Shirley Collins & Davey Graham
Shirley Collins

by Pat Thomas (August 2000)

an excerpt from a forth coming book on English folk rock

It was over 30 years ago today, that Davey & Shirley taught the band to play and were brought together at the suggestion of Shirley's then husband, Austin John Marshall (author of "Dancing At Whitsun"). Davey was well known in the London blues scene having worked with Alexis Korner and John Mayall (playing with Mayall in the Bluesbreakers before Clapton joined) and having released the classic Folk, Blues, And Beyond album. Shirley had released the LP Sweet England back in 1959 and another album for Folkways in the USA before that.

The album they recorded together Folk Routes, New Routes is an absolute landmark recording. Originally released on Decca Records in mono in 1964, it was out of print for many years until released again in stereo by a small label called Righteous Records in 1980. Then again out of print, until its recent release on CD by Topic Records. Interestingly enough, at the time of its 1st reissue in 1980, Shirley and Davey came together again, if ever so briefly to perform a show or two.

The birth of folk rock itself can be found in the opening song "Nottamun Town", you can hear Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span, rising out of the mist of this song. There's as much power in Davey's single guitar and Shirley's solo voice as in all of Fairport blasting thru "Tam Lin". Dylan freaks will recognize the melody line which he swiped for his own "Masters Of War" (but not from this version). Graham's guitar picks and plucks progressively and smoothly and you can hear Jansch & Renbourn, Jimmy Page, and a hundred others in his playing. Shirley soars like never before or since, yet she remains calm behind Graham's fierce jazzy playing. Simply remarkable. I'd give anything to have seen this live.

On "Proud Maisrie," that great Collins voice rings out like a church bell across the farm fields of western England. Davey remains tastefully in the background with his jazz blues riffs. This has to be one of the first times that anyone has approached folk music like this on the guitar (excepting Graham's own earlier recordings). "Cherry Tree Carol" is just Shirley and her banjo, playing delicately and lightly behind her. "Blue Monk" follows, a jazzy guitar instrumental not unlike Davey's solo records of that era.

"Hares On The Mountain" has one of my favorite lines; "If all you young men were fish in the water, how many young girls would undress and dive after?" "Reynardine", a popular song among English folk bands - Shirley and Davey provide a flawless reading here. Throughout this album, Davey seems to bring out a side of Shirley's singing not heard on her other albums - looser and freer somehow, this is the closest that Shirley ever got to a jazz or even a blues feeling. "Pretty Saro" is the kind of "woe is me" song that Shirley enjoys best. She starts off nearly a Capella and Davey slowly comes in and then solos in the middle. There's a naked beauty to their work.

"Rif Mountain" is the kind of fast guitar boogie that Jimmy Page would later mould into "White Summer" - his 10 minute guitar instrumental piece that was common during Zeppelin's 1968/69 shows. "Jane Jane"- this rocks. When Shirley sings out "Hey! Hey! my lordy lord," she could be fronting an R&B band doing Otis Redding covers. Davey sets up a groove and then endlessly improvises from the basic riff. "Love Is Pleasin'" is a beautiful ballad about leaving home to be with a lover, but love always lets you down.

"Boll Weevil Holler" is another blues based number that Davey grooves on and Shirley sings powerfully, but again with that amazing calm, cool, pure tone. How the hell does she do it Reminds me of Nick Drake singing "Hazey Jane II," never raising his voice even during a faster, more rocking song. Davey plays a swing beat underneath Shirley's very traditional melody vocal on "Bad Girl". Jazz-folk, anyone?

Shirley sings "Lord Gregory" totally alone and "Groveyard" is another solo Davey piece. "Dearest Dear" closes the album. A simple gentle ballad that reminds me of the type of song that Shirley would later record on the Sweet Primroses album. Very melancholic.

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of visiting both Davey Graham and Shirley Collins within a few days of each other. After many years out of circulation, Davey's back with many CD reissues and playing gigs on a regular basis. I attended some of his shows in the summer of 1994 and was impressed. OK, it's not 1964 and Davey's best work may be behind him, but so is Clapton's, Page, Beck, and a host of others. Perhaps he's not at the forefront breaking new ground, but within Davey's own world, he continues to study and explore different types of music and instruments. The show I saw was someone with an incredible background of ethnic music, playing Spanish, Greek, Indian, and African styles as well as jazz, blues, classical, and English folk. I've seen some of Davey's contemporaries play and they don't approach 1/10th of the repertoire that Davey has.

Shirley has not sung since 1980 due to stress in her personal life at that time which brought upon a "singing block". Although Shirley did tell me when we met in 1993 that she has an album's worth of material that she and her sister Dolly never recorded and that the idea of going into the studio and doing a few songs at a time is not out of the question. We can only hope that Shirley will be persuaded to eventually give it a shot. She is sorely missed by many. However, with the death of her sister Dolly a few years ago, I fear that Shirley will never return.

Also see our lengthy Shirley Collins interview

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