First published in fRoots magazine, July 2012 (issue 349)

Love, Songs And The Lady

Shirley Collins is the role model for legions of younger women singing traditional songs in their own natural voices and accents. Jo Breeze celebrates this English folk icon’s long career.

Described as ‘England’s greatest folk singer’, ‘the quintessential English folk voice’, ‘the doyenne of English folk music’ – it was hard to know where to start with Shirley Collins. But any expectations I had of ‘pure as the driven snow’ had been fatally undermined by a recent photo, taken by our Editor, of Shirley puffing away underneath a No Smoking sign at Cecil Sharp House. Should we be revising her image into ‘the Marianne Faithfull of folk music’?

Shirley’s career includes an extraordinary list of her own albums and recordings; collecting, fieldwork and recording with Peter Kennedy and Alan Lomax; writing her autobiographical America Over The Water book; writing and presenting the multi-media shows I’m A Romany Rai and A Most Sunshiny Day; her MBE awarded in 2006 for services to folk music; election as president of EFDSS in 2008; compiling two of Topic’s latest Voice Of The People albums, and incalculable other contributions to the folk tradition. 

But for the young English rose, up from Sussex to the big city in the 1950s to make her chosen way in folk music, there was to be something of a learning curve. As befits a woman more than entitled to her place in history, Shirley no longer feels a need to censor her memories or protect the reputations of others.

“When I was very young and naive, first in London, and crazy about anything to do with folk music at all, I had gone to hear Ewan MacColl sing. He invited me to go back to his house to see his big collection of folk song books. Of course, what I hadn’t realised was he was asking me to go and ‘see his etchings’,” she laughs. “I got all the way up to South Croydon, he opened the door, and as soon as I stepped inside he started taking his shirt off, and he had the most awful toad-like speckled skin – and I just fled! I was really cross as well because I had no money, and I’d spent all that money on bloody bus fare getting out there and I didn’t see a single book!”

I asked Shirley if he ever tried again. “I never gave him the chance! Besides, I quickly moved away from wanting to have anything to do with that lot, so pompous and so pretentious. And they were quite malicious as well; they were not kind people. Cold people,” she says, firmly. “Brisk and cold. This great love affair between him and Peggy; they obviously were in love, but I thought ‘how could anybody fall in love with Ewan?’ I’m not fond of either of them. But they were not fond of me.”

“I thought what they were doing was not right, the way they were teaching singing and making rules. I didn’t think they were very good singers themselves, and certainly not good traditional singers. Bert Lloyd could certainly handle a traditional song wonderfully, when he chose to, but otherwise there was always a sly twist, a slightly malicious or capricious grin, that I just found so irritating. It was just a pose that was attached. Like Ewan, when he started singing he would turn a chair round, sit astride it, face the audience, stick his hand behind his ear – it was just pretentious, and it had nothing to do with the songs, it had all to do with promoting this image, which drove me absolutely nuts.”

“And another good thing about coming from Sussex is there is a stubborn streak in us. ‘We won’t be druv,’ is the saying. I just couldn’t bear being told what I should be doing by people I didn’t respect, so it was easy to turn my back on it. Although of course they were the powerhouse of the revival, so if you turned your back on it you were setting yourself out on a lonely, solitary path. But I’ve been on that all my life anyway, and enjoyed it, so it’s rather lucky that that was what I decided.”

On her solitary path, Shirley experimented with the music, including her acclaimed jazz-folk collaboration with Davy Graham on Folk Roots, New Routes, the early music instruments with her sister Dolly Collins on Anthems In Eden, and the early folk-rock of No Roses with the Albion Band. When I suggest that she was taking risks, she corrects me: “I wasn’t taking risks with the songs, but perhaps with the arrangements. It didn’t seem like taking risks, it just seemed like an exploration.”

So if people were going back through your old albums, which would you pick out and say: listen to this one? “I think Love, Death And The Lady actually. The song Love, Death And The Lady itself is so incredible, this conversation between a wealthy woman and Death. And you know what the outcome is going to be, she’s not going to be able to pay Death. It’s such an ancient story; I just love the length of time it’s been on people’s mouths, wonderful. And The Plains Of Waterloo, which I think is one of the most lovely songs ever, and also it’s because Dolly was there as well, and there was such a rapport between us, always. She wrote such wonderful arrangements. So perhaps that one.”

