A collection of British songs about love, adapted and sung by Shirley Elizabeth Collins of Sussex, England; with guitar and five string banjo accompaniment by John Hasted, Ralph Rinzler, Guy Carawan and Miss Collins. False True Lovers was Shirley Collins’ first full length album, recorded in London by Alan Lomax and Peter Kennedy and released on the prestigious American Folkways label. The choice of repertoire and arrangements capture a turning moment in the English folk song revival of the 1950’s, and in the recording career of one of England’s finest interpreters of traditional song.
Original sleevenotes by Alan Lomax:
In the British-American song tradition folk singers generally reach their prime between the ages of thirty-five and fifty and often continue to sing extremely well into their seventies. This is a generalisation which applies, with some exceptions of course, to most of the areas I know in North America and Europe. If it is true – and in so vast and complex a field as folk-song, generalisation is difficult – the explanation may turn out to be something like the following.
On the whole our “big tunes” are of a contemplative, restrained and somewhat melancholy character. The songs themselves, are usually serious, often tragic in content. Normally the singer functions as a bard, a story-weaver, performing in solo for his silent audience. Thus his authority as a person plays an important part in his effectiveness with his audience. His success as a story teller, of course, depends in part upon his mature understanding of events he is narrating. As a musician, his art is largely the product of the skill and taste with which he decorates the solo melody in various rather subtle traditional ways. in Gaelic-speaking Ireland, when a singer has full command of these traditional techniques of ornamenting tunes, they say he has “blás”. The equivalent expression in English would be singing style, but that does not quite express the whole of the idea contained in the Irish word. Actually here we close to the central mystery of the art of singing in the Western European solo tradition. “Blás” does not stand for just musicianship, but for the manner in which the singer varies the tune in slight but significant ways from stanza to stanza, but without obtruding his personality too blatantly – it refers to subtle tempo changes which accommodate lines of varying length – it has to do with the way in which certain phrases are emphasised or given colour by changes in vocal timbre – and all of these things are ways of linking the verse to the tune and require talent, practice and taste on the part of the singer.
The authority of a singer is, therefore, summed up for the Irish in the term “blás”, and, ultimately, it seems to me, this authority depends upon his emotional maturity or, at least, upon his grasp of the content of the songs he sings and the subtle hidden currents of emotion in these songs. In most cases, therefore, since so many of these songs are tragic and, in their way, art of a high order, a singer weathered by time and buffeted by the disappointments and tragedies which are normal to life, can more effectively realise this inner content. His “blás” improves with age even though his voice may lose its youthful freshness. Thus it is to be expected that singers in our culture would come to full possession of their powers as they reached their maturity.
“Maturity” is, of course, a vague term, which implies loss as well as gain. Nothing is more haunting than to hear a young girl, as yet untouched by years, singing one of the big sad songs, brooding romantically over the sorrowful tale, almost seeming to yearn to have the experiences herself. This, it seems to me, is part of the pleasure I have in listening to Shirley Collins sing.
But there is more to this matter. A young person, growing up within a folk culture acquires this “blás” as he learns his songs. His manner of singing is an integral part of the whole of each song, and this is precisely what most city singers of folk songs lack and can acquire only after years of study and practice. In both the folk and city environments, however, singers ripen at different ages, depending on their talent and upon their empathy with the material, itself. But I should think it would be comforting for anyone interested in the art of folk-singing to reflect that, all things being equal, he need not fear the roughening effect of time on his vocal chords nearly so much as the pop singer or the art singer in our culture. His “blás” or his stylistic grasp of the folk songs he loves will gradually improve, as he grows older, if he is faithful to the canons of folk-singing and does not give in to the temptations to sing in either the “classical” or the “pop” styles.
