Q&A: Folk Hero Shirley Collins On The Long Road To Her First Album In 38 Years

Eva Vermandel

Q&A: Folk Hero Shirley Collins On The Long Road To Her First Album In 38 Years

Eva Vermandel

Shirley Collins is living history. The 81-year-old artist is best known as one of England’s premier folk singers of the ’60s revival, but her contributions extend far beyond that. Collins is a writer, lecturer, oral historian, and perhaps most importantly: a song collector.

Collins was born in Hastings, East Sussex, to a working-class family. She grew up learning folk songs from her grandparents, and moved to London once she came of age to take part in the burgeoning folk scene. Collins performed in bars and coffee shops, and recorded her first two albums — Sweet England and True False Loves — in 1958, which she would eventually release the following year. Collins was known for her honest, frank renditions of classic British folk songs, and she often performed alongside her sister, Dolly Collins, who passed away in 1995. The two released three LPs together, including the renowned Anthems In Eden, and several compilations of demos and live recordings throughout the ’70s. Collins collaborated with a variety of artists throughout the course of her career, and even recorded a psych-rock album titled No Roses with the Albion Country Band.

Though she’s most often associated with folk music of Great Britain, Collins’ trajectory was informed by a legendary American road trip. In 1959, she accompanied her partner at the time, Alan Lomax, whom she met in London, on a trip through the American South. The two folklorists journeyed for several months, collecting coveted traditional songs for the Library Of Congress in prisons, on farms, and in living rooms far from Collins’ homeland. It was in America that the then-24-year-old Collins witnessed folk music’s diaspora in real time. Though Collins was never written out of this history, her role wasn’t fully appreciated or understood until she published her first memoir, America Over The Water, in 2004.

Upon her return, Collins continued to perform and record, And then, in 1978, she stopped singing. The circumstances of her departure from the limelight vary, depending on whom you ask. Past interviews attribute it to heartbreak over a divorce from her second husband, others simply to dysphonia. But just because she wasn’t singing doesn’t mean Collins was silent. During her hiatus, Collins participated in and lectured at folk conferences around England, she wrote America Over The Water, she raised her children. And upon speaking to Collins, none of the circumstances of her hiatus seem to matter anymore. What matters is: She’s back.

On Friday, Collins will release her first album in 38 years. Lodestar is a collection of songs that span centuries and continents, a piece of art that stands outside of time. The LP comes accompanied by a book in which Collins annotates the history behind each song she chose to include. It’s also interesting to note that this is the first time Collins has operated on an “album cycle,” and the first time she’s done press surrounding one of her releases. A lot of time has passed, during which younger artists have discovered Collins for themselves. Colin Meloy released a covers album of Collins’ work back in 2006, and Angel Olsen, Will Oldham, Ulver, and many more contemporary artists recorded renditions of her songs for a compilation album released by Light In The Attic Records. Some of those artists will speak about her impact on their work in a forthcoming documentary titled The Ballad Of Shirley Collins, which is still in production.

Collins has always breathed new life into old stories, and continues to preserve them with the release of Lodestar. She is, above all else, an oral historian, a woman deeply committed to maintaining and retelling the histories of working-class people over centuries. It goes without saying that Collins is a tremendous storyteller, and over the course of our conversation she regaled me with tales of her trip through the American South. She’s currently writing her second book, a memoir about her life leading up to the release of this new album, which has a curious backstory. Read our conversation below.

STEREOGUM: You stopped singing in the late ’70s. Why this album now?

SHIRLEY COLLINS: It’s difficult to explain really. I stopped singing because I couldn’t sing. I lost my confidence and my ability to even get a note out sometimes, and that was all very difficult because it was happening in public. I felt a huge responsibility to the songs — I didn’t want to sing them badly or let the song down. I had two children to raise, and I had to just find another way of earning a living. The songs are in my head all the time, as they are now and always were. I think about them constantly.

But there were two people in England who really sort of brought me back to my life as singer. One of them was David Suff of Fledg’ling Records who released a lot of my back catalog, and reissued and just found old EPs I had made back in the 1960s and put those out. There was another musician, David Tibet, who phoned me up one day when I was still working at some other job and he said, “I love your music. Please, can we meet?” And he told me recently that when he said that, I burst into tears on the phone. I don’t remember that, but he said, “No, you burst into tears.” Then he came to see me with a group of friends and tried to get me to sing. I did agree to sing one or two tracks on the album of his, but I wasn’t very pleased with my singing. He kept asking me if I would sing at a concert of his and I kept saying no. Then, I started to say yes, but then chickened out at the last minute. [Laughs]

But then finally, about 18 months ago, I did actually sing in public for the first time in London with a friend of mine, a musician called Ian Kearey, who is on the album, of course. It all went OK. Nobody threw tomatoes or eggs at me, so I’m quite happy at the end. It was proposed that we put a little EP out for those two songs, but then other things started to happen. It was Domino who came to my rescue, who offered me an LP, a whole album, and asked if I’d like to do that. And yes, of course I would like to do that. They gave me an advance so I could record where I wanted to. Because I didn’t want to go into a recording studio. I didn’t want to face somebody I didn’t know, perhaps a young engineer who would think, “What’s this old girl doing here? What sort of music is this?” We decided to record it in my cottage last summer. It worked out so well because I was very relaxed and I was surrounded by musicians that I knew and loved. It was just familiar surroundings.

