The Ballad of Shirley Collins
08 January, 2016
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.
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.
Loss of singing voice
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 here 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, Rob Curry, to interview Shirley as part of the film. As well as this, Shirley kindly agreed to a written interview, which I am including below.
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 again.
Relevance to the field of mental health
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 life?
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 voice?
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 particular?
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 much?!
I find it too fidgety, tuneless and jazz musicians tend to wear silly hats!!!