In The Field: The Transatlantic Folkways of Shirley Collins

Shirley Collins’ reminiscences of a journey through America with Alan Lomax provide an education in folk music for Jim Hilton

photo: Enda Bowe

I’ll confess: I find it easy to get lost in the romance of it all. Imagine being twenty-four years old. You’ve never set foot in the States before and suddenly you’re off on an American road-trip through the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Mississippi Delta and up into the Ozarks, swapping songs and life-stories with some of the most talented musicians in the world. The towns are named things like Como, Fyffe, and Senatobia. And it’s hot. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof hot.

Shirley Collins’ letters home to her mother and sister Dolly, which form the basis for her memoir America Over the Water, are filled with all the wide-eyed excitement and exuberance of a young Brit abroad. Pizza, her first avocado (or ‘alligator pear’) and Howard Johnson’s twenty-eight flavours of ice-cream underscore the worlds-apart difference of England’s 1950s from America’s.

But Collins is no gastronomic tourist. Music is the matter of her journey. And it’s this music – traditional, folk, old-time, whatever you care to call it – that actually bridges that vast body of water, showing each landmass a foggy but recognisable likeness of itself.

Forty years earlier, the song-hunter Cecil Sharp had made his famous excursion through the Appalachians, discovering in those isolated mountain communities a living, singing time-capsule of old folk ballads from the British Isles. A sort of musical Garden of Eden. It was a fantasy nourished by the exclusion of any songs by Black people, and singularly untrue to the variety and hybridity of music in the South. Collins makes her Southern Journey on the understanding that it’s precisely folk music that can override those divisions of race, gender and nationality – roguishly trespassing between them, leaving gaps in hedges and garden gates ajar. For the journeying outsider, listening to folk musicians play and respecting their hard-won art is the first step towards respecting their suffering. And from thence their struggle. And before we know it, we’re on our way to solidarity.

In August of 1959, Shirley Collins and the beefy Texan musicologist Alan Lomax rolled out of New York in a rented ’51 Buick. In the back: a state-of-the-art Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder, microphones, heavy batteries, cables. An unwieldy rig to be lugging around in the late summer humidity of the Delta country. “We were bathed in sweat most of the time,” Collins remembers.

Their packed itinerary took them down through Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi, up to Memphis, Tennessee, then Arkansas, the Georgia Sea Islands and North Carolina. Three months of often late-night recording sessions, sitting out with musicians on porches, in booze-soaked tenement flats and at open-air revival meetings, produced over eighty hours-worth of material. The public got its first taste with Atlantic’s seven-LP Southern Folk Heritage Series and since then there have been expansions and reissues, maxing out at a twelve-volume set for Prestige Records, Southern Journey.

It’s hard to know where to start in tracing the impact and legacy of this music, which includes the first recordings of Mississippi Fred McDowell. There are the opening shots of O Brother, Where Art Thou? with the chain gang breaking rocks on a sun-baked road singing the bad man ballad ‘Po’ Lazarus’, as sung by James Carter and other unknown prisoners and recorded in situ from Mississippi State Penitentiary.

Or there’s the baptism ceremony performed by the Reverend W. A. Donaldson and his congregation, released as ‘Baptizing Scene’ on Sounds of the South, and sampled in ‘Ni**as in Paris’ – furnishing that female vocal interjection “YEAH” – as well as in tracks by Travis Scott, Lil Wayne, and Charli XCX.

Considering this legacy, and Collins’ own as a recording artist, it would be easy for her to aggrandize. To speak from the deep and comfortable winged armchair of a full life’s work. But Collins willingly and winningly throws herself right back into the fray of her youthful recollections, desirous to feel these things and hear these songs again, and infecting us with the same desire.

However awed her first impressions of the US were, the fact is that at twenty-four, Shirley Collins was hardly unworldly. She had already recorded her first two albums, Sweet England and False True Lovers. She had travelled to Moscow with Ewan MacColl’s ballad opera Johnny Noble where they performed at the Kremlin (if you’ve seen Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War maybe you can picture the atmospherics of that auditorium and the kind of mental fortification it must take to step out into it).