“One of my favourite songs is The Oxford Girl where the chap murders his sweetheart for no apparent reason. And what I’ve always loved about it was that firstly, there’s no reason – sometimes he knows the girl’s pregnant so he’s going to bump her off, but it’s never quite made clear – and secondly the way they go out walking and he takes a stick from the hedge and he gently knocks her down, and he gently drags her through the fields, and gently throws her into the river, and I think this is just the most extraordinary and quite profound use of the word. I don’t know why, quite, it still affects me when I hear those words sung. I think there’s something – in a sense awful, I know – but there seems to be something of absolute truth of true love in there as well, horribly diverted.“

”It’s just the persistence that I love so much, songs that hark back to actual events, not through books but in the memory of some singer who heard it from some other singer. It must have fascinated people right through the history of that song. There’s something in human beings that needs something like this; I think we need our links to the past, whether we understand them or not. There’s all these lovely little bits of mystery that have always totally captivated me and still do.”

“I know that a lot of people in weird-folk think that the Love, Death And The Lady album was all about witchcraft, and it’s not.” I ask if she thinks that that eagerness to find England’s occult past is misplaced. “In one way I can understand it, because there is an extraordinary dark and mysterious past in the country, and it’s not all been sweetness and light by any means, but I think it’s more down to earth than that. There are some mysteries in the songs, certainly, but they’re not necessarily attached to witchcraft and sorcery and fairies. Like Polly Vaughan, for example; you can look at that from two points of view. Is he making up an excuse that he thought she was a swan, or is there something to do with the legend of Leda and the swan still in there? These things do persist so, and I do like to think that it stays in the folk memory. On the other hand he might have just been making up an excuse; ‘Sorry guv, I thought she was a swan, honest’.”

When Shirley first arrived in London, she sought out the library at Cecil Sharp House, which then had a distinctly unwelcoming atmosphere. “It was upper middle class, Princess Margaret was president, and it was mostly dance – just prissy, almost a closed society. Then Peter [Kennedy] decided that he wanted it to be a place where people could come, and listen to singers, and sing, and so he opened up the cellar and we all used to sit round in a circle and have a song apiece. He’d bring in traditional singers in for you to listen to, and it was incredible. If that hadn’t happened I wouldn’t have met George Maynard or Harry Cox, and they became two really important examples for me to follow of the right way to sing. Peter made it so that you could walk in, and you had the freedom of sitting there singing, without feeling that you were an interloper.”

Years later Shirley worked, briefly, at Cecil Sharp House under Jim Lloyd’s directorship, ostensibly as Public Relations Officer. “But that wasn’t the job at all. I was secretary to the accountant, I was just typing his letters, and it was the most unhappy time. I’d been working at the British Museum in the bookshop, and loving every minute of it. I was just given a weekend to think whether I wanted this job as Public Relations Officer at Cecil Sharp House and I thought: ‘That’s my place, I belong in folk music really’. And it was a huge error. I just lasted six months and then escaped.”

In her last major fRoots interview, with Maggie Holland [from 1988], she’d talked about writing some songs. “Really? How strange. I mean I had been putting some songs together, but they were just reworkings of traditional songs.” I ask if she still reworks them. “Yes.” She pauses. “I just find them fascinating. I don’t forget words of songs; I can remember so clearly, and I can hear in my head these old singers and it’s lovely, because it’s like a loop that’s just going through my mind all the time. I’m quite pleased that I can still remember all the words, because I sing songs in my head, and I just hope that keeps going.” 

Does she sing in private at all? “No. I just embarrass myself when I do. I just cannot sing. It’s just dreadful. It’s still a source of incredible loss, really. But at least I hear the songs in my head, even if I can’t sing them. Bit of a bugger.”

Shirley withdrew from singing in the early ’80s. Though there were rumours of throat trouble at the time, it was brought on by her then husband, Ashley Hutchings, leaving her in 1978. Linda Thompson, Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, even Shania Twain, all lost their voices following relationship breakups with a partner who was also a musical collaborator. “It’s Ashley leaving me that triggered it. It’s bewildering really, because it was the day after our wedding anniversary when he left. The day before, we’d been wandering down the lane hand in hand, and he’d bought me Ella Mary Leather’s Folk Songs Of Herefordshire as a present, and the next day he came back in the evening and said ‘I’m leaving’. Just as brutally as that. Consumed with love for somebody else, and off he went. It was such a shock. Everybody in the band had known beforehand that he was having an affair, but nobody had thought to try and warn me.”

