As a musically inexperienced teenager 22 years ago, I was introduced to the wonders of British folk music, through a -then- totally unknown to me female singer with a haunting, mesmerizing voice: the singer was Shirley Collins and the extraordinary LP I’ve come to primarily associate innovative British folk music with was Folk Roots New Routes, a collaboration with Davy Graham. When I was in London for post-graduate studies some 10 years ago, Shirley Collins even had the courtesy, with a soulful glow on her face, to sign a copy of her Heroes in Love EP for me, after one of the reading sessions of her fascinating book America over the water. On the occasion of her upcoming 80th birthday and in expectation of the publication of her second book and the release of the biographical documentary The Ballad of Shirley Collins in 2016, I had the honor and the pleasure to conduct the following conversation with her through e-mail.
In an interview with Maggie Holland of Folk Roots back in November 1988, you’ve stated that you “grew up in a family of people who were ardent socialists and ardent lovers of the arts”, most notably your mother, Aunt Grace and your uncle Fred Ball. Did they encourage you to get involved with the arts and, eventually, take up singing, or did it just emerge naturally?
My sister Dolly and I were always encouraged to read, to listen to music and to sing. Dolly had piano lessons and she always wanted to be a composer, and I wanted to be a singer. This is what we both hoped for. And yes, somehow it emerged and happened naturally - but with a lot of hard work!
Arvo Pärt, the famous Estonian composer of classical and sacred music, once said that “the human voice is the most perfect instrument of all”. Do you agree? Were you properly trained as a singer, or do you simply sing as you speak, as you have so eloquently put it?
I suppose I agree with what Arvo Pärt said, but I also think that the human voice is enhanced when it is accompanied and when the harmonies are right. And no, I never trained as a singer. Folk music sounds best to me when sung with your natural voice and your local accent, otherwise it sounds false.
In your fascinating book America over the water you delve into the music and songs collecting trip with Alan Lomax in the US in 1959. How did you two meet back then, how did your artistic relationship evolve over time and which are you most enduring memories of that trip, more than half a century later?
I first met Alan in London around 1955 at a party that the singer Ewan MacColl gave for Alan, who had returned to London from collecting traditional folk music in Spain and Italy. I’m not sure that our “artistic relationship” did evolve! Alan did not approve of the recordings I made with Davy Graham, or with early music instruments or even with Dolly’s arrangements. There were a lot of things we didn’t agree about!
My most enduring memories of that trip? Because I wrote a book about it, and still give a show called America over the water, all of it stays fresh in my mind. It’s the wonderful ordinary people and their songs - just being there at the right time. The two people (and their music) that I loved best? Almeda Riddle, the Arkansas mountain singer, and Fred McDowell and his Mississippi blues. I can still see him at the end of his day’s work picking cotton, walking into the clearing in Como, Mississippi, dressed in his denim overalls and carrying a guitar. I have a photograph of him on the wall of my study.
As a musically inexperienced teenager 22 years ago, I was introduced to British folk music and your singing through your collaboration with Davy Graham on the seminal Folk Roots New Routes LP, one of the most adventurous works ever committed to vinyl. Would you like to elaborate on this creative partnership? Were you aware at the time, even subconsciously, that you were creating something indeed groundbreaking, as the title of the LP suggested?
This collaboration was suggested by my then husband, Austin John Marshall. We must have known that it was going to be different from what else was happening in folk music at the time, and later realized that it was indeed “groundbreaking”. Davy was a genius! And he added a new dimension to the songs, without detracting from them or making them lose their identity.
In the liner notes of the sublime Power of the true love knot LP from 1968, another one of my favorites, you write that its theme is “the idea of true love as a power outside society's control”. How powerful has true love been in your life, if I am allowed to ask?
Oh dear! Love is all-important, the thing (I) we crave most. I was never fortunate enough to find a lasting one so I’ve lived alone for the last many years. Sometimes it saddens me, but I’ve got used to it!
