Shirley Collins MBE
is an English folksinger who was a significant contributor to
the English Folk
of the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1954, at a party hosted by Ewan MacColl,
Shirley met Alan Lomax, the
famous American folk collector. Together, they made a folk song
collecting trip in the Southern
states that lasted from July to November 1959, and
resulted in many hours of recordings. Many of these were issued
Records under the title "Sounds of the South", and some
were later re-enacted in the Coen brothers’
Brother, Where Art Thou’.
Shirley then went on to have a successful
performing and recording career in the 1960s and 1970s. She was
influential in the folk music world, collaborating with key figures
including Davy Graham and Ashely Hutchings of Steeleye Span and
releasing several highly regarded albums, including Anthems in Eden,
thought by many to be her finest work.
The loss of her singing voice, which appears
to have been a form of psychogenic
dysphonia, meant that Shirley could not perform or record from
1982 onwards. During this time, she raised her children and worked
in several other jobs outside of the music industry. Further
biographical information is available through excellent resources
and in an
article in The Guardian from last year, which details the
traumatic break-up of her marriage to Huthchings and the subsequent
loss of her singing voice.
In recent years, a new generation of artists,
including musicians Graham Coxon, Jeff Tweedy and Will Oldham, and
the comedian Stewart Lee, helped to generate a revival of interest
in her music. This has in turn led to the production of an upcoming
documentary about her life, The Ballad of Shirley
Collins. Last year, I was approached by the film’s director,
to interview Shirley as part of the film. As well as this, Shirley
kindly agreed to a written interview, which I am including
In our interviews, I found that Shirley, now
80, has maintained her sharp intellect and fiery character. She
continues to hold and express strong opinions about a range of
subjects, including her distaste for a lot of contemporary music,
particularly pale imitations of the folk tradition, and even jazz!
In a happy ending to her remarkable story, Shirley has now regained
use of her singing voice and has begun to perform and record
I believe Shirley’s story once again demonstrates how music is
often closely entwined in our mental and emotional lives. I hope
this piece will contribute to the ongoing revival of interest in
her work. I think it can also shed some light on the serious impact
and complexity of disorders of physical function that do not have
an organic basis.
Many of Shirley’s songs are available to
listen to here
Can you tell us a little about your famous trip around the USA
with Alan Lomax? What lessons did it teach, about music and about
It was in the autumn of 1959, and we recorded
from both black and white singers and musicians in Virginia,
Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and the Georgia
Sea islands. They were field recordings of ordinary people – not
professional singers, of course. I already knew that the white
mountain singers sang mostly songs and ballads from the British
Isles that had gone to America with the early settlers; what
delighted me was how intact they were, as far as the words went,
but with a difference in the melodies that were totally
American. The voices too, were different from British voices,
a bit harsher, more strident, but I loved them. I’d heard
blues in England, mostly on recordings, but I wasn’t prepared for
the age of some of the songs the black singers had – some that went
back to before the American Civil War, and some that sounded
incredibly African still. Most of the people we met were
friendly and welcoming, especially to a girl who’d come from so far
away as England. This was at a time when tourism to the States
hadn’t begun. And it confirmed my belief in the quality of
the music that ‘ordinary’ people can make.
Lessons about life? How people (and
their music and songs) endure under harsh conditions. How kind most
people are and how talented many of them.
Readers would be interested to
know about the loss of your singing voice- can you describe what
happened? What do you think was the cause of losing your
My then husband left me for another woman, an
actress he’d met while we were both working at in ‘Lark Rise’ at
the National Theatre. He chose to do it the day after a wedding
anniversary – a day we’d spent together, and walked back down the
lane to our cottage hand in hand. The next evening he came home and
said he was leaving in the morning ‘consumed with love’. The
shock – and my grief – were considerable. Also the problem was that
he and I were working in the band at the same show, and I was the
singer. It was a promenade show, the audience standing, and night
after night the actress came and stood in front of me as I was
singing, often wearing my husband’s sweaters. It was unnecessarily
cruel and provocative. I was having to sing through grief and
anger, and sometimes tears, and I had no control over my voice.
Some nights I could sing, sometimes my voice broke, and worst of
all, sometimes when I opened my mouth, nothing would come out. It
was a double humiliation both private and public. This situation
went on for far too long, but I was reluctant to leave the show, as
a) I thought I deserved to be there, and 2) I needed the money, I
had two children to support. I completely lost
confidence in my ability to sing, and as a woman to be loved.
Has your perspective changed on
this over the years?
As I look back, I wish I had responded with
anger rather than grief.
You have mentioned your regret at
the loss of years of your career. Has the experience of losing your
voice brought anything valuable?
At least I learned that I was resilient, and
won through in the end. And I found that many people had valued
what I did. And I wrote a book, several shows and lectures, all
helping to restore my self-confidence.
Did listening to music help you
through harder times? Any artists or songs in
On the whole I found listening to music
painful. I played a couple of Linda and Richard Thompson
songs over and over, and I listened to Italian Renaissance and
English Baroque music. It’s full of beauty and vitality.
Things seem to have turned a
corner now and you are back singing and making music. What do you
think has made the difference?
Partly the passage of time – partly realising
that I had been good at what I did – and that I was an original
voice. Also I was still championing English folk music and still
believe I understand it better than most, and if it doesn’t sound
too vain, that it needed me as much as I need it.
Can you select 2 or 3 lesser known
songs from the folk tradition that you think all our readers should
hear? Perhaps from both England and elsewhere.
I’d choose ‘Master Kilby’ by Nic Jones,
‘Gilderoy’ from me and my sister Dolly, and ‘Rainbow mid life’s
Willows from Almeda Riddle of Arkansas. Three great songs.
Finally- why do you hate jazz so
I find it too fidgety, tuneless and jazz
musicians tend to wear silly hats!!!
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