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From the Archive: Shirley Collins

Nothing Concrete text
19 May 2021
30 min listen

In this week's archive edition we find ourselves back in the home and in conversation with folk singing legend Shirley Collins. This is her story: how she went from collecting voices to finding, losing, and eventually discovering her own again.

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Ben Eshmade and on this week's archive edition we find ourselves back in the home and in conversation with folk singing legend Shirley Collins. This is her story: how she went from collecting voices to finding, losing, and eventually discovering her own again.

Shirley Collins:I just love the songs because of what they tell you, what they sing about – and they sing about absolutely every subject in the world; mostly love, quite a lot of death, a lot of partings and sorrows.

BE: Back in January 2017, we took the opportunity to speak to Shirley Collins about ‘Lodestar’, her first record release in 40 years, and the then upcoming performance at the venue. I travelled to Lewes to the small house where she lives and recorded this album, our conversation began with her first encounter with music.

SC: Well it first entered my life when I was a child growing up in Hastings during the war. And my gran and granddad used to sing to my sister Dolly and me when we were in the air raid shelter during the war, because Hastings had quite a few bombing raids, and Doodlebug raids as well. So yes, I mean, I had that sort of grounding from the very start. And you know, they were semi-rural workers: granddad was a gardener on an estate in Sussex, and you know, yes I did have that music right there from the beginning. And we survived the bombs as well!

BE: I suppose that's interesting, because you're seeing music in that context of something that could be powerful, and reassuring, and cathartic. And that's probably stayed with you.

SC: Well look, I do find that you know, that there is this power there, and the comfort that I remember still from listening to them sing. And granny would often sing us nursery rhymes, you know, which instils in you this wonderful sense of the rhythm of English speech, the beauty of the tunes, you know, they're not nonsense, they're lovely. And they sort of give you this wonderful sense of Englishness, which, even nowadays, I still sort of like.

BE: Tell me about the journey then from nursery rhymes to folk music.

SC: I always loved the sound of the songs that I heard as a child. And at the time, in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s, we’d listen to the radio all the time, there's no television, of course. And although we had a wind-up gramophone, we only had two records that we could listen to, one was The Laughing Policeman, but on the radio, there were programmes like Country Magazine. When the BBC started putting out people to collect, you know, what was left of traditional song in the countryside, then they’d play some of those recordings. So they reminded me again of granddad, you know, and I just loved it, I lapped it up. I learned a lot of these songs from the radio programmes. Dolly and I used to go down to downtown Hastings on Saturdays, go to the library in the morning, have our lunch at Lyons Corner House, you know, and then we go to the pictures in the afternoon. And in those days, of course, there were two films showing always – an A movie and a B movie. By luck we chanced upon a B movie called ‘Nightclub Girl’, which was the story of a girl from the Tennessee mountains, who was discovered by a New York talent scout as she sat singing her folk songs, and he whisked her off to New York. Then she started appearing singing in nightclubs wearing lovely frocks, and she was fallen in love with by the talent scout as well, who was an actor I really liked as well. So, I thought that would do for me, I am going to be a folk singer. I was 15 years old and it still sounds so ludicrous now, but I wrote to the BBC to say I want to be a folk singer. They pass the letter to Bob Copper, a very famous Sussex writer about the countryside and history. And then one day in Hastings, when I was 15, there was a knock on the door and there was Bob Copper. He was in Hastings, collecting songs from the fishermen in the old town, and he’d got the letter, been handed the letter, and came up to see if there was anything doing up at our house in Athelstan Road. But then my sister and I, we sang him a couple of songs that we'd learned from the radio, and one of them was a Scottish ballad, which we tried to sing the Scots accent, you knew. And so it wasn't what Bob was looking for at all. But he spoke to mum and recorded a couple of country dance tunes with her, and he went in to see granny and granddad next door. The great thing was that he’d got teenaged children of his own, so he knew what nonsense we could all be capable of. And then a few years ago, just before he died, because I kept up a friendship with him right throughout my life. He handed me his worksheet for that particular day and it said, ‘Shirley Collins. Occupation: schoolgirl’.