As I write this I am listening to the most recent recordings of Muddy Waters, the blues singer. I found Muddy seventeen years ago in Mississippi and recorded him for the Library of Congress. He is still working with the same stylistic materials he used at that time, and, considering that he has lived and sung since then in the world of the commercial blues in
Chicago, his style has remained remarkably intact. His voice has coarsened, he has “improved” his accent and this has erased some of his earlier subtlety; he has also learned to work with a band so that his phrasing and his vocalising are more cut and dried than formerly; yet on the whole he has gained as a singer. He is in complete command of the blues today, and can do whatever he chooses to do in colouring the melodic line to match the flow of the text.
Jean Ritchie, a singer with another folk background, has also stuck to her native Kentucky style and seems to me to sing with more authority and with finer “blás” than when I first worked with her ten years ago. Peggy Seeger, who learned her songs from field recordings when she was a child, has a clear idea of how she wishes to sing and despite the fact that her voice is very small, and that she has never lived the life of the “folk”, steadily improves as a singer with every year. An even more remarkable case is that of Jack Elliott, who was born and raised in Brooklyn. Most of his friends despaired of his ever acquiring a “style of his own”, as Jack was content for many years to sing Woody Guthrie songs exactly as Woody sang them. To many people Jack seemed for a time just a pale carbon copy of Woody. But somewhere in this process, Jack learned the language of Southwestern singing and the last time I heard him was able to lend his own “blás”, composed of elements from a wide range of Southern white and Negro styles to many kinds of songs. Furthermore, everything seemed relaxed and natural as it came from Jack, and I felt sure, as I listened, that he would continue to grow in stature as a singer of folk songs.
It is in this sense, especially, that I find Miss Collins an important figure in the English folk song scene. Her problems are quite different from those of most American singers, as the English folk song “blás” has been in decay for generations. Although it has been possible to find single ballad singers here and there in Southern England, few communities exist where the tradition is intact and where there remains a clear-cut “blás” which can serve as the model for a singer of this generation. The majority of contemporary country singers tend to be old people with broken voices and with only a trace of the magic that so touched Sharp when he went collecting in Southern England two generations ago.
Shirley has the good fortune to grow up in a family of rural working-class intellectuals. Her grandfather, Fred Ball, was a landscape gardener at Telham in Sussex, who went the rounds of the country pubs on Saturday, singing folky songs, not only for his own pleasure, but because he was proud of the musical heritage of his peasant ancestors. He and his two brothers formed an impromptu pub orchestra of piccolo, tin whistle, accordion, spoons and tea tray and stomped and jangled out the old marching tunes and reels. Then on Sunday morning the Balls gathered in the loft of the Telham church where they formed the whole of the church choir. Christmas times, the whole family, including the children, were expected to know a book-full of traditional carols. Shirley remembers, during World War II, when the Nazi bombers were coming in low over the English coast and buzzing Hastings where she grew up, that her Grandma Ball would sing her to sleep in the air-raid shelter with the old ballads of love and parting.
In school, of course, Shirley learned the Cecil Sharp songs of Southern England, which have for many years formed the basis of the musical education of the young people Britain. But to her they had a different meaning than to many young girls. First of all, they had the same quality as the traditional songs of her grandparents, and she felt free to apply her family-acquired style to them. Thus there are many songs in Shirley’s repertoire, which, though based on Sharp’s arranged versions, are clear cut folk variants, with the style reapplied and the song coming alive again and beginning to grow in the folk manner, that is, within the emotional and musical canons of the Sussex style.
Many of her relatives and close family friends are painters and writers, with a strong bias toward regional subjects and a passionate desire to celebrate the character of the Southern English working class. From them Shirley acquired a fierce pride in the music she had inherited. Singing it truly, performing it with the artistry of her folk ancestors is what she desires passionately to do. For her, the soft landscape of Southern England, the slurred accent of Southern speech are utterly charming and delightful. When she sings, she is vocalising her identity with the Southern English countryside and its culture. As her family has never had money, she was raised poor and felt, in the way that only a young girl feels it, the harshness of reality and the tormenting bite of poverty as they fall upon the hearts of the young women of Sussex, the makers and the heroines of many of these songs. For the last several years, Shirley has lived in London, feeling, as many young Britishers do today, that to sing traditional ballads is the finest of the arts. She has learned several hundred songs by ear and from the collections of Sharp, both English and American, but has brought to each one of them, not her own individual creative wish, as much as an inherited style of singing, which has enriched them all. Finally, she has tackled, virtually alone and trusting only in her own sure instincts, the difficult task of arranging accompaniments for her repertoire.
