Let The Song Speak For Itself: Shirley Collins Interviewed

Ben Graham speaks to one of the true living heroes of English folk music, Shirley Collins. Pictures at Cafe Oto taken by Steve Hopper

Speaking with Shirley Collins, MBE, it’s easy to feel transported back to a distant time. Not just to the 1960s English folk revival, of which hers was perhaps the single most vital and important voice, but to a time decades or even centuries earlier; a vanished age, and a close to the land, rural English existence long since uprooted. Born in 1935 herself, Shirley learnt many of the folk songs in her repertoire directly from great singers like George ‘Pop’ Maynard (born January 1872) and Harry Cox (born March 1885). And sitting in Shirley’s beautiful terraced home in the shadow of Lewes Castle, looking out over fields and trees, the modern world seems to melt away. Not to be replaced by some sentimental, pastoral idyll, as Shirley is more aware than most of how hardship and injustice have always been present in ordinary people’s lives. But despite her lightness of touch, constant wry humour and genuine modesty, being in the presence of Shirley Collins is like being in the living presence of history.

Though she’s been a recording and performing artist since the 1950s, Shirley Collins’ singing still sounds contemporary and utterly timeless. This is partly because her motive is always to stay true to the song; not to stamp her own personality on it through over-emoting or some misguided desire to ‘make it her own’. Instead she allows these often ancient songs to take possession of her and to use her as their instrument or vessel. Once again, she is capable of the purest kind of time travel. And while the ’emotional’ singers, be they the classical stylists of the 1920s and 1930s with their affected vibrato, or 1960s greats like Joan Baez, now sound hopelessly dated, Shirley’s renditions belong to no particular era and so belong to everyone.

This is not to say that Shirley remained outside of the currents of her times however. In 1959 she accompanied her then-lover Alan Lomax on his return to the southern United States, where she helped make vital and influential recordings of unknown blues, bluegrass and folk singers and documented hundreds of important songs that have since become central to the American folk canon. Her early recordings for Folkways and Argos were followed by Folk Roots, New Routes, the 1964 album with mercurial guitarist Davy Graham that inspired not only the nascent folk-rock movement but cross-pollinating world music and even incipient psychedelia. Her albums with sister Dolly on Harvest brought traditional English folk song into the heart of the late-sixties counterculture in innovative yet undiluted form, while 1971’s No Roses album with the Albion Band is a high watermark of British folk-rock. Yet Shirley quit recording and performing dramatically in 1978, when the dalliances of then husband Ashley Hutchings caused her to suffer from acute hysterical dysphonia, disastrously undermining her singing voice.

Shirley has since established herself as an authoritative writer and speaker on the English and particularly Sussex folk tradition, and in recent years has even made an unexpected return to singing in the company of David Tibet’s gnostic / apocalyptic avant-garde musical collective Current 93. Now independent film makers Fifth Column (previously responsible for The Way Of The Morris, on the Addebury Morris dancers, a subject close to Shirley’s heart), are working on The Ballad Of Shirley Collins, a documentary on her life and work. To raise funds for this project, Record Store Day saw the release of a gorgeous triple vinyl LP from Earth Recordings, Shirley Inspired, featuring new versions of folk songs from Shirley’s repertoire by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Trembling Bells, Lee Renaldo, Alasdair Roberts, Graham Coxon and many more. It’s several cuts above the typical tribute album fare and Shirley is effusive in her praise for the record, perhaps surprisingly singling out Norwegian avant metal group Ulver and comedian Stewart Lee as her favourite contributors.