STEREOGUM: How wonderful to record these old folk songs in a home, which is where they were meant to be performed, right?

COLLINS: That’s absolutely right. You’re the first person that has caught on to that. That’s absolutely right, and I was so pleased to record two American songs as well, and they were both songs that I recorded in 1959 when I was on that huge recording trip with Alan Lomax in the Deep South. One of the songs is “Pretty Polly” from Ollie Gilbert of Arkansas, and the other one is Horton Barker’s “The Rich Irish Lady.” I just tried to capture them when I was singing both of those songs because they were such lovely people and I had such fond memories of being with them that I wanted to do them justice, as well as the songs. It’s the people who sing the songs that count so much. It’s such a surprise to me that they are ordinary, working people — ordinary working-class people that live in poverty — and yet they manage to retain and sing these incredible songs. I think that it is a great source of pride that they do it and they learned them all by heart. They don’t learn it from books or recordings or anything. They just know them by heart because that is how they have been passed down for generations. And then when you think about all the people that have sung those songs before them…I just find it all fascinating. I would so dearly love to be able to trace the song to all the people who have sung it. It would be so lovely just to find out how differently they sang it. But that is never going to happen, of course. It’s like archeology in a way. You just dig up a wonderful treasure and there it is.

STEREOGUM: Do you remember the experience of recording these specific people singings these individual songs on that road trip with Lomax very vividly? Did those memories kind of collapse in time when you were singing their versions to make your own recording?

COLLINS: Yes, that’s a good way to put it. I wrote about my experience in America about 12 years ago, and I got all the letters that I had written home. My mother gave them to me. She said, “Shirley, would you like your letters back?” And I said, “Which letters are they, mum?” And she said, “Well, your letters from America.” And she had kept them all that time! And I savored re-reading all the experiences, but you don’t forget an experience like that anyway. It was just an extraordinary time for me, and I was so lucky to be the person there.

STEREOGUM: Where do you see the parallels and the differences between the English folk music you grew up with and the music you left to explore in the United States?

COLLINS: I found it really thrilling because I knew that most of the ballads and songs in the [American] mountains were of British origins. It absolutely delighted me and the people that we met. I was able to sing them the versions that they were singing us, as they were able to sing the ones from England, and they loved it. They appreciated it so much, because all of the songs came from the old country, which they seemed to be very proud of, and one lady said to me, “How come you speak our language so good?” And that’s not a sign of ignorance, but isolation in people’s lives. It is quite extraordinary. But we were met with such kindness and hospitality everywhere. I had come from England post-war, and things were difficult at home. There was still rationing in England when I left, food rationing, and so when I came to the South and was given fried chicken and corn and all the delicious things that they dished out for us, I thought I was in heaven.

There was quite a bit of poverty, and I hadn’t seen poverty like there was in the mountains and in the southern black communities. But all the people were so kind and so hospitable and so willing to sing. It was just a privilege to meet them. I went into it open-minded and also a bit ignorant, really. But then once I was there, I fell in with everybody, and so did Alan. Although he could be big and grumpy, he also had very gentle manners and a wonderful way with people, so they did open up and respond to him differently. So we certainly got a great number of performances out of him and a great many wonderful songs as well.

STEREOGUM: Did you collect field recordings growing up?

COLLINS: I grew up in a small seaside town on the south coast — sort of half out in the country and half in the sea. But there were no recording tools available then. We only had the radio to listen to and the television. Nothing sophisticated like a recording machine. I hadn’t seen one or even known about them, I think, until I went to London and saw one for the first time. And what’s amusing is of course nowadays you can record anything on the tiniest little gadget, but we were hefting these great, heavy batteries around and this big Apex recording machine. Often there was no electricity so we would have to set up the batteries to get the recording done. So, no I didn’t do any recording. All I heard were songs at home that my grandparents sang. When we were in the shelter during the war they would sing to my sister and me to keep us from being frightened from the air raids. I grew up with these songs. They made me feel secure, and that feeling stayed. It just all felt right with me, and that is probably when it started — that security of being sung to by your grandparents. I was lucky there as well.