Dolly and I used to sing together the songs we’d learned from aunt Grace and from granddad, and some we'd learned, again, from the radio. And my mum is an ardent Socialist, or even a Communist. I mean, she was a member of the Communist Party for a while, and both parties had socials at a big hotel called Oakwood, just outside Hastings. And we'd go along, Dolly and me, and sing at these socials. And it was there I met a man called John Huston, who sort of said, you know, you ought to come to London and, you know, you've got the chance to find more songs there because there's a wonderful library at the English Folk Dance and Song Society, at Cecil Sharp House, and he said, there are other young people singing as well. When I was eighteen, nineteen, I did to go to London, I moved to London because I knew I had to find, you know, this stuff. And so that was the start of it all. But it was always folk song that was pulling me, it was the only stuff I liked. And then we hadn't been able as children to listen to American pop music on the radio because mum thought it would corrupt us, yes. So, after three or four years in London, I was invited to a party that Ian McConnell was throwing for Alan Lomax, the American collector of folk song, who was coming back to London after spending five years in Spain and Italy recording traditional song. I was introduced to him and I have to say, I fell in love on the spot. Because, I mean, I was going to anyway because of the music. But then there was this tall Texan with great big shoulders and head of very shaggy dark hair, and he reminded me of an American bison, which was my favourite animal anyway. So you know, I was a goner.

BE: What was your experiences like in the States, meeting these people, entering their lives and then recording them?

SC: Well, after a couple of years Alan went back, and then a year later asked me if I would like to join him in this recording trip, a field recording trip, he was planning in The Deep South. And of course, I went. I went by boat, I went on the liner, because that was the way that you travelled if you weren't very rich. But this was just such an eye opener for me. But meeting these people was – the poverty I saw there was quite extraordinary. But alongside that poverty, there was an incredible generosity, which I loved, and sort of such a welcoming people, you know. I mean, not all of them, of course – you know, there were some frightening moments there. What was lovely as well was that, I was able to sing back to them English versions of some of the songs that they were singing that had come from the old country. Now most of their ancestors had come from the old country, as they called it, and they were thrilled, you know, they liked that connection. It sort of brought me very close to them, often.

When we were in places like Mississippi and Alabama, I was so deeply ashamed of having to eat in segregated restaurants, for instance, you know. It was just before the cusp, or on the cusp of the civil rights movement: segregated restaurants, segregated swimming pools, you know, segregated everything really. Which we used, but I felt ashamed of myself for having to, and outside a great many towns in The Deep South there were the KKK signs, the Ku Klux Klan, announcing, you know, that it was legitimately there. Extraordinary. You know, and that was terrifying.

But this one absolutely lovely story comes out of that trip, that visit, is that James Carter was one of the convicts that Alan recorded leading the work song ‘Po’ Lazarus’. And many years later, the Coen Brothers used it in the film ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’, which, you know, the actual recording, which is so marvellous because by this time, many years later, James had been released from the penitentiary and the Lomax people traced him to Chicago. And the album of the music from the film had just sold in the hit parade, you know, and sold millions of copies. And they took James to the Emmy Awards and gave him his first royalty check for $20,00). Isn't that marvellous? You know just love that thought of justice, taking the time, but you know, eventually happening.

BE: We have to skip a little bit more forward. Could you talk just a little bit about the ‘60s and ‘70s, a very creative time for you working with lots of different people.