Shirley Collins: Stewart Lee singing ‘Polly On The Shore’ is just wonderful. I first heard him because [Shirley’s daughter] Polly went to Oxford and last summer they decided at her college, St Edmund Hall, to start up a folk club. They asked me if I would do an introduction. Stewart Lee, who was also at St Edmund Hall, was on guitar accompanied by Stuart Estell on concertina. They sang ‘Polly On The Shore’ and I was on my feet by the end. It was just one of the best things I’ve ever heard, it was so powerful. ‘Polly On The Shore’ is a Napoleonic song about a sweetheart who’s bleeding on the deck in the battle, and he just wishes he’d stayed with Polly on the shore. It’s a wonderful song; Fairport did it and the Trees did it and several people did it, and I learned it from George Maynard. When I heard Stewart sing it I hadn’t heard anything that good for such a long time. It sounded just as if he was that person on the deck. He wasn’t attempting to do anything but sing this song, but suddenly you were there in the thick of this battle. This comedian, Stewart Lee, was singing this song so powerfully, and the music was beautiful. It’s just absolutely wonderful. I love him anyway, I love his comedy, I think he’s just so brave and fantastic. But to hear him sing it was such a surprise, I didn’t know he did, or could. They’ve recorded it on there, but the trouble is that since he sang it that first time they’ve worked it a bit and slightly altered the tune, and it’s still good but it hasn’t quite got that great charge that it had the first time about it. But I’m just thrilled that he’s on it, I must say.

Do you mind if we go back and talk about your childhood? You grew up in Hastings; was it a musical family?

SC: Only in as much as everybody sang. My grandparents sang; we were in their Morrison Shelter so much during the war. They sang to my sister and I at night because we were just little kids then. Granny sang music hall songs, granddad sang Sussex-y songs, and Dolly and I were always singing. We sang together, close harmony, any songs we could find. At Christmas all the uncles and aunts turned up and everybody sang Christmas Carols. We would practice for weeks in advance. I even loved assembly at school because you got a couple of hymns in the morning, and I love English hymns because the tunes are so fabulous. A lot of them were taken by Vaughn Williams from folk songs he collected and set to hymn words.

But it was a happy childhood, you know. We played out, we went out for walks. We borrowed a neighbour’s dog and just went over the Fire Hills and over Ecclesbourne Glen and out in the country with a hard-boiled egg and a couple of slices of Hovis. We were out all day and you could play out in the streets and everything felt so safe – well, apart from the bombs! We were actually machine gunned at once by a German plane in Hastings as we were walking our aunt’s little baby down the road in her big pram. We saw this great big plane coming straight up from the sea, up towards Ore. We’d finally learned by then, by the latter part of the war, what a German plane sounded like and what a Spitfire or a Hurricane sounded like. We knew this wasn’t right and we rushed to the side of the road and got under a hedge and managed to get the baby out of the pram. It just strafed the whole road with machine gun fire. We had bombing, we were bombed out; our house on the West Hill was hit by an incendiary bomb, and we moved in with our Aunt Grace. Yet I only remember it as a happy time. I’m sure that I do remember moments of terror as well, but on the whole it was a happy childhood. It was simple, you know. No gadgets, nothing to distract you or take you away from being alive.

I believe that Bob Copper [of the Copper Family of Rottingdean] came and recorded you singing as a teenager.

SC: I’d wanted to be a folk singer ever since I was about 15 years old. I had seen this Hollywood film about a girl who came up from the Tennessee mountains and sang in New York nightclubs before falling in love with the hero. I mean we did used to go to the pictures quite a lot, Dolly and me on Saturdays. And I thought, ‘Oh, that looks good; I want to be a folk singer.’ So I wrote to the BBC. I didn’t write to anybody in particular, I don’t think. But this letter was passed on to Bob Copper, who at that time was employed by the BBC to collect what was left of the living tradition in the countryside in Sussex and Hampshire. He turned up at our house one day, and because Dolly and I were so ardent about this music we listened to two programmes called As I Roved Out and Country Magazine, where they played lots of folk songs. We had learned a Scottish ballad called ‘The Bonny Early Of Murray’ from listening to one of those programmes. So we sang that to him because we both thought, ‘Oh, we’d better impress him.’ I guess we did it with Scots accents as well, instead of singing some of the songs that Granny and Aunt Grace and Granddad sang!