Instrumental accompaniment has not been part of the Southern English folk scene for centuries. Indeed, one might say that the American mountaineer with his banjo, rediscovered an accompanying technique for the ancient modal tradition of Britain. I think Shirley’s instinct was right in deciding to try to set her Southern English melodies to American five-string banjo accompaniment. Her teacher, that remarkable banjo-playing physicist, John Hasted, has a generous heart, a genuine love of the real thing and a good banjo technique, but a much less sure way of dealing with these gentle and rather placid English tunes, than has Miss Collins. Thus Shirley has been working on her own and in her own way for the last three or four years. During the whole time I knew her, her command of her songs and her grasp of singing style grew surer. And this was all the more remarkable, in that she was slowly picking her way back across almost a century, finding for herself the traditional heart of each song, and making it come alive again, but in an increasingly tasteful folk manner. This album captures something of what she had learned to do by about April of 1957. At that time she still needed her more technically accomplished friends to help out on the accompaniments. Today, I understand, she has found her own arrangements for almost everything she sings – a major musical accomplishment. What comes through, however, is sincerity, purity of instinct and a tremendous delicacy of feeling. Here one occasionally has that rarest of musical experiences – hearing a young girl singing alone in the house or garden, dreaming of love. This is a quality which Shirley is bound to lose, as time passes, but I am sure she is fully upon the right road and that by the time she has reached that half century mark, she will sing with the great “blás” of a Texas Gladden, an Aunt Molly Jackson, or an Elizabeth Cronin.
1 I Drew My Ship Trad arr J Stokoe & S Collins
I Drew My Ship was collected by John Stokoe in ‘Songs & Ballads of Northern England’ with no source mentioned. Though it is similar in form and content to many other aubades or dawn serenades, we have not been able to find another song to which this is precisely akin. The listener who cares to compare the recorded version with that published by Stokoe will see how Miss Collins has breathed life back into the print and made something lovely and alive out of an unimpressive folk fragment.
2 The Irish Boy Trad arr S Collins
Though we have found nothing quite like it in print, this song is clearly a fragment of one of the many ballads of Irish immigration so common in the 19th century. The tune resembles Margaret Barry’s Mantle So Green’, but the song is a folk creation by Shirley Collins.
3 The Spermwhale Fishery Trad arr A L Lloyd
The Spermwhale Fishery is a variant of the widely-sung broadside ballad, ‘The Lowlands of Holland’, which was published in 1776 in Herd’s Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs’ as well as in the Roxburghe broadside collection. A L Lloyd printed this Lancashire variant in The Singing Englishman’ and it is surely one of the most beautiful of the love songs of the sea.
4 Dennis O’Reilly Trad arr E Waters & S Collins
Dennis O’Reilly is an instance of the speed with which folk songs are travelling nowadays. It began its life as one of the many songs of the Irish immigrants to Australia. Mister Goodwin of Leichhardt, New South Wales, picked it up on the Nambucca River of NSW and, when he was 73 sang it for Cecil English and John Meredith. From them it passed into the repertoire of Edgar Waters, the Australian ballad collector, who brought it to England and taught it to Shirley Collins. My guess is that from her record it will pass into the repertoire of the young folk singers on this continent.
