FolkWorld #67 11/2018
© Walkin' T:-)M

German Book Reviews

T:-)M's Night Shift

"Shirley Collins is without doubt one of England's greatest cultural treasures," says Billy Bragg about the folk singer who was a significant contributor to the English folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s. Bragg had recently published a book about the skiffle music phenomenon[66] and doesn't fail to mention that blues shouter Redd Sullivan and trad singer Shirley Collins were disputing which version of American folk songs that had emigrated from the British Isles was the most approbriate to perform: Sullivan would want to sing it the way he heard it on a Library of Congress recording, while Collins would prefer the version she had discovered in Cecil Sharp House.

Altan: The Tunes Traditional Irish group Altan are delighted to present their first printed collection of instrumental music. Spanning thirty years, twelve studio albums and comprising 222 tunes, this book delves into the history, folklore and the composers and musical heroes from whom the music was collected. Each chapter begins with an insight into the thought process behind the making of each album. Harmonic arrangements have been specially edited for accompanists.

Martin Tourish (ed.), Altan: The Tunes. 2018, pp206

Erin Hart: False Mermaid Altan's version of the traditional Irish song "An Mhaighdean Mhara" (The Mermaid, see lyrics below) from their 1993 album "Island Angel" inspired Erin Hart's third mystery thriller, False Mermaid. Hart once again combines forensics and archaeology with Irish mythology: American pathologist Nora Gavin remains haunted by the unsolved murder of her sister Tríona years ago. She had fled to Ireland where she had met archaeologist Cormac Maguire and became involved in a couple of mysteries (see "Haunted Ground" [47] and "Lake of Sorrows" [50]). But now Nora is driven back home revisiting old clues, e.g. what is the significance of the False Mermaid seeds (Floerkea proserpinacoides) found on Tríona’s body? At the same time Cormac visits his sick father in Donegal and hears the tale of a fisherman's wife who disappeared a century ago. Had she been murdered by her husband? Or had she been a selkie, a creature part human and part seal, who returned to the sea? Cormac's father's acquaintance Roz has been investigating:

»Shape-shifting and fairy-bride archetypes have always been my bread and butter as a folklorist. There's a famous Donegal song, An Mhaighdean Mhara, about a sea maid tricked into marriage with a human, who eventually leaves her family and returns to the sea. ... There were loads of stories about mermaids and selkies collected in this part of the world, but there's one detail that makes An Mhaighdean Mhara stand out. The sea maid has a Christian name and a surname-- ... In local parish census records from 1901, I stumbled across a fisherman called P.J. Heaney ... He did have a common-law wife, who disappeared under rather mysterious circumstances in 1896 ... I've come to believe that she was murdered--most likely by her husband ...«

This is the setting for two complex parallel stories leading up to a showdown on top of the cliffs of Donegal. Though emotionally on the edge, Nora and Cormac still find some time to visit a local pub and listen to fine traditional Irish music ...

Erin Hart, False Mermaid. Scribner, 2011, ISBN 978- 1-41656-377-8


Artist Video                           Altan @ FROG


Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning: Eirlandia Irish flutist Brian Dunning (formerly of Nightnoise ft. Johnny Cunningham, Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill) has collaborated with keyboardist Jeff Johnson since the late 1980s recording several Contemporary Celtic albums together (plus a track in Martin Scorcese's Gangs of New York). Their new album Eirlandia offers meditative and cinematic instrumental music that was inspired by and serves as a soundtrack for Stephen R. Lawhead's latest fantasy novel In The Region Of The Summer Stars, set in the fictive Celtic land of Eirlandia. Their music brings to life Lawhead's creation and portrays the feelings and experiences of some of its characters. Johnson and Dunning previously had made music to accompany other Lawhead books, including the Song of Albion and King Raven series.

Artist Video Stephen R. Lawhead, In the Region of the Summer Stars: Eirlandia, Book One. Tor Books, 2018, ISBN 978-0-7653-8344-0, pp336, €22,98 (
Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning, Eirlandia. ARK Music, 2018

Mean Mary: Blazing Mary James wrote her first song as a six-year-old, called Mean Mary From Alabam. The name stuck ever since. These days Mean Mary James is best known for her fast banjo picking, however, she is also no mean guitarist, fiddler and singer. She writes acoustic pop songs drawing on folk, blues and bluegrass music, and she is also an author of several novels co-written with her mother Jean. Thus Mean Mary's latest album with her brother Frank, Blazing, is a collection of banjo and guitar instrumentals and the soundtrack to the mystery thriller, Hell Is Naked.