But it was lovely to have met him, because once you had met Bob – even at the age of 15 I realised what an absolutely wonderful and real person he was. Of course as I got to learn more about the music I got to realise how invaluable he had been in the collecting of stuff in the fifties and how wonderfully he wrote about it as well; romantic, but not unrealistic. He stayed a friend right up until his death. I had a wonderful walk with him one day across the downs, from Peacehaven to Rodmell to visit the blacksmith for tea. And just to walk with Bob on the downs, because he knew so much about them, he knew the contours, he knew what the plants were; he had stories to tell. He just loved being up there, just loved breathing that downland air. There was one very telling moment when we were walking along one of the chalk paths and he stopped, and sort of held me back, because there was a beetle walking across, and he just waited until the beetle had got to the other side, and then we moved on again. I thought, ‘That’s a lovely man!’

When did you first sing in public? Would that have been in Hastings, or when you moved to London?

SC: It would’ve been in Hastings. My mum was a member of the Communist Party and an ardent socialist. At Oakhurst Hotel on the ridge at Hastings they used to have Labour Party socials and Communist Party socials, and people would come down from all over the country for those weekends. Dolly and I would sing as part of the entertainment.

What sort of things would you have been singing then?

SC: We would have been singing things like ‘Just As The Tide Was Flowing’ and ‘The Bonny Cuckoo’ which my Aunt Grace and my great granny sang, and some stuff that we’d learned from school. Dolly was writing her own anti-war songs as well, so we always chucked a couple of those in.

You arrived in London in time for the 1950s folk revival.

SC: It was starting up then, but the single person who was most responsible as far as I was concerned was a physics professor called John Hasted. He was at the University of London at Birkbeck College, and he was a socialist as well. I think Dolly and I must have met him at one of the weekends at Oakhurst, and he told me about what was going on in London, and if I went up I could go and join his singing group. Once a week he had a sort of sing-around in one of the rooms at the college, where young singers would listen to each other sing, and we’d talk about the songs. John would accompany us sometimes because he could play banjo and guitar. Then Peter Kennedy, the son of the director of Cecil Sharp House, took it up as well, he had an evening in the cellar at the house. And again it was just a sing-around, with people just turning up, singing whatever songs they wanted to sing, learning a bit from other people, you know. It was there that I met people like George Maynard, the great Sussex traditional singer, and Harry Cox; to meet these people in the flesh was just incredible.

But we were sort of divided into two camps. My camp was the really minority one of loving to hear these old chaps sing. For me it was because it reminded me of my own granddad singing, and he’d died when I was 18. But for the other people… there was a lot of ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’ and peace songs, but everyone was singing the same stuff, and it wasn’t English, it was mostly American protest songs. I didn’t see the point in that. So I was lucky enough to be able to veer the other way, and once I’d met Peter he allowed me to listen to his field recordings, and then the whole of the British Isles was opened up to me in the most wonderful way. And then I met Alan Lomax, and again he had recorded in the British Isles as well, in the early fifties, so I was able to listen to all that stuff. I just loved the songs, and I didn’t mind the age in their voices, and I didn’t mind the fact that they were unaccompanied, it didn’t matter. It was just the songs, and it was the character that came through with those old singers as well – they were the real thing. They weren’t laying on any accents or trying to force the song into three chords and certain rhythms; you just heard it as it was naturally being sung. I just loved it, and never stopped loving it! It stayed with me for life.

But then in the middle of that you went off to America with Alan Lomax and recorded all these authentic bluegrass and blues musicians, discovered Mississippi Fred Mcdowell – we don’t really have time now to go into that whole period, but how did that influence your own singing and your own work when you got back?

SC: It made me want to be an English singer. I was singing some Appalachian songs, because I’d got the Cecil Sharp Collection from the Appalachians; it was one of the first books I ever bought. I love the way British ballads have ended up there and how they’ve changed and how the melodies and the way people sing them have changed. There’s some absolutely beautiful stuff there, and I really wanted to sing some of it, but what was nice when I was there was, especially in the mountains, the Appalachians and the Ozarks, I was able to sing versions I knew from England of the songs they were singing. And they were so pleased really to know that this stuff was still being sung at home. They were proud of their cultural ancestry as well with this music. But I know that living in America, wonderful in many ways as it was, easy in many ways but really difficult in many ways as well, just wasn’t what I wanted to do. Once I got back to England I resolved that I was just going to learn as many more English songs as I could and just follow that path then.