As an up-and-coming light of the folk scene around Earl’s Court in the 1950s, it was natural that Collins should bump into Alan Lomax at a party. After falling foul of McCarthyism, Lomax had moved his base of operations to London, from where he carried out his excursions to Scotland, Italy, and Spain and slogged away at the mammoth eighteen-volume recording series, Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music.

Collins’ memories of their early relationship are typically self-deprecating. From the skirt she sewed herself specially for their first meeting – “a tiered affair” of navy needlecord – to its results: “Reader I didn’t marry him, but after a short courtship, I went to live with him in Highgate”.

Her enduring fondness for Lomax and her willingness to forgive him his faults are perhaps more than he deserves. Twenty years her senior and a celebrity, Lomax takes full advantage of Collins’ inexperience to treat her badly when he wants to. Like ditching her on her twenty-first birthday to spend an evening with an old flame. Or the Highgate living-arrangements which saw Collins and Lomax cohabiting with Lomax’s “ten-year-old daughter Anne, his ex-wife Elizabeth and her partner Herb”, which sounds like the recipe for a permanent anxiety-attack.

The relationship didn’t last.

For Collins, looking back across long intervening years and two marriages, any residual heat or hurt from this early romance has burned off. And for his part, Lomax moves through the chapters like an off-stage character: a dad clomping about in the next room. And when we do glance him, it’s as a hairy, shambolic truck of Orson-Welles-like energy, at once focused and oblivious. Or as he later admitted in an interview, “an unobservant, busy male”.

The personalities who fascinate Collins, and who practically come bounding off the page, are the musicians themselves. Articulate, hardy and unanimously eccentric, these are people who have seen their share of harsh winters. Or if you’re Almeda Riddle from Arkansas, people who have literally been picked up, house and all, by tornados “and set down again some distance away”.

Weird tales of nature, bloody acts of violence, and vague family connections to Jesse James are all part of the social fabric into which the music is woven. In this world, the unbelievable and the untrue don’t necessarily equate. And Collins, who grew up on the south coast of England, is left wondering how Almeda Riddle can sing with such poignancy about the ocean “when she’d never seen it in her life”.

For the musicians Collins and Lomax meet, the love of music is caught up with a love of language. And Collins’ own ready sense of humour and her ear for verbal dexterity lead her to reconstruct conversations and snippets of wry wisdom that bring these figures blooming into life. Like the Sacred Harp member in Fyffe, Alabama, who assures her that the music’s a bit “like whooping cough – it grows on you”. Or the churchgoer in Mississippi who tells her unashamedly: “I go to church to get happy”.

These flashes of warmth and wit accentuate the intelligence of people who, whether by dint of their race, class, accent, or speech patterns are widely held to be ignorant. Another Alabaman expresses surprise that Collins “spoke their language so well”. “Evidence,” Collins reflects, “not of ignorance, but of the isolation of their lives”.

Memories from her childhood run through the book in steady counterpoint to the American odyssey, with chapters cutting back and forth between 1930s Hastings and the Mississippi Delta in 1959, and thus bringing their two discrepant realities into unlikely proximity. Collins’ was a proudly working-class family: a mix of amateur and professional writers, painters and sculptors, who also “formed the nucleus of the choir” at their local church. Her mother was involved in the Communist Party in Hastings, Collins tells us with relish.

This family backdrop of politicised, artistic autodidacts is enthralling biography in and of itself. But it also goes some way to explain Collins’ automatic respect for the musicians she meets. She understands that their music is necessarily political. As she tells it, in the clear-eyed tone of a folk manifesto: “it’s the voice of those who for generations have been despised, abused and neglected, and for their part in keeping the music alive, I feel they should be honoured”.

