This weekend, folk legend Shirley Collins will make her Celtic Connections debut. A lot of people are very excited about welcoming this esteemed singer to the festival for her first Scottish show in decades.
Emerging from the British folk boom of the 1950s and 60s, Shirley has released some of the most influential albums in the folk canon, including the folk-jazz fusion of Folk Roots, New Routes with guitarist Davey Graham (even though she says she hates jazz!) and the pioneering Anthems In Eden with her sister Dolly, which used Renaissance era instruments.
Shirley’s passion has long been the folk songs of her native Sussex, but her love of Appalachian music took her to the southern United States in 1959.
Shirley accompanied her then partner, the famed folk archivist Alan Lomax, on one of his most fruitful field trips. Their journey uncovered some of the artists and songs who would be celebrated years later in the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou? and introduced backwoods bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell to the world stage.
However, in the late 1970s Shirley lost her voice following the trauma of a marriage break-up and she disappeared from public view. Happily, she is now performing and recording again, and released the acclaimed album, Lodestar – her first in 38 years – in late 2016.
We were thrilled to have a chat with Shirley from her cottage in Lewes, where we caught up on almost forty years of her thoughts, memories and opinions, including:
On losing her voice
I felt I wasn’t Shirley Collins anymore. I’d always thought of myself as a singer. I tried all sorts of cures, I went to see various doctors and throat specialists and I tried a faith healer and nothing worked. I call them my wilderness years because I wasn’t singing and it didn’t feel right but I had my children to look after and had to find other work. I’m resilient and a hard worker and I just found other things to do to keep us going. But it wasn’t right, it didn’t feel like me. I was still hearing these songs in my head but I had no way of physically expressing that.
I loved the music so much that I didn’t want to not sing properly, I didn’t want to ruin the songs or do them badly because I’ve got too much respect for the tradition. I used to try singing indoors and I couldn’t, I would think ‘god, that’s awful’ and just stop. In a way it was vanity because once I could sing in such a carefree way, I didn’t have to think about singing. I could just open my mouth and sing, and over a great many years I opened my mouth and what came out I didn’t like at all. I thought it had all gone forever quite honestly.
On returning to singing
It wasn’t a question of just stepping back on. I had to think about it. It took me some years to build up the nerve to do it again. My best friend Pip Barnes who plays guitar on this album said ‘stop being so vain, stop thinking about the fact that you’ve got an older voice – after all you learned all the songs you sing from old people, and you’re one of them now’ and I thought ‘yeah, that’s a great thing to be’ and so I just jumped in with two feet and did it.
On her early encounters with folk music
My grandparents sang to my sister and me during the war when we slept in their air raid shelter. Granddad would sing what I later learned were folk songs and my granny sang music hall songs to keep our spirits up, so I grew up with this notion of old people singing unaccompanied and it was lovely and I couldn’t hear enough of it. It all sounded so much better to me than anything else I heard. I know that’s old fogey now but I must have been a very young old fogey because it just sounded right to me and I think that’s why I sing the way I do. My repertoire was never quite the same as other people’s. I dug a bit deeper and found songs that other people weren’t singing so much.
On what makes a folk singer
There are still so many songs I want to sing that other people aren’t singing. A lot of people now are calling themselves folk singers but they sing songs they have written themselves and it’s just not the same thing at all. I only want to sing songs that have come down through the tradition to us. Sometimes you have to just put it in front of people, how the themes of the songs last – they are as true today as they were 400 years ago or more.
On valuing the tradition
The world is getting so bland and so homogenized. Everything is starting to sound the same and I think it’s really important for all of us to keep what we have of our own culture. You’ve got such a fantastic one in Scotland, and people do seem to appreciate it more there, whereas in England we’re just sort of letting it go, even despising it and that really hurts, because they don’t know what they’ve got. I quite envy you being in Glasgow because there’s so much there, isn’t there? I’m looking forward to coming to be part of it.
What is great about the folk tradition is that the songs are about everything. There’s nothing that they won’t sing about. You get such an insight into other people’s lives and histories and the ages past, all coming down to us from ordinary working class people – though I think they are quite extraordinary.
On joining Alan Lomax on his field trip to the southern US
It was quite a bold step because people just didn’t travel in those days. I didn’t fly, I went on an ocean-going liner, the SS America, because that was the cheap way to travel then. At the time it must have been fairly bold, but there I was in love with the man and the music – what was I going to do? I couldn’t pass that one by.
On first discovering Mississippi Fred McDowell
It still gives me goosebumps when I visualise Fred. I remember it so well – the sight of this slight figure dressed in dungarees, coming out of the wood into the clearing where all the shacks were. He’d been picking cotton all day and he was still in his workclothes and within minutes he’d sat down and played his first blues. It was just overwhelmingly beautiful and Alan wrote one word in his notebook – ‘perfect’ – as indeed it was. The people there made us so welcome and so did Fred and his wife. We were there for four or five days and I got so fond of them both. when we left I kissed Annie May on the cheek to say goodbye and everyone went absolutely quiet. I thought I had done something wrong, but it was just the first time they had seen a white woman kiss a black woman. Even a simple greeting on the cheek was unheard of and that was heartrending really.
On her singing style
What I’ve always done and always believed was the right way to sing traditional song is just to set it in front of people, sing it straightforwardly so you’re not having to enact or dramatise any of it. You are singing to people and not at them. When people dramatise songs, it just embarrasses me. I know lots of people think that my singing is too plain but that’s the way I’ve learned it and that’s the way the old singers do it, they just sing.
I hope this doesn’t sound too vain but I think I know how to sing a song, cos I just think I understand them so well and have lived with them so long. I quite like my voice now.