It was quite a difficult path to take in some ways, when you must have seen that everyone was being very much influenced still by this American music that you’d seen first-hand; just to have the courage of your convictions to stay with the English music.

SC: It wasn’t difficult; it was easy because it’s what I wanted to do. I wasn’t in two minds about it and really. To tell you the truth, I quite despised a lot of the singers because they were singing a lot of the same old songs night after night. Half of it was American, half of it was the most commonplace stuff; they just weren’t looking for material, they just seemed content to just thrash it out night after night. And a lot of it was American, but not good American. It was ersatz American. And once you’ve seen and heard the real thing, again, there’s no interest in stuff that’s not the genuine thing. I’ve been very lucky, but in a way I made my own luck, inasmuch as I knew the stuff I wanted to hear and I was able to make a beeline for that, with Peter Kennedy and with Alan. And once you’ve heard the mountain singers like Ollie Gilbert and Almeda Riddle, the way they sing is so fantastic, and it’s not like anyone in this country sings, except it’s sort of like some of the gypsies have that strength of singing and a driven quality that a lot of the American mountain singers had. Everything else sounds rather tame afterwards.

How did you come to work with Davy Graham?

SC: I was married to John Marshall then, and he loved jazz. I didn’t, I hated it. I really hate jazz, it makes me just fidget and get angry. But he used to go out in the evenings to jazz clubs, and he came back and said: ‘Look, I’ve heard this remarkable young guitarist, Davy Graham, I think you ought to hear him and perhaps do some work with him.’ I thought: ‘No, not if he’s doing jazz I won’t!’ But John brought him back to the house one day and the first thing that Davy played was an Irish song, ‘She Moved through the Fair.’ He played it like an Indian raga, but it didn’t lose any of its Irish quality at all; in fact it enhanced it. It was absolutely extraordinary and I was just completely bowled over and won over by it. It was sensational. He was such a lovely person as well, so we got together and made an LP.

Did you perform live together at all?

SC: We did, we did about four concerts. One at Cecil Sharp House, one at Hammersmith Broadway, I’m not sure what the theatre in Hammersmith was, but it was a big one. We were on with the London Youth Jazz Orchestra in one half, and then Davy and me in the second half. And then we had a couple out of London but I just don’t remember where now, because it was a long time ago.

He seems to have been very troubled, and also someone who was very influential but didn’t enjoy the material success that a lot of people who were influenced by him did.

SC: He didn’t get the credit that he deserved. Davy was the originator of it all; he was the founder of it. And nobody was as good as him, really. The way he played was just, the imagination of it, the intelligence of it, the strength and the muscularity of his actual physical playing; his understanding of it. It made everything else seem a little bit bland, even though people were copying him. They didn’t quite do what Davy was doing. He was troubled, because he took drugs. But he had such lovely manners, he was so gentle, but he was an intellectual as well. He always had some book tucked in his pockets, something very rarefied, in Sanskrit perhaps or about Eastern religion. He used to show me this stuff and I used to think ‘I don’t understand it and I actually don’t want to understand it!’ So I always felt a bit intellectually inferior when Davy was around. Not that he made you feel that, but he just had such a brain. He was a very intelligent man; but not intelligent enough not to take drugs. That was his downfall really, ultimately, because he became very strange towards the end of his life. He’d turn his back on audiences, or not turn up at all. It’s such a pity because that… well, it doesn’t sour it for me but I think it sours his memory for quite a few people who only saw him that way. That’s sad, because he really was a genius I think. You can’t call many people that but you can call Davy it. Just marvellous music. Such a sweet nature, such a sweet bloke.

Later on you started working with Dolly again. What was the point where the two of you decided to do something together?

SC: In the Alan Lomax Folk Songs Of North America, a few of the arrangements would be done by a Hungarian composer called Matyas Seiber. I don’t know why but I took the book out to Dolly one day and she played some of them. And they didn’t quite fit. They weren’t quite American; they sounded sort of mid-European, because that was his tradition. And I think it was John who said, ‘Well, why don’t you try writing some of your own arrangements?’ At the same time, because we both loved early music we used to go to the early music centre in Holland Park. There we first met David Munro and first heard the flute organ and we thought, ‘Crikey, that’s gorgeous.’ Dolly started writing keyboard arrangements and we used to hire the flute organ, and so that was the start of all that.