The fluid ease with which Collins and Lomax are able to pass through this section of the country has a certain dreamlike quality. And every now and then they see eerie reminders of the waking paralysis enforced by racial segregation. Throughout small-town Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, the presence of the Klan is touted via placards. And their recording visit to Mississippi State Penitentiary, or Parchman Farm – “a vast open plantation of 20,000 acres, producing cotton, corn, sugar, vegetables and fruit” – leaves Collins in no doubt that slavery is still alive and well in America.

White skin is a precondition of their Southern Journey, allowing them passage between states and between communities. And what small trouble they do encounter is from cops, with Alan being briefly arrested in West Memphis as a white man in a “Black part of town”.

Their only visible “foreignness” is in their hair-styles, which suggest Northern attitudes, if not the full-fat Communist-sympathising truth. Lomax realises early on the good sense in shaving off his beard. While for Collins, who has her hair in a bob, there’s not such an easy fix. Her “sinful” hair-cut briefly moves into a preacher’s crosshairs during an outdoor prayer meeting of Old Regular Baptists in Kentucky. He’s not very keen on the microphones either, and finally declares: “I ain’t gonna say one single word more till them things is gone!”

Lomax’s insistence that Collins secretly continue recording with a more discrete handheld device – “We’ve got to get this down” – makes for a tense moment. And it brings into sudden sharpness the lopsided power relation between them as he now wields his against her. To Collins, Lomax is lover, mentor, and employer, as well as her only means of transportation in an unfamiliar country. For a moment, she is left asking herself: “Who was I more scared of, Alan or the preacher?”

Luckily the next preacher to follow on from that severe “Primitive Hard Shell Baptist,” is keen to lower the temperature, and the dangerous fuse is extinguished. This preacher (tactfully avoiding all mention of Shirley and her hair) is able to apprehend with easy clarity the radical potential of the equipment, telling the assembled congregation: “Why, this young man and his little contraptions might be the means of someone knowing that the songs of Zion are still being sung”.

There’s a comparable moment in Lomax’s 1993 study, The Land Where the Blues Began, where he describes meeting a sharecropper on one of his early recording trips to the Mississippi Delta with his father, John A. Lomax in the 1930s. And the sharecropper speaks into the microphone “as if the machine were a telephone, connected directly to the centres of power”, saying: “Now listen here, Mr. President, I want you to know they’re not treatin us right down here …”

It’s an eloquent misunderstanding, arriving at truth by way of error. After all, why shouldn’t the President get the message? The technology at hand makes it eminently possible. “It’s a great opportunity to send our voices to New York,” a preacher in Huntsville, Mississippi tells Collins and Lomax after a recording session. “I haven’t got a ticket but this way I’m glad to go”.

The enthusiasm of such people to participate can’t justify Lomax’s methods or intentions. Especially when, as we have seen, a preacher’s explicit wish not be recorded makes Lomax more intent on doing so. But these instances of enthusiasm are striking nonetheless. They’re a reminder that the people living here have an urgent message to share. The sharecropper who’s handed the unfamiliar microphone is immediately thinking what it can do for him and his family. He’s ready for an even faster and more rigorous apparatus – one more precisely adapted to his needs. A line straight to Heaven. The fault, we begin to understand, lies with Lomax, and by extension with us as listeners, for not having developed-enough systems to suit the needs of this person, and to adequately catch what it is he has to say. Or maybe for just not having the will to listen.

When Collins received a dedicated copy of The Land Where the Blues Began from Alan back in 1993, she was irked to find herself fleetingly mentioned on “page 330,” as “Shirley Collins, the lovely English folksinger who was along for the trip”. “Along for the trip?” It’s just another slight she’s willing to forgive Lomax, who died in 2002. “I hope I’ve got the ending right for this new edition – one of grace and love,” she writes. The lacuna Lomax places over her is just more proof, along with her own book, that Collins’ Southern Journey is no-one else’s chapter. Her memories from that time pay vibrant testament to the men and women “recorded in the field” – to the labour and dignity of their art. And to hers.

America Overy The Water by Shirley Collins is published by White Rabbit Books

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