SC: After I got back from America in 1960, then I started to go around the clubs, you know, to pick up where I'd left off. And of course, in the year that I'd been away, there was so much more going on. And it was just sort of a slow start, but it quickly built, the whole thing, and I was able to eventually record with people like Davey Graham, you know. Genius guitarist, you know, he doesn't I think get the full credit. Other people copied him and they get the credit, but it was Davey who was the original genius really. So I made an album with Davey and although – I mean, I wasn't sure how that one would work because he played quite a lot of jazz and I just can't stand jazz, it makes me so fidgety. I just – it makes me angry as well, I just don't like it at all. But I heard him play an Irish song when he came out to the house to see if we could possibly work together and it was just incredible. He just made it sound… although he was playing it as sort of as an Indian raga, it sounded even more Irish than you know, than it might. So that was a wonderful thing. I had played five-string banjo and a guitar and I was sort of rather limited, I wasn't much of a musician, and then it suddenly dawned on me that you know, Dolly, who was a trained composer. And so we joined forces and made, well, The Sweet Primroses was the first one, with this flute organ that we had discovered, because we both loved early music. And we used to go to Early Music Centre in London, and listen to rehearsals of people like Michael Morrow and the Musica Reservata, and David Monrow, you know, who was just about to form his Early Music Consort. I've just had lots of luck in the people I've met, you know, it just is extraordinary, really. And I've been so fortunate. And then we – there was so much happening! I mean, when I look on those albums, because you didn't have a long time to record them in those days, you know, you expected to do it in two days in the studio, which is going it some, especially for Anthems in Eden, because it was the David Munrow Early Music Consort, you know, all those musicians as well. And all of Dolly’s arrangements written out for them. It's a miracle. I mean, I can hear the flaws in it, you know, just because you had to move along to the next one. And yeah, a couple of other albums at that time as well. Lots of club work, you know, it was busy, and by that time I’d got two young children as well. So I used to sort of make sure they were okay and the babysitter had arrived, or my mum had arrived, and then rush along Blackheath Park to catch the train. I was always running to catch trains it seemed to me.

BE: I don’t know how difficult this is to talk about, can we then move on to the crisis of your voice?

SC: After John and I divorced, which was quite an amicable one. I mean, he’d found somebody else and I was quite happy about that. I married Ashley Hutchings when he was still with Fairport or Steeleye at the time – Steeleye Span. And we got married and we moved down to Sussex and lived in Etchingham, in a beautiful Tudor cottage called Red Rose. And we lived sort of very happily for seven years, but then the theatre sort of took hold of our lives, and we were up in Cotteslowe [Dorfman] in the National [Theatre] doing Lark Rise [To Candleford]. Just a couple of days after an anniversary, Ashley and I were walking down the lane, hand in hand. And then he had to go to London the next day for a couple of meetings, he came home that evening, walks through the door, and I looked at his face and said, ‘Ashley, what's wrong?’ He said, ‘I'm consumed with love.’ and then leaving. Just poof– and what I mean, I was just so shocked, and so bewildered, and so heartbroken, really. And that was the sort of beginning of the end of my singing. Because when I was then working at the National, still with the band, because I thought I’d earned my place there, you know, I deserved to be there. So, I soldiered on there, but it was a promenade performance, and the actress he’d fallen in love with would turn up night after night in the audience, and she'd stand in front of me wearing his sweaters, you know. And some nights, my voice, you know, my throat was constricted, sometimes I was trying not to cry. So everything was just hard, and I was being criticised for my bad singing, and I thought, God, you know, what am I supposed to do? Anyway, I tried and tried and tried, but finally it, it did me in, and I couldn't – I didn't dare sing, you know. Even at home, I didn't dare open my mouth because I didn't like what came out. And that extended into… centuries. You know, bit feeble, I wish I'd responded with anger rather than grief, but you don't know how you're going to react, and you know, I certainly had no sort of advance notice of this. But anyway, I still couldn't forgive myself because the songs are all about this anyway, you know, they go into the deep emotions that people feel. And so you know, it's not as if I was feeble or anything, I tried and tried, but I’d got two children to bring up so I had to find other work to do. And I had, you know, you just have to, you know, you just have to keep going.

BE: A series of friends and fans and other people cajoled you, gently encouraged you to perhaps to try to sing again.

SC:  Yes, I mean, I got a lot of encouragement from friends, some of whom got a bit impatient with me as well, because I kept saying ‘I can't sing,’ you know, and this went on for so many years. And finally, it was David Tibet, who phoned up over twenty years ago, when I was still living in Brighton, and said, ‘look, I'm a great fan of your music, I love what you do. Could I come and see you?’ I wasn't singing at the time, I think I was working at the job centre or something. And it was sort of the start of a great friendship. And he started asking me if I'd sing again, he tried to convince me that I could sing. Over the years, I did, in fact, record a couple of verses for a couple of his albums. But I wasn't happy with them. And he kept on saying, ‘look, I've got a gig in February,’ or whenever, you know, ‘would you just come and sing one song in it?’ And I’d just say ‘no, I can't do it’. And another five years would pass and then he'd ask again, and I'd say, ‘no Tibet, sorry, I can't. Well, maybe.’ And then another five years would go, I'd say yes. And then when it came to the gig, I just couldn't do it. Then another twenty-odd years… he’s a very patient man!