“I’d been singing at the National Theatre with the band, in Mysteries and Lark Rise. He sent people down to the cottage from the band; one message he sent was ‘you’ve got to make your own life now’ and I thought ‘why doesn’t he come and bloody tell me himself?’ And he didn’t ever. He left without seeing the children – they were his stepchildren, children from my first marriage – but he just left, and he’s never seen them since. I just found it so painful and bewildering. One of the really sad things about it was that he thought this was all a great lark. He sent me a postcard signed ‘with love from the philanderer’. You know, he thought it was fun. I took a real dive when I saw that one. It just wasn’t necessary. I’ve got over it now, but the only thing I couldn’t ever build up was my singing voice.”

“I threw my wedding ring into the sea. He sent down a bottle of champagne one Christmas, and I went down the beach and poured it in the sea, and threw the wedding ring after it. What a waste! I should have flogged it.”

“Instead of getting hurt by it I should have just got angry, but I didn’t. Then it just all got locked up. I went to see various singing teachers, which in its way was humiliating, because they didn’t know the way I sang; I saw throat specialists, I went to Indian healers. I was just trying anything, but nothing worked, and finally I had to earn a living so I had to turn away from it. What I’m happy about is that I’m back in the swing of it now, doing work for Topic and doing the shows which I thoroughly enjoy doing. It’s one way of getting the real sound of the old English singers out there, but presented I hope in a fairly entertaining way; I do like presenting it and I like them being able to hear the singers.”

The abiding concern in the traditional music scene is always that, unless the next generation pick up this music and love it, it will be lost. But the tradition as it existed before the mid 20th Century has, in many ways, already been lost – or at least irrevocably altered by the ’60s folk revival, the advent of folk clubs, of mass media recordings, a highly mobile population and more. The great advantage we now have over previous decades and previous generations is the extraordinary wealth of archive recordings, increasingly available to the general public. In some ways, this music can’t be lost now. 

“No, this is very true,” says Shirley. “The one thing I don’t quite understand about singers nowadays is how they’re not exploring that. It’s all so easy for them now; they have to spend a bit of time listening but it’s all there. You see new albums coming out and you look down the titles; it’s the same old songs. I just think it’s lazy. It tells me that they’re not really that interested. I think they find their path through writing their own songs, but then I don’t think you can call yourself a folk singer really. But somebody’ll grumble at me for that. I just think they ought to listen to the style, especially the English singers, because there’s far too much decoration from a lot of modern singers that has nothing to do with the English tradition.” 

“I was listening to some tracks a couple of weeks ago; nice voices, but they were decorating almost every note, and singing English songs in a very angular way. I thought at the end that this is like chipping away at the song; you’re chipping away at not only each word, but each phrase, each line, you’re losing the flow of it. And by the end of the song all you’ve got is a pile of chippings. It does distress me, because I think English style is so restrained and unadorned, but not lacking in beauty. I think sometimes the singers want to be listened to rather than them listening to the songs.”

“People say ‘oh, these old folk songs aren’t relevant’. But they’re more relevant than any other form of music. They cover all the fundamentals. And really there’s not a great deal of difference between somebody who’s experiencing their sweetheart being away in the Napoleonic wars and somebody experiencing their sweetheart away in Chechnya or Afghanistan. It’s funny how willing people are to ridicule folk songs as well. They say ‘oh, they don’t recognise their sweetheart who’s been away for seven years’. Well think about it. Did you have all the photographic memories in front of you in 1820? If somebody was away for seven years, and you haven’t had a picture in front of you, and he was 17 when he left and he comes back at 25 having fought, it would be a miracle if you did recognise him. We’re so used to images now, and people weren’t then.”

“Perhaps one shouldn’t say ‘I wish they’d sing like the old singers’; perhaps they can’t. But I think you’ve got to have a respect for it at the same time, you’ve got to understand it, and I think if you change what is the essence of Englishness about it then you’re just losing so much of it and doing a great harm as well to the history and culture of this country, of ordinary people. I wonder whether it’s the equivalent of what’s happening to the English language; the people who are changing it are the people who don’t care about it. So I just wonder if the people who are changing traditional song in this country are the people who don’t really care about it – just sort of picking it up and running with it for a bit but not absolutely loving it.”