Despite your initial reservations, you ventured into folk rock with No Roses LP, collaborating with a stellar line-up of musicians and singers under the title of the “Albion Country Band”. This collaboration proved artistically successful. How come didn’t you continue into that direction?
No Roses was a one-off. If you tried to repeat it, you wouldn’t succeed. In any case, you need a lot of money to make such an album, and there’s not much money around, where folk music is concerned (not the genuine traditional songs, anyway), so we were fortunate to be able to make just the one No Roses.
You are considered to be one of the cornerstones of British folk revival. Do you think of yourself as a traditional singer, or a revivalist? And what’s the crucial difference between these terms?
I think, because of my age and my working-class origins, I call myself both a traditional singer and a revivalist. And because I learnt a great many of my songs from field recordings of genuine country people, I feel so close to them that I believe I’m a conduit between them and people nowadays, and between then and now. I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious! These songs and their (mostly rural) working class origins give a voice to the ordinary people, telling of their experience of life and of past social history.
You retired from singing shortly after your final LP, to date. A year ago, however, you triumphantly returned on stage, performing two songs in front of a delighted audience. What has changed in the meantime, besides David Tibet’s continuous encouragement and support, which helped you regain your confidence in your voice? Would you try it again sometime?
I love English folk music so much, that, although I stopped singing in public many years ago, I never stopped singing inside my head. David Tibet kept asking me to sing at one of his concerts -even one song- and because over many years he had become such a supporter, and such a good friend, I finally said “Yes, ok!” - and did it! Then this year on January 31st I sang two songs, along with short readings from my new book (which I’ve nearly finished now) at Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders in London. And -with a bit of luck- I’m going to record another album…
The Ballad of Shirley Collins, a feature documentary about your life and art, is currently underway. Do you feel excited about it- or honored, perhaps?
Well, yes, it is exciting, and yes, it’s an honor, too. I agreed to it because the two filmmakers, Rob Curry and Tim Plester, made such a beautiful film about the Adderbury Morris Side. I know I’m in safe hands, but am fascinated to see how it turns out.
You are also working hard on your new book By the mark on his hand, due for release soon. What is it about?
Please don’t call it that! That won’t be the final title! By the mark on his hand was a working title, the words taken from a Sussex song. It’s autobiographical, it’s about songs (and has a few songs in it), it’s about Sussex, and how important the Sussex landscape is to me, it’s about my own folk heroes and heroines.
Your vinyl LPs and EPs have become increasingly collectible over the years. Did you expect that, when you first started singing? Or does it even matter?
Completely unexpected! Having never made much money from my recordings, it’s a bit maddening to see some of them fetch hundreds of pounds. So someone’s making money - but still not me!!!
Do you still listen to music, be it British folk or otherwise, in search for something special? What delights you the most these days on the musical front?
Yes, I listen to people such as Nic Jones, Barry Dransfield and John Kirkpatrick. I listen to the field recordings we made in America in 1959. I listen to English field recordings. I listen to early music - Monteverdi is my favorite. I listen to Purcell, Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth. I just love English music - it’s in my soul!
Are you at all acquainted with Greek folk music, of the past or the present?
Forgive me - but I’m not…
You are approaching your 80th birthday. Still, you look so fresh and vital- and function likewise, which, to me, is quite astounding! Is there some secret “recipe”?
Thank you! It must be all the honey I eat! And that I love to be out in the countryside and fresh air.
Thank you for the music during all these years!
Thank you, Yannis!
I would like to sincerely thank Polly Marshall for her valuable contribution to the conduction of this interview. And, of course, Shirley Collins for being such an inspiration throughout all these years!
Shirley Collins’ official website is http://www.shirleycollins.co.uk/
The Ballad of Shirley Collins’ official website is http://www.shirleycollinsmovie.com/
Photo credits (top to bottom): Brian Shuel/Collections, Brian Shuel/Collections, Karolina Urbaniak, Andrew Hasson/REX.