STEREOGUM: I can imagine that if you hadn’t seen some of these recording devices where you grew up, then folks in the Deep South or Appalachia must have been kind of baffled by them.

COLLINS: On the whole they were pleased. They were pleased, I think, because it gave them some present attention. It showed them that they were valuable and that what they were singing was valuable, and I think they enjoyed the process. But I do remember it was baffling to some people. For instance, there was a fiddle player in Virginia, Uncle Wade Ward, who played us a tune, and Alan recorded it, and then he gave Wade the earphones to hear the music back, and Wade just picked up his fiddle and started fiddling with it. I think he thought it was somebody else that he was fiddling to, and he wanted to join in. So it was other people he thought he was listening to when we played back what he had played. I used the expression that I had heard quite frequently and that was: “We’re kindly pleased to have you here.” Isn’t that lovely? “Kindly pleased.”

STEREOGUM: I’ve heard a story about one of the men you recorded being tracked down when the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was released and up for awards.

COLLINS: That was James Carter, who was a prisoner in the Mississippi State Penitentiary Parchman Farm. Initially, after Alan and I had finished, somehow the Coen brothers had heard and used that for O Brother, Where Art Thou? — one of my favorite, favorite movies. The Lomax people traced James Carter, and he was out of prison and living in Chicago and they took him to the Grammy Awards and gave him his first royalty check for $20,000. The album that he was on sold millions. It’s a lovely, happy story. It’s nice to see justice done as well.

STEREOGUM: That must have been so wild to see some of your legacy reappear so many years later.

COLLINS: Yes, it is very gratifying, and it also shows the power of the longevity of the music as well.

STEREOGUM: I’m curious to know why you chose these songs in particular for Lodestar, because you have so much available to you, obviously. The catalog is kind of infinite.

COLLINS: They were all songs that had lasted with me and fascinated me over many years. Once the songs go in, they stay in. The first song, the carol, “Awake, Awake Sweet England,” which is such a doom-laden song, has incredible history. It was written by a ballad maker in 15-something in London, a man called Thomas Delaney, after there was an earthquake in southern England and the tremors had hit London and toppled part of the old St. Paul’s Cathedral. He wrote this ballad as a warning to people that God was really displeased with them and if they didn’t behave better, worse would come. I just find this sort of thing absolutely fascinating — how a ballad was written at that time and then not heard of. I’ve never heard of it or heard it being collected or sung by anybody else. But around 1900 and something, Vaughan Williams, a composer, noted it down from a singer in Pembridge, Mrs. Caroline Bridges. I always wondered, “How did that song three or four hundred years later end up there, and what path did it take, and why did it disappear for so long?” It’s just an incredible mystery, and that is what fascinates me. I’d always wanted to sing this song, and when the opportunity came up, I said, “Let’s go for it and get it done.” These songs were in my mind anyway, so this was the particular little batch that I had chosen this time. It just happened. I didn’t have to think very hard about it. I sang some to Ian [Kearey] and found what he liked and could do with the arrangements. It just sort of floated in. The songs just came and said, “I want to be sung! I want to be sung! Sing me!” [Laughs] I can see the cartoon.

STEREOGUM: I did read somewhere that “Rich Irish Lady” wasn’t finished when you originally recorded, or that the singer forgot some of the words or something?

COLLINS: Yes, that was Horton Barker — he was a blind singer — and Jim Howey in Virginia. Horton had been known as a good singer in the mountains, and so he started out, got halfway through, and then in his very gentle voice, he said, “I am so sorry sir. I just can’t remember the words.” And Alan said to him, “Don’t worry, can you recite them?” And he did actually! Straight through. I was able then to put it completely together again with its tune. It’s such a marvelous song. But I don’t know how he managed to recite the words, because I can write a short song, but I need a tune as well to be able to remember all the words. But I am so glad he did it because it is such a lovely song, a lovely version of it. I must tell you one thing as well: [Our version has] this incredibly fierce fiddle tune at the end of it, and that line, “I’ll dance on your grave when you’re laid in the earth” — when we were mixing it in the studio, the sound engineer, this young chap, turned to me and said, “He doesn’t mean it, does he?” And the fiddle tune came in and he said, “Oh he does mean it!” So we got it right. [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: So many of these songs are quite tragic. Some of them are just heartbreaking when you read the lyrics.

COLLINS: I know, and I am a very cheerful person as well. I like to laugh and I am happy, but these songs just get hold of me. The great thing about folk music is that [there are songs] about every single thing that can happen to people. They don’t shy away from anything. But I sometimes wonder if that is sort of unconscious. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing that somebody says, “I am going to sing a song about a few people dying.” It’s just all part of that tradition that has come down over centuries. Perhaps the people have to sing songs like that in order to understand it all, or just be grateful they weren’t in that position. I don’t know.