Dolly was trained in composition under Alan Bush at the Worker’s Music Association. She was writing her own compositions and wasn’t thinking of herself as a folk song arranger. Towards the end of her life she said that it wasn’t what she considered herself. But it was such wonderful work that she did. But she wanted to compose and she was writing symphonies and concertos and god knows what. She was so prolific. I’ve got chestfuls of her stuff, still. I wanted to get out there and sing, but Dolly didn’t really want to get out there and play, but I persuaded her to. She was quite happy to sit at home composing, and she was gardening all the time as well, and those were the two things she liked doing best but she didn’t really like being in the public eye. Anyway we prevailed and we did quite a lot of gigs together, and some albums. I just loved her arrangements. And it was just such fun to be with her on stage as well, because there was always lots of laughter as well as all those beautiful songs. It was a great time.

Those albums thrust you into a different world in the sense that you were suddenly on Harvest Records and appealing to a younger generation.

SC: It was so funny that we were on the Harvest label with all the underground stuff and I’m not quite sure how we fitted on that list, but I’m jolly grateful that we did. I mean Deep Purple, the Edgar Broughton Band and everything. I remember the night at the Roundhouse, we did a concert with the whole lot, everything was on display, it was a promotional concert, and Dolly and I went on and nobody knew what to make of us at all, because they weren’t there for us, they were there for all the underground bands. We sort of had a bit of stick, but it all settled down and it was okay in the end. But no that was an amusing time really as well.

And the Incredible String Band played with you.

SC: Oh, yes. We’d appeared in concert together at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, just Dolly and me and the Incredibles, and we just hit it off so well. You couldn’t help but love them. I don’t really like many newly written songs, but I did love what they wrote. There’s just such a sweetness about it as well that I loved, and the beauty of the tunes. I also loved the fact that Robin and Mike Heron were so young and so handsome and so flowing locked, and their girlfriends were called Liquorice and something else, and I was completely charmed by it. You couldn’t help but be. They asked Dolly to write some arrangements for them as well, which was really nice.

Didn’t Joe Boyd bring them in to record with you?

Shirley: Yes, Joe produced one of my albums, The Power Of The True Love Knot, but he wasn’t happy. When we were in the studio he was saying can you put a bit more oomph into it, can you tell the story a bit better? I said, ‘No, Joe, I can’t.’ I literally couldn’t. I knew I just had to sing the songs straight and let the songs speak for themselves, really. It always embarrassed me when people enacted the stuff and put too much into it. It still does. So he didn’t do any more, he just did that one and he didn’t even mention it in his book, White Bicycles, so I think he didn’t like it! But it was good to have in there, and it did have the benefit of us meeting the Incredibles again, and working with them. And that was a very happy time with them.

I’ve seen some of the albums you did with Dolly credited with being very important in the whole folk-rock phenomenon, which I imagine you would maybe have mixed feelings about. It was the fact that they had such varied instrumentation, those records; they showed that folk music didn’t have to be with just an acoustic guitar that led to people like Fairport Convention electrifying English folk songs on Liege and Leif and things like that.

SC: There’s nothing wrong with what they did. It was gorgeous stuff. Liege And Leif is just a fabulous album, isn’t it? Sandy sang so wonderfully on them. So being mixed up with that was great. I didn’t mind being connected with that. There were other people that I didn’t like, quite a lot of flimsy stuff, flimsy folk rock. I won’t name any names, but it was just flimsy. It didn’t have any strength or beauty to it.

I suppose it did at least lead to English people delving into their own music again.

Shirley: This is true, yes. It opened people’s eyes and ears to it. It’s not that it was hardcore stuff that Dolly and I were doing, but it was certainly less acceptable or less easy. I think it was harder for some people to listen to Dolly and me than it was for them to listen to Pentangle, which I always thought was flimsy. But anyway, what can I say, because then I made my own folk-rock album.