I said yes, and did it at the Union Chapel in London, with Ian Kearey accompanying me. I was nervous and it was scary, but the audience was so warm and seemed to remember who I was, which was lovely because I thought I'd been entirely forgotten. And so, you know, that led to this ultimately, to the album – to Lodestar, and the concerts we're doing following it.

BE: I'm lucky enough to be in your house, and this is where you recorded it!

SC: In this very room, we did all the recordings. And I mean, as you can see, it's not very big. And at one point we had, we had Alex Neilson with his drum kit, he was just required to play some snare drums, some light stuff, but he said, ‘no I've got to bring my whole drum kit in, I can't play drums without the whole kit there, you know, even if I'm only playing couple of things.’ And so it took up half the room, it was just great. And we had a Morris dancer in here as well, dancing, and the ceiling’s not very high as you know yourself! And Glenn doing Morris dancing in his great capers and leaps, you know, he just – because he's quite tall – but he just missed that beam several times. But it was relaxed, you know, we had fun. I could take things as slowly as I wanted to and do things as often or as many times as I needed to. And there was the most marvellous bit of serendipity the day that we recorded ‘Cruel Lincoln’, which is in a song of bloodshed and vengeance, and it was a Midsummer's day and all the windows were open, and when we listen to the playback of the recording, it's just full of birdsong. Because there's a great bank at the back here, you know, trees, and all the birds were singing – and we listened to this and it was just, we’ve got to keep this on, you know, because what it did was point out the sort of beauty of everyday life against the horror of the story. You know, it's just sheer, sheer good luck there.

BE:  Was it hard to choose from – you must have a bank of music in your head, quite extraordinary, you know – was it hard to choose what to sing?

SC:  There was, I mean, there's still so many songs I, you know, because I continued to learn songs, even though I wasn't singing, you know, because it's what I love. And so I had scores, if not hundreds of songs to still do. But in a way these songs just presented themselves. I knew that I wanted to sing ‘Awake, Awake, Sweet England’, because it had been fascinating me for years and years: this amazing journey it took from London in 1560, or whatever, when there was an earthquake that toppled St. Paul's Cathedral, or part of the old tower. And there was a religious zealot who wrote this ballad, you know, warning people that they’d better start behaving themselves as God was displeased, and the earthquake was one of the first signs of it, you know. And then it disappeared – this song, I'd never heard it. I hadn't heard of it being collected anywhere, of all the field recordings I've listened to, and that runs into many hundreds, the song never appeared. And then in 1907, Vaughn Williams collected it, noted it down from Mrs. Bridges in Herefordshire. How did it get there, you know, what was its journey? I've always been fascinated by this song and it's a wonderful song as well because I like, it’s just the sort of thing I really do like.

And so I knew I wanted to sing that one particularly, and then things just sort of lead on you know, we then – Ossian, once he’d heard ‘Awake, Awake, Sweet England’ – Ossian Brown wanted, (he’s from Cyclobe, with Steve Thrower), he said, ‘Could I write a hurdy gurdy piece to follow this?’ And he did, you know, he came up with the most almost alarming piece of hurdy gurdy playing, which I loved. But the fascinating thing about this doomy song, you know, that threatens destruction for everybody – by the time it had reached Caroline Bridges, it had morphed the last verse into a May Carol. After all, it just says you know, ‘our song is done, we must be gone, no longer can we stay, God bless you all, both great and small, we wish you a joyful May.’ And it's so odd that it comes out at the end of the other three dark verses, you know, and so then I thought, yeah, we've got to have a May Carol in that case to follow this. And so, we got to make our own words and I wrote a tune for it, and then I thought yeah, because it’s a May Carol, got to have some Morris dancing. So that sequence followed quite naturally, but the rest of the songs are songs that I’d had on my mind a long time anyway and always loved.

BE:  A big question, but for you personally, how do you define folk music? From what we've been talking about I get the distinct impression it's storytelling, plus melody, perhaps?