5 My Bonny Miner Lad Cosgrove-Lloyd
Anyone who knows the books and records of Ewan MacColl and A L Lloyd realises that folk-song making did not cease with the advent of the industrial revolution in Great Britain. The country people, reworked their traditional songs or composed new pieces to tell of their struggles and to celebrate their grimy-handed heroes. Some of those industrial ballads have been in circulation for more than a century, have been varied in the traditional folk manner, and rank with the best of the British song tradition. The oldest and most productive of these industrial folk traditions is that of the miners, of which A L Lloyd has made a superlative collection. One of his informants was the Scots miner’s wife, daughter of several generations of miners, Mrs Cosgrove of Keltingrove in the Lowlands of Scotland. I had the pleasure on one occasion of hearing Mrs Cosgrove singing in her own house, as she fixed a midnight snack for her men-folks who were going down on the night shift, and told stories of mining disasters and strikes. I can testify that her style and her point of view are those of a true folk singer. This song has been collected in another form among the coal miners of Nova Scotia.
6 Just As The Tide Was Flowing Trad arr S Collins
A fragment of a folky ballad, almost certainly of literary origin, found in various parts of England by Sharp, Kidson and Collinson, learned by Miss Collins from her mother’s sister, Grace Winborn of Hastings in Sussex.
7 Bobby Shaftoe Trad arr S Collins
One of the best known British folk songs, is here sung with vigour and snap as it was when John Stokoe found it in Northern England. In the North the tune has been played for country dancing. What one usually hears is a sentimentalised, slowed-down reworking of the song.from which all the Northern dialect has been deleted, along with the child which the girl friend is carrying against Bobby Shaftoe’s return.
8 Richie Story (or The Earl of Weymss) Trad arr MacColl
Richie Story is a rare ballad published by Child as No. 232 of his collection ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’. According to his note, the ballad is based in history. Lillias Fleming, daughter of John, third Earl of Wigton, ran away with and married one of her father”s servants, Richard Storry, and in 1673 she resigned her portion of the family land. In all but one of the Child versions, Lillias seems satisfied with the choice she has made, but in that one Richard turns out to be an Earl in disguise. The present variant comes from Ewan MacColl, who learned it from his Scots father and from Hughie Graham of Newton Stuart, Galloway, and added supplementary text from a variant in Gavin Greig’s collection. Here, where romanticism has a field day, we discover that Richard is really the King of England!
9 The Unquiet Grave Trad arr S Collins
From Cecil Sharp’s ‘English Folk Songs’. This is one of the classic pieces of English folk song literature. From one point of view it is a feminine fantasy or a wish, perhaps for the death of a lover, perhaps for a way of arranging a night visit by the lover, perhaps for a way of showing how strong her love is, perhaps of a feeling of guilt. Certainly, it is a ghost story designed to delight the imagination of young women. Finally, it shows the survival of ancient and widely distributed primitive beliefs about the treatment of the dead. The rowdy Irish wake is the only one example of the common folk custom of a gathering in which ceremonial banqueting and games were indulged in to show honour to the dead person. The shade was given a great send-off to the other world. Sometimes guns were fired to send him skittering away in fear. Sometimes a special door was cut in the side of the wall so that the coffin could be taken out by that route; and then this hole was walled up so that the ghost could not find his way back into the house again.
In Scotland and Ireland it was believed that excessive grief prevented the dead from resting; that the tears shed by the mourners pierced holes in the corpse. In Persia they held that the tears shed by humanity for their dead flowed into a river in which the souls floated and drowned. Similar beliefs were held by the Greeks and Romans, and from mediaeval times throughout Germany and Scandinavia.
Sharp says that in England a belief was current that if a girl was betrothed to a man, she was pledged to him if he died, and was bound to follow him to the spirit world unless she solved certain riddles, or performed certain tasks, such as fetching water from a desert, blood from a stone, milk from the breast of a virgin…
1O The Swapping Song Trad arr S Collins
From Cecil Sharp’s ‘English Folk Songs for Schools’, is common in England and in America as well.
