Ten minutes down the road from Cecil Sharp House this crisp autumn afternoon, Halloween is already in full swing in Camden Town, a colourful menagerie (well, black and red mostly) of spirits, killers and animals. And though these are all subjects Shirley Collins has tackled in song many times before, she is anxious as she readies to tackle them again tonight. And with good reason: This is only the second time she has sung before an audience in thirty-five years.
As folks pile into the Trufesis room’s cosy confines in the basement of Cecil Sharp House Collins smiles wanly, her face aglow with laughter lines and framed by blonde curls. Reading from her upcoming memoir provisionally entitled All In The Downs, she reflects on the unexpected events that took her from a childhood in Hastings during WWII to becoming the grande dame of English folk. Her memories are funny and vivid, focusing on her grandparents’ mannerisms, the sights of dogfights over the English Channel and the tastes of baked beans and chips and a stolen chocolate bar (an act for which she was punished with laxatives and a sign marked “Thief” hung around her neck). Occasionally, the recollections of her grandfather and other men are given voice by friend and collaborator Pip Barnes.
Her first awakenings to folk music came in the songs her grandparents would sing to soothe her and her sister, Dolly, to sleep and the BBC radio programmes Country Magazine and As I Roved Out. But she recalls forming a dislike early on for traditional songs performed by professional singers who honoured the melody, but not the song. Inspired by a film where a girl singer is discovered and whisked to stardom in New York, she wrote to the BBC of her ambition to be a folk singer which lead to song collector Bob Copper knocking on her door one day. From there she went to Cecil Sharp House, began searching for songs and hooked up with Alan Lomax (whose “big shoulders and shaggy hair put me in mind of a bison”, Collins laughs) with whom she travelled the American South recording songs. Not quite New York, but the songs she found there impressed her still and her recollections are interspersed with recordings of the key songs in her life, such as her grandfather’s favourite The Bonnie Labouring Boy or her performance with Dolly of Come My Love at the Sydney Opera House, a song written by her uncle F. C. Ball for love left behind.
When asked by compere and former English Folk Dance and Song Society Library Director Malcolm Taylor why she has chosen now to break her silence she mulls the question over for some time before concluding “Because I can’t give up. I’m still utterly enthralled by songs and I’m still learning new ones at 80.” And as she feels her way into the opening bars of Lamkin, the room falls so silent you can hear the floorboards creak. Her voice is shaky from nerves and years, not that piercing bell-like cry of her youth, but her mellowed tones suit her and she navigates the stonemason’s revenge ballad as convincingly as ever. Any apprehensions she might have have had are then blown away by the thunderous applause and whoops that ensue as the song fades. From there her performances only go stronger. Accompanied by Ian Kearly on resonator, she breathes life into Pretty Polly and when goaded into playing two verses of her “Muddy Waters version” of Death of a Lady after playing the supernatural encounter with the grim reaper straight, she throws herself into the bluesman’s choppy cadence with a “I spell D–E–A–T–H, child”. The afternoon closes with the seminal recording of Gilderoy with her sister, the final verse of which she found in a dusty, neglected corner of the library archive and which she admits she “liberated” from its abused confines. Her thieving days didn’t end in childhood it seems, but listening to the spellbinding version that became her signature, it was much to our gain. Fortunately, she wasn’t punished with laxatives that time.
As the night draws in and trick-or-treaters start roving the streets nearby, Collins sits onstage in the Kennedy Hall’s grand space, holding court as multiple generations of folk performers take turns to pay tribute. First up, trio Rattle On The Stovepipe, introduced by Collins as her “favourite band of all time”, blend Appalachian rhythms with celtic flourishes for their reeling renditions of Sandy Boys and surprisingly upbeat dead man walking tune Coleman’s March. Lowering the death count, Jackie Oates lends her soft wistful vocals and violin to love ballads The Captain With His Whiskers and Banks of the Bann, accompanied by beardy Chris Sarjeant’s modal guitar noodling. But an early highlight is Martyn Wyndham Read, whose searching vocal flights on The Bold Fisherman captivate, fluttering over fiddle and squeezebox melodies. Introducing The Askew Sisters, Collins says “There’s nothing quite like working with your sister”, and sure enough the Askews have a seamless chemistry as they move effortlessly from English ballad Staines Morris to a medley of Medieval French instrumentals, switching instruments between a harp and recorder tinged dance to the bold percussion and hurdy gurdy of a shanty.
Performances are interspersed with clips from crowdfunded documentary, The Ballad of Shirley Collins, due to be released in conjunction with All In The Downs. Covering similar grounds to her book, Collins reminisces on her life as she returns to key places in her birth county of Sussex. But it also focuses on her present and future as she records a new album at home and finds her voice again, intercut with tranquil scenery or the green bogeymen of Hastings’ anarchic Jack In The Green holiday. Meanwhile, Eliza Carthy (pictured above) strikes a powerful figure gesticulating and stamping her feet through The Grand Conversation On Napoleon and Just As The Tide Was Flowing, before being called back onstage by Collins to sing Bay of Biscay. Although she hasn’t played the song in years, one usually performed by her mother Norma Waterson (“Don’t tell her,” she warns Collins), her gutsy vocals and fiddle power her through a few stops and starts. It’s a tough act to follow, but BBC Folk Award winning duo Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker give an arresting rendition of Hares On The Mountain, Clarke’s lilting vocals tumbling over Walker’s spiralling guitar figure as the lyrics skewer the usual hunter-hunted dynamic of men and women.
“Did anyone see Billy on Question Time?” Collins asks referring to Billy Bragg’s bilious appearance on the programme a few nights earlier. “He got angry,” she giggles “It’s always such a brilliant sight.” And true to form, Bragg in his affable yet determined manner delivers songs both timely and timeless. Fusing tradition and modernity, John Barleycorn links into English, Half English, a commentary on diversity in England’s cultural identity, while his unaccompanied vocals on Thomas Hardy adaptation The Man He Killed are by turns bitter and sorrowful in remembrance of the First World War dead. He tackles Collins standard Adieu To Old England by way of Woody Guthrie with minor key acoustic picking while chugging rhythms fuel his bristling take on Anaïs Mitchell’s We Build The Wall, made chilling in light of a worsening refugee crisis despite winter setting in.
The variety of songs tonight not only serve as a reminder of folk music’s ability to convey the spectrum of human experience, from love’s blush and mourning’s grief to defiant outrage, but also as a testament to Collins’s work and influence over a lifetime reinforcing this music’s importance, both in song and as President of the EFDSS. And as the evening closes with Martyn Wyndham Read leading a thirteen strong ensemble (not including the audience) through As Time Passes Over More Cheerful And Gay, the parting refrain “I’m as happy as those that’s got thousands or more” rings true for Collins, who at 80 is still finding new routes through folk roots.
Review and Photos by: James McKinnon
Read our review of Shirley Inspired, a tribute to Shirley Collins that was released earlier this year by Earth Records – a vitally important set, very likely the most important one you’ll consider buying this year. And the best possible tribute to a remarkable, and highly inspirational and influential, lady.
In 2013 Simon Houlihan and Paul James produced a very special show for Folk Radio UK which featured an interview with Shirley and to celebrate her birthday we have republished it here for you to listen again.