No Roses, which had a lot of the Fairport players on, like Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks.

SC: It did, yes. Aren’t I lucky! That was fantastic to make as well, and I still think it still holds up so well nowadays too. It’s interesting what you can do. I think if I’d thought of it as a folk-rock album when we went into the studio I might’ve been more wary. But it was built day after day, people would come in and do bits, and they’d stay and then other people would come in and just play bits and stay on and then join in more, and it was just a wonderful time in the studio. I’d been used to singing with Dolly and that was really beautiful, but to get this big sound behind you, it does sort of knock you out a bit. It makes you feel quite grand, really, and powerful. You can sing up against it.

It seems that even though you want to represent the song, and let these old songs come though you and stay authentic to the spirit of them, at the same time you’re prepared to have some freedom in terms of the instrumentation and the way you present them. You’re not saying they must be played how they’ve always been presented, very sparsely; you’ve allowed these records to be a bit more experimental.

SC: I’ve always had this feeling, you see, that the music is so wonderful that it deserves the best accompaniment it can get. You can’t damage it. The songs are never at risk, either with Dolly or with Albion or with Fairport. It was just enhanced all the time, but given a new way of bringing it to other people who wouldn’t listen to it if it was just sung as it had always been. It needed some freshness and youth and modernity to it, but without losing its essence, without losing its English soul. And that was just enhanced by those musicians. Because they got it as well, whereas some people just don’t get it.

That brings me to one last thing I wanted to put to you. You’ve talked about folk music as an authentic voice for working people, and resisting a kind of fake, middle class appropriation of that. It seems to me that in the last few years the media and politicians have demonised and put down working class people, and that folk music – or a certain kind of affected, watered-down folk music – is being sold to us as the soundtrack to this fake, pastoral middle-class ideal, where all the poor people are kept in the city away from you.

SC: You’ve got to be working class. The people who sang these songs were despised, neglected, exploited. You do a lifetime’s work and you end up in the workhouse. You’d be surprised how many songs are collected from people in workhouses. They were wonderful songs as well. The best example almost is one of a song called ‘Six Dukes Went A-Fishing’, that Cecil Sharp collected in the Marylebone workhouse, that Joseph Taylor had sung up in Lincolnshire and Percy Grainger had caught in 1904, and the story goes back to the 14th Century. It’s about the death of the Royal Duke of Grantham, who might or might not be the king of England, we don’t know, because the stories got blurred. But the song is that ancient. And it’s remarkable that an important and rare song ends up on the lips of somebody in the workhouse in Marylebone, in wretched conditions. So I’ve always had incredible pride in the fact that it is working class music. You have to acknowledge that’s where it comes from, and acknowledge those people, because if you don’t then you’re exploiting them as well. You’re joining the people who have exploited them all their lives and treated them so badly. You’ve got to just honour them, in the best way that you can. And the best way that you can honour them really is to sing their song in the best way that you can. Except the trouble is what other people’s idea of the best way to do it is. Now some people think it’s nice to do it with a piano accompaniment, and treat it nicely, or be Wotsit and Sons – upper class boys, aren’t they? Who do I mean?

Mumford And Sons?

SC: Yes. I haven’t heard them actually, so I really shouldn’t judge them! It’s difficult nowadays, because who knows what the working class is anymore, and what I’m talking about is the rural working class, because that’s where most of the songs come from. They’re not industrial songs; they’re from the country, rural songs. It is working class music, but the working class didn’t want it. They wanted music hall. But that’s when they left the land. That was because of the shift from the land up to the mills. Then they just wanted to be part of what was then the common culture of music hall and not singing around, singing in a pub, or singing at home. But we’re lucky that the collectors were out there recording it all, getting it down. Because they got thousands and thousands and thousands of songs; it’s a huge legacy. It’s just a wonderful collection of stuff. Great songs equal to anything that bloody Sherwin or Schubert wrote. Talk about lieders- no thanks! Just give me a good old George Maynard song any day!

The CD version of the tribute album Shirley Inspired is out on Monday June 15 on Earth records

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