SC: I just love the songs because of what they tell you, what they sing about. They sing about absolutely every subject in the world: mostly love, quite a lot of death, a lot of partings and sorrows. There's even a couple of songs, you know, all sorts of suicides, murders, and the most remarkable one, in many ways is the couple of songs that deal about cannibalism in the British Navy. Everything that can be sung about, is sung about. But beautifully. I mean, I love the words, and they're not always utterly perfect, which is, you know, part of their charm, you've got sort of the reality of, of what ordinary people are remembering as well. And passing it on, this stuff they’ve learned by heart. So, it's going to change as each person sings it, too. And then the melodies of English folk song. I mean, there's some very cheerful and beautiful songs, but it's the lovely melancholy behind so many of the melodies that so appeals to me, although I'm not a melancholy person. So, it's just that, it just reaches me.

BE: Was there a certain amount of adjustment as you sort of discovered, I suppose, a new voice? Still your own voice, but very much changed I suppose by time?

SC:  Well, I've always sung with my own voice and it's the same as my speaking voice, I don't try to change it when I sing. Because I don't think that's the way you sing a traditional song, you know, you have to do it honestly and straightforwardly and how you are. Over the years, my voice has dropped quite considerably, you know, it's lower. And it's a bit fragile, really. But it was my friend Pip, who persuaded me that I could sing, that I was now of an age and with a voice like most of the filed recordings that I loved, which were made from older voices. And he said, ‘Don't be so vain. You know, you're one of them now.’ I thought, yes! And it was just sort of liberty, you know, I thought, ‘Yes! I'm one of them now!’ And, and so that's, you know, that gave me a bit more courage to sing as well.

BE: So, you know, it’s the first time you’ve sung on such a big scale for a very long time. I mean, what have you got planned?

SC: I've got lots of support for a start. I mean, I want to do, you know, this is the first show for 38, 40 years, you know, it's a long time. And I just want to give people the best evening I can. So we've got wonderful images, projections from Nicky Abraham, who's a filmmaker, with some of Rob Curry's film. We've got marvellous images from the Lewes Bonfire Night, you know, absolutely pagan stuff, and it just suits that first song so well. We've got Morris Dancers. Now, I love Morris Dancing, and I don't hear a word against it, no, I think people are miserable who don't like it. When it's done well, of course, you know, you – good and bad. Obviously, there are quite a few bad, limp Morris sides. But, so we've got Brighton Morris who are the most virile, manly side, and I can still appreciate that even though I'm 80 years old. And we've got Boss Morris as well, a women's side, anew women's side who are really rather challenging, I think, as well, a bit anarchic. And they're bringing, you know, they've got wonderful costumes as well, and they bring animal heads with them, you know. So there's that sort of legendary thing as well going on, and beautiful, I mean, you know, huge things. So there's going to be Morris Dancing outside, I trust, here in the afternoon and early evening. So that I just want it to be a bit of a spectacle as well and just sort of bring everything into this concert that I love. But then of course, we've got guests in the first half. I've got lovely Graham Coxon from Blur, he likes my music. And we've become friends. Him and his wife Essy, they just turn up at things and it's so lovely. And he wants to, you know, he just loves singing this stuff, so he's coming, which is a great thrill. So apart from Graham Coxon, you've got Alasdair Roberts, great Scottish singer, and one of my favourites. Wonderful, wonderful singer. John Kirkpatrick, a real hero of mine, who's an absolute champion of English music, wonderful Squeezebox player – tall man, just dives on the stage and there, and that's it, and he's giving you England, you know – and so that's lovely. And then we've got Lisa Knapp as well – beautiful Singer, you know, and I want to have a woman as well, you know, because I’d like to encourage everybody. So, all in all, I think it's going to be a good evening.

BE: My thanks to Shirley for speaking to me and making me so welcome in her home. As you’ll have heard, it was an incredibly moving story. Shirley Collins performed in the Barbican Hall on the 18th of February 2017 in front of an enraptured audience, alongside the guests, visuals and the Morris dancers she mentioned.

I'm Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. Here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts, with weekly episodes of archive finds such as this and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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