The rise, fall and return of Shirley Collins, heroine of English folk music

In the beery, beardy world of folk music, Collins – a young, working class woman – had few people on her side.

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In the late 1950s, Ewan MacColl, one of the driving forces behind the postwar folk revival in Britain, decreed that, henceforth, folk singers should only sing material from their own national culture. Given his stance, you’d think that MacColl would be supportive of Shirley Collins. A young, working-class woman, she was born and bred in Sussex and many of the songs in her repertoire were learned from the county’s traditional singers. Alas no. MacColl, hiding behind the pseudonym “Speedwell”, penned unflattering rhymes about Shirley, printed in the pages of his own magazine, Folk Music, likening her to a lumbering Jersey cow.

What was it that so offended MacColl’s sensibilities? He had a Marxist perspective on folk music, his material evoking a macho world of hewers and haulers. Shirley’s songs gave voice to women, often in rural settings, yet were no less concerned with issues of class and gender. Propositioned by the local squire, “Lovely Joan” accepts his golden ring in return for her maidenhead. As soon as it is placed in her hand, Joan leaps on his horse and rides off to her lover’s house. In the Dorset ballad “A Blacksmith Courted Me”, the singer complains that her man should not have to go overseas “fighting for strangers”.

The pastoral folk music of England may not have crossed over into popular culture in the way that Irish folk has, yet its echoes are all around us. “Lovely Joan” provides the tune that sweeps like a dark cloud across the landscape in the mid-section of “Fantasia on Greensleeves”, consistently a Classic FM favourite, while that Songs of Praise stalwart “He Who Would Valiant Be” borrows its melody from “A Blacksmith Courted Me”.

Traditional folk music has a liminal quality, taking us across the threshold of modernity to a time when songs were handed down through oral transmission. The material lost some of its soul when the Victorian academics who first collected English folk music transcribed the songs for middle-class families to sing around the piano. Further distance was created in the 1960s when the genre was rediscovered by a new generation who reconfigured it for guitar.

Shirley Collins sought to avoid these trappings and return the music to its original setting: “Whenever I sang I felt the old singers standing behind me and I wanted to be the conduit for them, for their spirit, these people who’d kept the songs alive.”

She was never closer to those folk than on the recordings she made with her sister Dolly, who accompanied her on the portative pipe organ. It was the ideal backing for Shirley’s unadorned style of singing, the two sisters finding that seamless harmony only attainable by siblings.

Collins’s first book, America Over the Water, told the story of her 1959 trip to the US with her then lover, the song collector Alan Lomax. Together they travelled through the Appalachian Mountains region, recording material from singers whose voices had been lost amid the cacophony of modern culture. It was during this trip that she found her own voice: “Greatly as I loved the people I met there, deep down I realised that I belonged to England, that I wanted to be an English singer of English songs.” That sense of belonging resonates throughout this book, along with a fierce determination to represent the working people who sang these songs.

Collins’s eye for detail illuminates the storytelling: she tells how, as children in Hastings, she and Dolly were strafed by enemy fighters during the Luftwaffe’s “tip and run” raids on coastal towns in 1943; when a trombone-playing suitor comes to call, her mother is mortified when he empties the spit from his instrument sizzling into the fire; Jimi Hendrix visits her Blackheath home, whispering in her ear and bouncing her baby daughter on his knee. Most telling is an incident from the late 1950s, when Collins attends a Soho club called Folk & Blues: “I grew so incensed that no one had sung any folk songs that, as I left, I took my lipstick and crossed out the word ‘Folk’ on the poster outside. [The club owner] spotted me and confronted me with a knife, telling me that if I ever went there again, he’d use it.”

Her willingness to face up to surly men who disparaged the songs she sang resonates today, so it is shocking to learn that, betrayed by a lover like one of the wronged women from many a Sussex ballad, she lost her ability to sing. While performing in a band led by her second husband, Ashley Hutchings, Collins became aware that he was having an affair. When the object of his affections came to a show dressed in one of his jumpers and chose to stand in front of Collins as she sang, her confidence began to ebb away. Soon she found herself unable to perform. Diagnosed with dysphonia, she disappeared from the scene in the mid-1970s. She writes powerfully of the sense of abandonment she felt.

In the beery, beardy world of folk music, MacColl, Lomax and Hutchings loomed large and Collins had few people on her side. Unable to earn her living by performing, she was left to fend for herself, finding work selling postcards at the British Museum and later dealing with cases in her local job centre.

Happily, she was “rediscovered” a few years ago, like one of the old-time singers she and Lomax found in Appalachia, and now, aged 82, is singing again. The final chapter describes the recording of her first album in 40 years, Lodestar, surrounded by supportive musicians in the front room of her terraced cottage in Lewes.

In these pages Shirley Collins completes her comeback, reclaiming her rightful place in the English folk revival from those who placed obstacles in her way. 

Billy Bragg is a musician and the author of “Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World” (Faber & Faber)

All in the Downs: Reflections on Life, Landscape, and Song
Shirley Collins
Strange Attractor Press, 256pp, £16.99

This article appears in the 15 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?