Talking about the changes in singing styles, Shirley tells me a story about Aretha Franklin’s performance at Obama’s inauguration. “Soul singers don’t sing the song first and then take off; they take off from the minute they start, so you get no idea of the tune”. She illustrates the perils of badly-timed pauses in the first line of My Country Tis Of Thee. Effectively, Shirley Collins has just loudly proclaimed the c-word over her kitchen table for me. “She sang this in front of millions of people around the world. I was wondering how many people picked that up; it’s one of my favourite moments.”

The changes in the music scene following the mid-century folk revival mean, for those too young to remember it, that the source singers seem to be living in another age altogether. This explains why, though singers like Shirley bridle at it, revival performers like herself are looked at by many young musicians as source singers themselves – the changes they made then have become part of a new tradition. Of those revival singers, who does Shirley think is worth listening to? 

“John Kirkpatrick, Martin Carthy, the Watersons, Nic Jones. Anne Briggs was wonderful, for a time. And Barry Dransfield, who a couple of years ago brought out one of the greatest records I’ve heard, with some of the best tracks I’ve ever heard, and he sings a couple of Handel songs, accompanying himself on cello and violin, absolutely sublime. A bad boy, but a wonderful singer.” In what way a bad boy? “In the usual way – he didn’t do time, he just did lots of women! A remarkable singer. What sets them apart? Material, I guess. Partly material, partly the way they sing. They sound like themselves; they don’t sound like they’re trying to be other people. Those are the people that are most influential still, for younger singers, especially Nic who seems to be the person that everybody loves most, and wants to emulate; there’s such a romantic story surrounding him as well, part of the legend. But he was lovely – still is, of course.”

“I’m glad we’ve got people like John Kirkpatrick around. I like that he’s forthright about how tunes should be played, that the pace has got to be for dancing, not about rushing away and playing too fast. He’s such a great singer, so straightforward; his singing is so plain in a way, but sturdy and manly without being macho, which is a great thing for blokes. The first time I heard him sing The Nobleman’s Wedding I was just in tears. And he sang Bogie’s Bonny Belle, with Davy Stewart’s chaotic accompaniment. John echoes it absolutely, he plays it just as Davy does, all those strange notes – it always breaks my heart, that song, the fact that these two people who probably really love each other are separated by a stubborn old father who doesn’t care, and it’s always affected me quite deeply. Then when John sang it with Davy’s accompaniment I just blubbed. Tears streaming down my face, I couldn’t stop crying, and John had to get a hankie out and hand it over.”

Of the newer performers, who does she think is doing it well? “That’s a bit tricky because the people I leave out are going to accuse me of being the ‘folk police’! But I think Sam Lee is a real force for good; he is doing wonderful work in the field still; he recently discovered another old Gypsy singer, which is incredible. What I like about Sam’s singing is that it has that of the tradition about it, but somehow he imbues it with a sort of other­worldliness as well; it’s almost as if it takes place in a Philip Pullman novel. It’s got that element of stepping sideways a bit. I think Emily Portman’s songs are very clever, based on fairy stories and the position of women in them. And Alasdair Roberts in Scotland of course is a great songwriter and good traditional singer as well.”

I ask which of her own achievements she feels proudest of. “I’m quite proud to have written my book, because although I thought I had the material for it, because of the extraordinary journey I had, I didn’t think I had the ability to write it. I can’t help but being proud of a few albums, really: Anthems In Eden; Love, Death And The Lady; No Roses; Folk Roots, New Routes with Davy Graham. When I listen to them, I wish there had been more time to record a lot of it, because in those days, and for the sort of budget that they provided for folk music, it was in and out of the studio in two days; some of the things are one-takes.”

“I know it sounds so Pseud’s Corner but I am quite proud of my integrity. Having stuck to the course, and stuck to what I believed in, and not been sidetracked. It’s not as if anybody wanted to sidetrack me, but I think I’ve kept my integrity; in many ways it wasn’t too difficult to do. There’s not a lot of temptation! No, I wouldn’t have been tempted anyway.”