Jean & Mary James, Hell Is Naked. 2018, (
Mean Mary, Blazing. Woodrock Records, 2018

Mean Mary

Artist Video                        Mean Mary @ FROG


Shirley Collins

Artist Video Shirley Collins @ FROG

Shirley Collins herself remembers the time like this:

Since the start of the 1950s, while I was starting to delve into the tradition of English song, a craze had been sweeping the country – it was called skiffle, music that almost anyone could play, mostly souped-up, speeded-up American songs and blues, thrashed out on guitars, home-made basses, and washboards played with thimbles. The longer this craze lasted, the more frantic it became, the young enthusiasts basing themselves on its worst (in my opinion) perpetrator, Lonnie Donegan. Skiffle was thought of as working-class music because anyone could afford to buy or make the instruments, and could play their music wherever and whenever they wanted, free of the constraints of the pop music business.

John Hasted wanted to capitalise on the craze, and formed John Hasted’s Skiffle and Folk Group, even going so far as to change the name of the folk club he’d started, The Good Earth, to The 44 Skiffle Club. He justified this by hoping that audiences who came in for the skiffle would be interested in the folk element of it. And I became part of it, singing folksongs in between sets of raucous skiffle which, while they may have lacked finesse, were certainly full of energy, played by a band fronted by Redd Sullivan, a merchant seaman, and Martin Winsor. One evening when I was in the audience at Martin’s Soho club Folk & Blues, I grew so incensed that no-one had sung any folk songs at all that, as I left, I took my lipstick and crossed out the word ‘Folk’ on the poster outside. Martin spotted me and confronted me with a knife, telling me that if I ever went there again, he’d use it. I believed him…

John’s skiffle group played further afield, too. I recall one trip to Suffolk, travelling in John’s rather ancient Morris van, sitting on a blanket on the floor in the back, while John’s girlfriend took the passenger seat for the whole bumpy ride. An important lesson learned there; the group’s singer doesn’t take precedence over the bandleader’s sweetheart.

In an earlier book, Shirley Collins recalled her memories of a field recording trip with Alan Lomax in the deep South of America in 1959. However, she hadn't detailled her musical career before, especially the personal drama that made her abandon singing in the late 1970s at all.

But let's get back in time. Shirley Collins was born in 1935 and grew up with her older sister Dolly in the Hastings area of East Sussex. So, not a very exciting place, but she cannot remember ever being bored as a child: Dolly and I had music!

I sang occasionally ... at the recently opened Troubadour Coffee Bar in [London's ] Earl’s Court where there was a folk club in the basement, known as the Cellar. ... there was quite a variety of guest singers from all over the country; Alex Campbell, a tall roguishly attractive Scot; a young Martin Carthy (well, we were all young then, weren’t we?) who inflamed the passions of the ladies, and impressed with his guitar playing and his repertoire of songs; Dominic Behan who sang Irish rebel songs and who grew more vicious the more he drank; Louis Killen from Newcastle, a fine singer of a great many long ballads about seabattles, which he sang in his strong Geordie accent and which, I must confess, I gave up trying to follow. There was the Scots duo Robin Hall and Jimmie MacGregor who went on to become household names with their regular appearances on BBC TV’s Tonight programme and Hootenanny.

I loved it when the genuine traditional singers came down occasionally, such as Seamus Ennis, the sublime uilleann pipe player, singer and story-teller – ‘a lean greyhound of a fellow’ as Alan Lomax described him. There was The McPeake Family from Belfast, whose song ‘The Wild Mountain Thyme’ became surely the most sung anthem in the folk world; and the great Irish singer and tinker Margaret Barry, knocking people out with the power and intensity of her voice and her remarkable presence. But the most popular of all was the American Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson hat, who sang a lot of talking blues in a very laconic style. He was joined by another American, the very laid-back Derroll Adams, who wrote ‘Portland Town’, a song that the audiences loved and sang themselves into a trance-like state with its repetitive chorus. So when another visitor arrived from the States, he was thought of as a young upstart. His name was Bob Dylan. Jenny Barton (now Hicks), who was running the club at the time, told me that he asked to sing, so she gave him two songs: he sang them, then disappeared for the rest of the evening into the toilet, smoking some substance or other. I didn’t reckon him much at the time, but other people said – years later – they recognised his genius straightaway…

Ewan [MacColl] was a looming figure that you couldn’t ignore, although I had taken an instant dislike and mistrust of him the first time I heard him sing. I found him pretentious and pompous, although those probably aren’t the words I’d have used then. I simply knew that here was a vain, conceited man and, to my ears, not a convincing singer. And his habit of turning a chair round, straddling it backwards, before tipping his head back and cupping one ear with his hand made me giggle – it looked so silly.

Shirley moved in with American folk collector Alan Lomax, who had come to Britain to avoid the McCarthy witch-hunt. She joined Lomax in The Ramblers (featuring Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger) and on a field recording trip in the American South (noted for the discovery of Mississippi Fred McDowell).

Shirley Collins, All in the Downs - Reflections on life, landscape and song. Strange Attractor Press, 2018, ISBN 978-1907222-412, pp273, £15.99 (PB) / £25 (HB)

Realistically I couldn’t ever expect to find a life as eventful as the one I’d experienced in America, yet much as I’d enjoyed that unique and remarkable experience, and as greatly as I’d loved the people I met there, deep down I realised that I belonged to England, that I wanted to be an English singer of English songs.

