I’ve been to a few 80th birthday parties lately. Well, when I say a few, I mean two. And they were more concerts than actual parties. Yet they were both joyous, humbling experiences honouring two of the most iconic and most enduring influences from the early days of the British folk revival. Both are singers and banjo players. Both crossed the Atlantic (but in different directions) to make a big impact on the other side. Both are admirable singers. Both have wondrous, fascinating, inspirational stories to tell. Both are uniquely iconic figures. Both have contributed massively to our folk music heritage. Both remain vibrant, relevant, uncompromising and very contemporary figures. Both have been celebrating their big birthdays with major shows at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. And both exude such positive vigour it’s impossible to believe either has reached such a milestone age.
Peggy Seeger and Shirley Collins are two very different characters with contrasting styles, approaches and attitudes to the music and they seemingly have little in common personally or professionally. They were never chummy and I can’t remember a time they ever performed together.
Yet both are massively important figures without whom the modern British folk world would be almost unthinkable and who have, in different ways, fearlessly pushed the boat out and been unafraid to rattle cages along the way. For Peggy it’s been politics, feminism, ballad operas, songwriting, campaigning and strident opinion; for Shirley it has been experiments with early music, jazz, blues and folk-rock. Both are still inspiring younger breeds of singers and it’s a massive privilege to join the full houses on the South Bank to applaud them at these landmark occasions.
Peggy Seeger’s birthday show is more about re-birth than nostalgia, coming hot on the heels of her BBC Best Original Folk Song award for ‘Swim To The Star’, with son Calum MacColl, and an album ‘Everything Changes’ of newly written contemporary material that shows a totally different side to her. She darts between piano, autoharp, banjo, guitar and concertina with a lithe grace littered with entertaining quips and a self-effacing humour that belies her old reputation as a firebrand of entrenched opinions and uncompromising dogma that pursues her from the early days with Ewan MacColl.
With sons Calum and Neill pitching in with a couple of Ewan’s best-loved classics and Paul Brady and Eliza Carthy joining the party, it’s a splendid night that will live long and gloriously in the memory.
Shirley rarely sings these days (discounting her backing vocals with Linda Thompson on a raucous ‘The Soul Of A Man’ at the Cecil Sharp House Bob Copper centenary concert in January); but her star has rarely shone more brightly and the testament is the long trail of modern folkies queuing up to pay homage and marvel at her influence. Sam Lee. Alasdair Roberts. Olivia Chaney. Graham Coxson. Stuart Estell. The mighty John Kirkpatrick. And, blowing the roof off with a heart-stopping, unaccompanied ‘Plains Of Waterloo’, Lisa Knapp. All this and morris dancers too.
With comedian Stuart Lee proving to be an affable host (and contributing a very acceptable ‘Polly On The Shore’ into the bargain), Shirley’s birthday is one of those rare, gladdening occasions when the world – or at least a rural part of Sussex – gently spins on an even keel.
Shirley is there, of course, smiling benignly as her adoring folkchildren do their own thing, arranging some of her most revered material in different levels of enchantment. It’s the second half though – an impassioned re-awakening of Shirley’s most daring album ‘No Roses’ – that provides the night’s most challenging and exhilarating moments.
In those absurd polls to nominate the greatest folk record of all time, I’d always dither between Mike and Lal Waterson’s ‘Bright Phoebus’ and ‘No Roses’, Shirley’s unlikely 1971 foray into electric folk with the Albion Country Band, but had forgotten how good it was. ‘Claudy Banks’, ‘Little Gipsy Girl’, ‘Banks Of The Bann’, ‘Murder Of Maria Marten’, ‘The White Hare’, ‘Hal-an’Tow’, ‘Poor Murdered Woman’, ‘Van Dieman’s Land’. Every one a winner.
Trembling Bells – the “Albion Band” for the night – aren’t everybody’s stick of rhubarb, but their coarse edginess serves ‘No Roses’ and indeed the enlightened selection of singers performing in front of them exceptionally well.
It’s a celebration. But more than that, it sounds unexpectedly modern. And exciting. Re-imaginings of classic albums tend to be limpid and unsatisfying. Not this one so let’s hope an album version isn’t too far on the horizon to re-light the fire of folk-rock and further seal the Shirley Collins legacy.
Peggy Seeger and Shirley Collins. Legends both.