Somebody did say when he first listened to the album that “there’s a high body count.” [Laughs] And I said, “Yes, there is, but probably no more than if you go to a movie and watch a violent film.” You’re going to see quite a few bodies there as well, so why it should be remarkable in a folk song? I don’t know. But it made me smile.

STEREOGUM: Speaking of film, the video you put out for “Death And The Lady” — that must have been such an experience for you, because the last time you released an album, there were no music videos. Were you reluctant to do it? Were you excited to do it?

COLLINS: No, because I knew the filmmaker. I had done a voiceover for him for a film he made called Ekki múkk with Sigur Rós. Nicky [Abrahams] phoned me up one day — I had never met him before — and he said, “I really like your music, and I really would like you to do a voiceover for my film.” I said, “What’s the part?” And he said, “It’s a lonely snail.” [Laughs]

Anyway, I went to him and did [the voiceover] because it was a new experience for me and I thought: “Well, a lonely snail is better than nothing.” Then Domino got in touch with Nicky and said, “Would you like to make a video for one of Shirley’s songs?” The minute I knew it was Nicky, we were off. Nicky had discovered this ossuary in this church in Kent, and there were skulls all around the wall, and in the middle of the room is this great pile of bones, legs, and arms. It’s just extraordinary. But it’s not scary. It’s sort of strange and cool inside. Going in there, I hadn’t seen anything like it at all, but it fit the song really well, and Nicky knows what he’s doing. The final scene, where I am sort of leading the three hooded hobby horses over the sand dunes, it was really extraordinary because, yes, the sand dunes were there, but they were just up from the car park and scores of people standing in the car park watching these three dreadfully terrifying horse heads romping through the grounds. It all looked remote, but it wasn’t really. It’s just another lovely experience, and to be able to get those so late in life is such a bonus.

STEREOGUM: You’re the subject of a documentary, and a lot of notable contemporary artists covered your music for a tribute album. Does it ever surprise you how many young people see you as an icon?

COLLINS: It surprises me, but it amuses me a bit because I don’t feel like an icon. I felt outside of the mainstream because of the material I chose — I thought it was never going to be popular. The music was more important than any sort of popularity contest. That wasn’t what I wanted. I just wanted to sing the songs as well as I could and to always be able to choose my own material. Nobody could tell me what to do because I am quite independent and a bit stubborn that way. I know what I like and I know what I want to sing, and I always have.

STEREOGUM: A big part of performing or recording folk music is the desire to preserve it. As an archivist and song collector, do you ever wonder or worry how these songs will continue to be kept alive? Do you see new generations working to do so?

COLLINS: That’s what I hope for. What I find now is that a lot of people want to write their own songs and call them folk songs, so the word “folk” is sort of loosely applied nowadays, and it sort of upsets me that they haven’t got the sense to listen to field recordings of these old singers because they could increase their repertoire and they would learn the lesson of how to sing them — to sing them straightforwardly and quite plainly. I’ve always had this attitude to the word “folk,” and it does sort of bring to mind one day when I was 18 and I had come to London for the first time. I went into a club that said “Folk And Blues,” and there wasn’t any folk at all. So I went upstairs and crossed out the word “Folk” with my lipstick. The man who was running the club came up and drew a knife and he said, “If you ever come near here again this is what you’ll get!” [Laughs] So I didn’t ever go there again, but I didn’t change my attitude.

STEREOGUM: That must have been very interesting, then, to be considered this folk revivalist in the ’60s and ’70s, when “folk” music was becoming so popular in the mainstream. Was it really folk music in your opinion?

COLLINS: A lot of it wasn’t, and some of it was. There’s some beautiful music that came out of that time. I can’t complain about folk rock, because I made a folk rock album of my own. But I couldn’t change my singing to accommodate my other accompaniments. I always used my own voice and sang the way I believed the song should be sung. I guess it all sounds a bit vain, doesn’t it? I just can’t help it. I just have these feelings about the music that are so deep in me. I just want the best for it.

STEREOGUM: I don’t think it’s vain at all. It’s quite interesting to think of folk as just a genre or vocal affectation, when really it is an oral-history tradition.

COLLINS: That’s a good point. When you hear traditional singing of an old singer, they aren’t selling you the song. They are just telling you the story in a very straightforward way. No dramatics. No hyping of the song. No pretension. It’s just a straightforward, honest thing. You don’t dress it up too much and you don’t over-decorate it, if you’re an English singer, for instance, because our tradition is not to decorate songs. I think it is just a question of trusting the song. If you trust the song enough and just sing it straightforwardly, it will tell itself.

Shirley Collins
CREDIT: Eva Vermandel

Lodestar is out 11/4 on Domino. Pre-order it here.

more from Interviews