song is an extraordinary recounting of the SS Baychimo. A cargo shipped abandoned off the Alaskan coast in 1931, it supposedly reappears entombed in an icy sheet. Collins’ interpretation is haunting, lending the ghost ship credibility. Deftly indisputable on Heart’s Ease, Collins’ music acts as a cultural time capsule to preserve legacies.
Heart’s Ease rejects ahistorical readings of folk music and narratives. In this way, Collins also uses the album to concretely connect the past to modernity. The closer, “Crowlink“, is named after the area on the South Downs overlooking the English Channel. It blends a hurdy-gurdy with electronica and field recordings of waves and sea birds. It is surprisingly experimental but without being at odds with the more traditional folk aesthetic. In fact, “Crowlink”, as is Heart’s Ease, are formidable signifiers of Collins’ continuing contribution to folk music’s evolution.