11 Poor Old Horse Trad arr S Collins
From Cecil Sharp’s ‘Folk Songs of England’, is a landlubber relative of the familiar sea shanty: Say, old man, your horse will die, And I say so and I hope so, And if he dies I’ll sell his skin, Poor old horse.
There can be no doubt that the land-variant, which Sharp found as a part of the hobby-horse drama in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire, is older by far. The hobby horse, an important actor in British springtime ceremonies, is a fantastic and sometimes terrifying mask which covers the entire body of the dancer. The horse-dancer goes the round of the community, often on May Day, alternately dying and being revived by his companions, symbolising the death of the old year, and of the fertility of the earth. These spring-time antics of the hobby-horse, which still amuse tourists in certain remote districts of western England, are a genuine survival of ancient pagan fertility rites. That a horse-mask dances in Britain on May Day is one more evidence of the importance of the horse-cult, widespread in all Europe thousands of years ago. Therefore, this charming little comic fragment, which Sharp had taught to all the school children in Britain, is a gentle breath of a pagan fertility rite that once upon a time was a compound of magic, religion, comedy and sex.
12 The False True Love Trad arr S Collins
From Cecil Sharp’s ‘English Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, volume II’. The False True Love is one of hundreds of examples showing that the British folk song tradition has grown steadily more lyrical in the past two or three hundred years. As the role of the ballad singer lost its importance, the narrative pieces were broken down into fragmentary lyric songs. This process has been especially marked and rapid in the Southern Appalachian area, from which this song comes.
The original piece is a tragic ballad, called ‘Young Hunting’ (Child 68), probably Scots in origin, but widespread throughout Britain and North America. It tells of a young man who rides by to visit an old sweetheart. When she bids him to light down and spend the night, he says that he prefers his new light of love. Whereupon the jealous girl stabs him, throws his corpse into the well and curses him. The remainder of the ballad consists of a dialogue between the murderess and her little parrot, the sole witness, who insists he will tell all and will not be bribed or threatened into silence.
All that is left of this story in the Tennessee lyric form is the opening bit of dialogue. Moreover, the situation has been so generalised that either part may be taken by a man or a woman, and there is no hint of violence. The song dwells upon the faithlessness of lovers, and the tragic position of the betrayed one, twin themes which are paramount in American erotic folk poetry. In the view of an academic critic such as Louise Pound the shortening of the ballad into the lyric song represents merely a decay in the folk tradition. Perhaps she would not hold to this opinion if she could hear the song as it is actually sung. One can say no more than this; at one time there was a fine ballad and later it gave rise to an equally beautiful lyric piece.
13 The Foggy Dew Trad arr S Collins
From Cecil Sharp’s ‘English Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, volume II’, is one of the few of the frankly erotic songs so common in Southern England to survive more or less uncensored in American tradition. Its centre of dispersal seems to have been the Suffolk-Norfolk area, where it still can be heard being roared out in remote country pubs…
And ev-er-y time she cocks her leg,
I thinks of the fo–o—ggy de-ew.
This ribald variant has been frequently broadcast over the BBC, which in spite of its occasional stodginess, makes our American radio and television networks seem old-maidish. However, Miss Collins prefers the version that Sharp found in Calloway, Virginia. I quote her : I think that this is the most beautiful version of the song to be found anywhere. To me, it’s the only version that doesn’t have a sneer behind it; it’s truly tender and loving. But James Reeves, the author of ‘The Idiom of the People’, says, “it has a rough coherence, but surely none of the subtlety or the emotional and psychological interest of English versions.” – and “it is an example of the hopeless confusion resulting from evident misunderstanding of traditional symbolism.” However, I’m sure for girls everywhere, the Virginian variant wins hands down…
14 Mowing The Barley Trad arr S Collins
From Cecil Sharp’s ‘English Folk Songs’, often called ‘Lawyer Lee’, may be a lyricised variant of ‘The Baffled Knight’, in which a clever girl outwits her would-be seducer and keeps her maidenhead. In this southern English variant, however, the virgin seems to have wearied in the chase. Miss Collins learned the song from her mother, and is not sure whether it derives from Sharp or not.
