Shirley Collins & Davy Graham
Folk Roots, New Routes
he cover of Folk Roots, New Routes, which is a simple studio portrait of Shirley Collins and Davy Graham sitting, isn’t the type that would ever win a design award and it’s hard to imagine it attracting the attention of a casual record shop browser even in its original 12” format, but in its quiet way it’s one of the most beguilingly weird album sleeves in existence. The two figures appear to have come from parallel worlds that should never meet. Shirley Collins looks like a well to do 1950s country mother ready for her regular Sunday visit to church—she looks directly at the viewer with an easy, if slightly studio-frozen, smile on her face. Except for his guitar, Davy Graham looks like someone who’d glass you in a Glasgow pub—he stares with a slight frown, or perhaps just a look of concentration, out of the picture frame, past the viewer and almost, but not quite, at Collins who is seated in front of him.
Despite both being involved in the folk scene, these were people from different worlds. Collins was a left wing folk devotee who moved to London and, after meeting at a party, travelled with Alan Lomax to the American South where they gathered field recordings for the Southern Folk Heritage LP series. By the time of her recording with Graham, Collins had released a couple of LPs and was married with small children. Davy Graham, on the other hand, had been inspired to play guitar by the skiffle boom and had since lived itinerantly, busking in Paris and Greece and travelling in North Africa. By the 1964 recording dates for this LP, he had also managed to pick up a smack addiction.
Davy Graham was of mixed Scots and Guyanese parentage and says that he had to “think like a mongrel. Like a hybrid.” This was the perfect mindset to spawn an unprecedented magpie, omnivorous guitar technique that mixed folk and jazz fingerpicking with a raga-derived modal harmonic style that was inspired by music heard on his travels; this was the perfect mindset to muddy up a folk scene that often produced anaemic work because of ill-conceived and undigested fixed ideas about purity, tradition, and heritage. Perhaps unexpectedly, and if just for one record, Graham’s ideas would dovetail perfectly with those of Collins, who had seen in practice during her time in the USA how song-forms could travel in space and time and how they could change and mutate whilst still remaining undiluted. She had even converted some of these songs ‘back’ into southern English dialect.
Responding to the rhythmic push-and-pull and improvisatory curlicues of the guitar, Shirley Collins’ singing is warmer than on her other recordings, more open and inviting—she actually swings on tracks like “Nottamun Town” and “Hares on the Mountain.” (Diversion: the people I know who dislike Collins voice are folkies, and the people who love it aren’t. I am currently unable to draw any conclusions from this.) These are possibly her least austere recordings, both in their sound and in the variety of the material; if you disregard the ten thousand “drowned that never was born” in “Nottamun Town,” this also has one of the lowest body counts on a Shirley Collins LP. As well as beautiful versions of British folk songs like “Reynardine” and “Bad Girl,” there is the bizarre sound of the American blues, “Boll Weevil, Holler”—“Doggone the boll weevil” sings Collins charmingly if unconvincingly.
Collins and Graham also get some solo turns. Collins version of “Lord Greggory” is so confident that you may not notice that it is sung unaccompanied. On “The Cherry Tree Carol,” as eerie and strange as any piece of music, she plays five string banjo and sings of “Lord Jesus from in his mother’s womb” telling of how when he is born “the stars and the heavens shall all bow down to me.” This is followed by a jaunty jazz cover, as Graham convincingly adds his own shambolic swagger to the strut of Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk.” He also belts through some dizzyingly clangourous sideways motion on the Moroccan-inspired “Rif Mountain.”
In a time when stylistic polyphony is so expected that ‘eclectic’ is an (usually deserved) insult it may be easier to hear the folk roots of these songs, but as they sink in after repeated listening the new routes that they took, and that they opened up for others, become impossible not to hear. Voice and guitar are in perfect balance, supporting each other. Folk Roots, New Routes is folk as a living, breathing, thinking music, full of energy and possibility, not something cast in amber.