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For Everyone That Follows: The Ballad of Shirley Collins Reviewed
Jude Rogers , October 27th, 2017 08:54

Jude Rogers looks at a recently released documentary on the legendary folk singer and archivist Shirley Collins

Sheep walk across the torso of the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex, soft oblongs of white bisecting his body. The Seven Sisters cliffs, like jagged giant’s teeth, plunge into the sea. Wooden crosses flame orange in a pitch-black night. A woman with hair the colour of wheat sheaves opens her front door, and takes us with her.

Much has been written about Shirley Collins since her unexpected return to folk-singing after 35 years. An admission: I’ve done some of it, and I did some before it, first meeting Collins in 2008 for the Guardian, then becoming good friends with this impish, unswerving, incredibly warm woman (she bought my son an ice cream with a candle in it for his first birthday; I’ve helped her rummage through her bag for her lipstick). I also remember the day in 2014 when her daughter Polly rang me up, telling me her mum had decided to record again, and wondering how the weight of that decision would bear down on those shoulders. Interestingly, the film wasn’t meant to be a record of that revolution, because it was first started four years ago. But it is, a revolution steeped in the landscape of her life, in all senses.

The Ballad Of Shirley Collins is essentially a film about time, and about how the past and present intertwine in our lives. It begins with Collins leaving her Lewes house on Bonfire Night, the voice of John Peel from a late ‘60s Perfumed Garden programme accompanying her as she winds up the hill. He is introducing his audience to a track from Anthems In Eden: “This is very evocative of a whole period of history, one to live in,” he says. “All that disease and squalor”. Shortly after, we’re treated to early black-and-white footage of Collins singing at a folk club: she has the beauty of a young Julie Christie, her expression straight and emotionless, letting that stark, high, stunning voice, and its song, about Calvary Hill, travel through. When it finishes, the present-day Shirley takes off her headphones. “It’s another lifetime, isn’t it?,” the 82-year-old says, elegaically, the light still in her fiery eyes.

Archive materials and reconstructions are this film’s main narrative tools. The use of the former is frequently fantastic. As well as the John Peel recordings, which instantly locate Collins in a psychedelically-connected, pop culture past, the tapes from Collins’ famous 1959 recording sessions with Alan Lomax across the American South feel profoundly moving as objects being held in Shirley’s hands. The music on them also sounds breathlessly alive, not like period pieces, and this film succeeds in making history feel contemporary throughout. Collins’ old letters home are also given voice by a younger narrator, over Super 8-style scratchy reconstructions of that incredible trip – we see Young Shirley and her much older lover Alan in a beautiful Buick, recording musicians on stoops, then grubbing about in distant motel rooms. Happily, these never derail the film into dainty nostalgia, as they’re full of myth-busting details of the itinerary, such as Shirley having an appointment to syringe Alan’s ears. We also hear brutally honest depictions of race and gender relations in those times: of the woman who says she lost her eye to poison, although Collins is told her husband probably “put it out”; of men killed just because a cow wandered into someone else’s pasture; of the “menace in the air”. Time circles, and brings us back to ourselves.

This is also a film about people who leave Collins’ life suddenly. There’s her sister Dolly, who died of a heart attack in 1998 – Collins speaks movingly of seeing her body in her coffin in the chapel of rest, mud under her fingernails from where she’d been gardening that day (we’re also taken to a factory where Dolly’s flute organ has been restored; when it’s played again, it’s the only time we see Collins cry). Then comes Collins’ second husband, Ashley Hutchings, who left her for an actress during a National Theatre production of Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise in which all three were performing: this woman would stand in front of Collins as she sang every night, wearing one of Hutchings’ sweaters.

Then there’s Collins’ father, who left the family when she was a girl. One off-note this film strikes is that this Freudian drama must have contributed to Collins losing her voice – dysphonia is often more nuanced and complicated than that. It’s an undeniably fascinating detail, however, and Collins’ reading of a poem her father wrote about Sussex while being away in the war is an especially beautiful moment, the rivers of the county being its long, full veins.

And it’s that county we keep returning to, in its various guises. Here we are in a caravan on the South Downs, where Collins meets folk singer Elle Osborne – here Collins imbibes too much elderflower vodka, giggles like a teenager, and bumps her head on the ceiling. We return to Lewes, where American singer Sam Amidon pops round to meet the woman who taped so many influential American recordings, and warmth surges from her like the sun. More men follow a while later, carrying hurdy-gurdies and banjos, to help Collins make her comeback album, Lodestar, at home. This is an especially moving section of the film, and one that doesn’t simply and buoyantly celebrate her return: instead, we watch a woman slowly coming to terms with the loss of her old self, and the arrival of a new one.

When they finish, she toasts everyone with a mug of tea emblazoned with the word “diva”, then shortly afterwards we go into the night. The last scene is epic in its gestures and metaphors, but also tender and poignant, showing us a woman who will never not be committed to those older, distant worlds. We know she will be just as committed to carrying them along with her, though, into her future, and ours, and for everyone that follows.

The Ballad Of Shirley Collins is in selected cinemas now