15 Scarborough Fair Trad arr S Collins
Derived by MacColl from Cecil Sharp’s ‘English Folk Songs’. Scarborough Fair is a fragment of an extremely ancient ballad (Child No. 2 ‘The Elfin Knight’), common in all areas of Britain and North America. In the original song a girl hears the far-off blast of the elfin’s knight horn and wishes he were in her bedroom. He straightaway appears, but will not consent to be her lover until she answers a series of riddles. This trait of test-by-riddle is a heritage from remote antiquity. The survival of this ancient piece of folklore is assured by the fact that all the couplets in this song contain gentle, but evocative erotic symbols.
16 The Cruel Mother Trad arr E MacColl
Known throughout Great Britain and North America, ‘The Cruel Mother’ reminds us of one of the commonest crimes traditional in our culture – infanticide. In the older forms found in Child (no. 20) the girl kills her three illegitimate babes because she is planning to marry and wishes to appear at her wedding as a virgin. However, one of the children remains alive and begs a passer-by to take him to the wedding, where he denounces his mother. Thereupon, she is carried off to hell.
The present version comes from Ewan MacColl, who learned the tune from his mother, Betsy Miller, completing it from the Greig collection. In common with the women who have treasured this song over the centuries, Miss Collins says, “While I feel very sorry for the murdered babes, my deep sympathy lies with the poor mother.”
17 The Bonny Cuckoo Trad arr S Collins
Published in ‘The Clarendon Song Book’, Oxford University Press, and learnt by the Misses Collins in their school choir in Hastings. ‘The Bonny Cuckoo’ is perhaps the most charming of the many songs which celebrate the cuckoo, the harbinger of Spring and the natural symbol of cuckolds.
18 The Queen Of May Trad arr S Collins
From Cecil Sharp’s ‘English Folk Songs’, tells the second part of the story introduced by ‘My Bonny Cuckoo’. When the cry of the cuckoo echoed through the meadows on the eve of the first of May, the young men and women went out together to gather May blossoms and to make love among the springtime blossoms. So deep-rooted was this pagan fertility practice that Protestant ministers were still unsuccessfully trying to eradicate it late in the 19th century. The feeling still lingers in rural England, especially in the lyric songs. It was a misfortune that prudery was at its height. At the time Cecil Sharp was collecting and publishing, fifty years ago. In order to be able to introduce his folk-song finds into the school system, he was forced to bowderlerize the texts and transform many innocently erotic but extremely beautiful songs into the pallid, sentimental pieces which finally turned many Britons against folk music. This, I feel sure, is one of the songs Sharp had to censor. What really happened that May Day morning under the oak tree was probably not legalised in the original folk version that Sharp collected. Of course, it is not possible for an American to cast stones in regard to censorship, for today American school text book editors behave far more prudishly than did Sharp, and poor Baring-Gould in the worst years of the mauve decade.
19 Died For Love Trad arr S Collins
From ‘Traditional Tunes’ by Frank Kidson. ‘Died For Love’ is perhaps the most beautiful of the many variants of the important British folk song, most familiar to us as ‘The Butcher’s Boy’ or ‘There is a Tavern in the Town’, or in Woody Guthrie’s ‘Hard, Ain’t It Hard’. This Northern English variant points to one of the most important differences between British and American love-songs. Typically in the English love song there is an amorous encounter between a young man and the young woman, and though the girl is often betrayed, she expresses in her song a trace of the real pleasure that she experienced. Even more importantly, she has a baby; and, through her melancholy, there lingers note of procreative joy.
Very frequently in these songs the boy returns to marry her when he discovers that she is about to bear him a child. American singers were more prudish; they censored out the pregnancy theme; and the betrayed girl was left to brood over the transiency of love and sigh for death to heal her heartbreak.
notes by Alan Lomax, 1959