She’s quoted in the earlier interview as saying “I feel I should write the America experience up.” America Over The Water, first published in 2004, is her account of the year-long field trip she took with Alan Lomax, and experiences from her life and music. “I don’t understand why I didn’t write a book ages ago, when I see how long ago it all happened. Funny, isn’t it? But then a time comes; often, it just gets to be the right time to do something. It took me ages to write America Over The Water because I thought ‘I can’t start writing it until I’ve got the first line’. It finally came to me when my mum said to me one day ‘Would you like your letters back Shirley?’ and I said ‘Which letters are they, mum?’ and she said ‘Your letters from America’. So there I had my first line: ‘They’d lain in a drawer at my mother’s house for many years, my letters from America.’ And once I’d got that, I was just able to go; it was incredible. It just opened up everything, and all these birds flew out; I was able to capture them and get them on the page again.”

“It was partly through Pip [Barnes]’s prompting: he kept saying I ought to write a book about these experiences, nobody else is going to be able to do it, and nobody else did it in the time that I did it, which was such an extraordinary time in America. And then Alan sent me a copy of his book The Land Where The Blues Began, in which he wrote a really fulsome inscription to me in pen. But in the book he just said ‘Shirley Collins, this lovely young English singer, was along for the trip’ and I thought, hang on, three months in the Deep South on a field recording trip is not ‘along for the trip’. It was really hard work, especially in those days, because the equipment was so heavy. It was nothing like now when you can get a wallet-sized recorder. Heavy machinery, huge big boxes of batteries to get up mountainsides, and I just worked all the time. That really annoyed me. I thought ‘You bugger, I can’t put up with this’. Because I got that first line, it just unleashed everything.”

Things were different for women then; Shirley talked about performing when she was newly married (to her first husband, Austin John Marshall) with two young children. “I was going off on my own to clubs and travelling back overnight from God knows where, just to get back to be there with the children in the morning. I was picked up on Leeds station one night at two in the morning by two huge burly policemen thinking I was a prostitute. Luckily I’d got a contract with me and my banjo so was able to prove what I’d been doing, but it was quite terrifying. But when we were doing concerts as the band together I was always aware that I was the one that was having to get back home to be a normal mother the next day, whereas the chaps were being put up, looked after, driven to the station; they didn’t have to lift a finger really.”

“Funnily enough, I wrote three different endings to the book. The first one had mentioned what Alan had said, and I wrote ‘and I said we’ll see about this, and I started to write my book.’ The second ending, he was ill then, and I wrote a much softer ending to say what a remarkable man he was. And then the third edition, he had died, and two Dutch film-makers had made a film about where Alan had recorded in the 1950s, and trying to find the people he’d recorded from. When they went to Spain, there were people coming out of farmhouses, being reminded that Alan had visited their families in the 1950s, and they’d bring out violins, and some women started to dance when they heard the recordings back, 50 or so years later, and it was heartbreaking. Then at the end of the film they’d gone to Florida where Alan was in the last throes of his stroke and they played him this music, and suddenly his face transformed; it lit up, you could see the life just flowing into him again. It just broke my heart to see it, so I wrote a completely different ending; I thought God, the work this man did, and what he actually made of his life – not only his life but other people’s lives, and their music – and how affected he was by it, and how affected his source singers were by it. What a remarkable man.”

“So I wrote a bit of a eulogy at the end; not over the top, just what was deserved. I felt much better about it then, that I’d done him the honour that I thought he deserved, for all that work. It was lovely writing the book, I copied out reams of the letters I’d sent home, so I’m proud of that, because I didn’t think I had the patience to do it – I’m a bit of a procrastinator, I’m sure I must have cleaned the kitchen cupboard out fifty million times before I started writing! I would love to write some more; I write the shows, which I enjoy both writing and doing. Perhaps I do have another book in me, but I don’t know what it is yet. It will just come to me one day.”

There’s an idea in communication theory that we are a storytelling species; we understand the world in terms of stories and narratives. “But why do we want to keep on singing the same songs, telling the same stories?” Shirley wonders. When something bad happens in your own life, I suggest, being able to reach into a sad song that moves you, and that has moved hundreds of singers before you, is reassuring. “It makes you feel included as well, part of it,” she says. “I hope it continues to last; things are changing so rapidly now that you wonder what’s going to go, what’s going to be discarded. But the nice thing about this music is that it has a certain degree of independence. I think it’s safe.”