Singing English traditional songs as I did was never the easiest, and certainly not the most popular, option. Irish and Scottish music was what most people preferred, and it was loved worldwide: The Dubliners, The Chieftains, The Corries and the Clancy Brothers were crowd-pleasers. I knew I could never achieve that, nor did I want to; it wasn’t what I’d set out to accomplish. The downside of their popularity was that it spawned so many second-rate singers and musicians who copied their repertoires; the music was everywhere, you couldn’t get away from it and it became commonplace. A general laziness pervaded the scene, and audiences seemed quite content to sing the same old chorus songs and to listen to the same, often second-rate, material being churned out night after weary night.

Collins married Ashley Hutchings in 1971. He eventually left Steeleye Span and assembled the first incarnation of the Albion Country Band. It became a musically fruitful partnership. However, Hutchings ran off with an actress. The painful divorce caused dysphonia (which she only mentions briefly), leading to her retirement from music altogether. She subsequently worked for The British Museum, Cecil Sharp House, Oxfam, South-East Arts and The Job Centre until she reached retirement age in 1995.

In 2002, Fellside Records produced a box set of Shirley's recordings from 1955 to 1978 and asked her for a contribution to an English/Australian folk song sampler.

One person said it reminded him of his grandmother singing, and a BBC announcer said I sounded like Tom Waits! But, as I listened to it, at least I thought, I still knew how to ‘tell’ a song properly.

In 2014, Earth Recordings released a set featuring covers of songs she had recorded. It served as a fundraiser for a documentary film about her life. She eventually released Lodestar, her first new album in 38 years, and sang in public again.

Interspersed with lots of song fragments, All in the Downs is a vivid and matter-of-fact reflection on Shirley's life, her music - and the landscape, the South Downs of her beloved Sussex.

I had loved being up there on those long stretches of Downland in such clear light, breathing air off the sea, wondering what was over the next hill brow topped by huge white clouds. I loved the feel of the springy turf beneath my feet, and the chalk and flints kicking up on the paths. And all the while, the sound of skylarks, those elusive songsters who you could hear, but rarely see, so high in the sky were they.

I felt too that those long, serene lines of the Downs were there in the songs of Sussex, whose anthemic tunes flow with such strength and grace. And the hawthorns, their bark covered in rusty lichen, blown and shaped by the prevailing south-westerly winds, were like the songs, shaped by the many voices that have sung them, changing gradually over the years.

Folk music reflects the landscape it’s written in. Certainly it is true that the land necessarily once governed the occupation of its inhabitants, whether as shepherds, farm labourers, carters, fishermen, poachers, blacksmiths, or in times of war, soldiers and sailors, pressed away to join the armies and navies – all of which gave rise to hundreds of folk songs.

It grieves and angers me that nowadays the term folk music has come to mean almost anything – a singer-songwriter, a pop star with a guitar or an accordion, as if that is its true definition. Anyone can claim to have written a ‘folk song’, completely ignorant of, or dismissing the fact that it’s the long journey down through so many, many years that makes it the real thing, that essential handing-on by word of mouth by generations of singers.

An Mhaighdean Mhara

Is cosúil gur mheath tú nó gur thréig tú an greann	 		You seem to be pining and forsaking the fun
Tá an sneachta go freasach fá bhéal na mbeann' 			The snowdrifts are heavy by the fords in the burn
Do chúl buí daite is do bhéilín sámh	 				Your bright golden tresses and smile gentle and mild
Siúd chugaibh Mary Chinidh 's í 'ndiaidh an Éirne 'shnámh 	I give you Mary Kinney who has swum the ocean wide
A mháithrín mhilis duirt Máire Bhán	 				"Darling mother," cries Máire Bhán
Fá bhruach an chladaigh 's fá bhéal na trá	 			From the banks of the ocean and down by the tide
Maighdean mhara mo mhaithrín ard	 				"Mermaid, my mother, my pride"
Siúd chugaibh Mary Chinidh 's í 'ndiaidh an Éirne 'shnámh 	I give you Mary Kinney who has swum the ocean wide
Tá mise tuirseach agus beidh go lá	 				I'm tired and weary and will be 'til dawn
Mo Mháire bhroinngheal 's mo Phádraig bán	 			For my darling Mary and my Pádraid bán
Ar bharr na dtonna 's fá bhéal na trá	 				As I ride on the billows and drift with the tide
Siúd chugaibh Mary Chinidh 's í 'ndiaidh an Éirne 'shnámh 	I give you Mary Kinney who has swum the ocean wide

An Mhaighdean Mhara

Photo Credits: (1ff) Book/CD Covers, (6) Shirley Collins, (7) Seamus Ennis, (8) Alan Lomax, (9) Ewan MacColl, (10) Altan, (11) Mean Mary, (from website/author/publishers).

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