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14 April 2022

How Shirley Collins became an icon of English folk

The singer’s updated memoir is a charming, idiosyncratic evocation of her journey from postwar Hastings to the music scenes of Sixties London and the American South.

By Stuart Maconie

A few years back, at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards (an event that surely keeps the UK’s multicoloured brocade waistcoat industry afloat), a broadcasting doyen of this world complained to me that the problem with contemporary folk music was “too many songs about love and not enough about whaling”.

Folk is arguably the most enduringly contested cultural space in British music. While no one, at least in their right mind, would debate what exactly constituted “real Britpop”, such arguments have always raged within folk: from when Cecil Sharp decided only agrarian ballads constituted “real traditional music” and excluded Lancashire mill workers’ songs from his collections, to when Bob Dylan plugged in an electric guitar to play Manchester in 1966 and was called “Judas” by those very mill workers’ grandkids. Those arguments have re-emerged countless times since – arguments about who should sing folk music and how, with what instruments and about which topics, be it love or whaling.

Such debates though are the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl. When English music periodically renews and refreshes itself at the clear, clarifying wellspring of its folk tradition, the results are nearly always good news. Ralph Vaughan Williams turned away from the fulsome creaminess of Brahms for the spare modal sonorities of rural England and began a musical reflowering in a nation that the Germans once dismissed as “das land ohne musik”. When the Beatles graduated from dutiful apprenticeships in American blues and rock’n’roll, absorbing the passing chords and harmonies of folk on Beatles for Sale and Rubber Soul, they expanded the vocabulary of popular music. English folk musicians set up an organisation called Folk Against Fascism in 2009, angered at the genre’s exploitation at the hands of the British National Party. More recently, folk artists of very different styles have mined the older, crueller tropes and idioms of folk to interrogate notions of modern Englishness, as in Gazelle Twin’s albums Deep England and Pastoral, or Chris Wood’s Albion and The Lark Descending. As the old folkies wryly have it, “there is always a folk revival going on.”

Authenticity in music is a specious notion beloved of bores and mansplainers. All music is “manufactured”. None of it seeds in the ground like cow parsley, or falls from the sky like rain. That said, Shirley Collins’s voice and music comes nearer to this elemental state than most. These days, Billy Bragg can confidently proclaim her “one of England’s greatest cultural treasures”, or more effulgent still, Stewart Lee can assert that she is “one of the greatest artists who’ve ever lived”. But she has not always been so feted by the predominantly male gatekeepers of musical purity.

Her brilliant 1964 collaboration with the guitarist Davey Graham, Folk Roots, New Routes, took too many new routes for some, straying unacceptably close to jazz and eastern music. On the cover of For as Many as Will, the last of the three austerely beautiful masterpieces she recorded with her sister Dolly, the two stand redoubtable in smocks and headscarves, as if they have stepped out of the pages of Far from the Madding Crowd rather than the NME. The mainstream music world ignored it and some of the folk cognoscenti scowled at the flute organs, recorders and, worst of all, synthesisers. The beauty, then, of Collins’s autobiography America Over the Water is that it’s a story told in her own voice, unmediated and “unexplained”. It is as unadorned, affecting and quietly powerful as her singing.

America Over the Water is a substantially revised and updated edition of Collins’s 2005 memoir of her formative years in postwar Hastings, Fifties and Sixties London, and then the US, told in alternating chapters that criss-cross decades and continents. It is a charming, idiosyncratic evocation of her life before the recording studio, when a teenager from a leftist, working-class family on the south coast, besotted by folk music, moves to London “undernourished… living on a diet of buns and tin soup… getting painful chilblains on my heels that first winter and spending what was left of my meagre wages of £1.50 on books of folk songs”. Steeped in these, she becomes a minor player on the embryonic London folk scene as “‘ENGLAND’S VERSATILE INSTRUMENTALIST’ (I could play six chords on the banjo)”.

Here she has several significant interactions with the scene’s largely male citizenry. She serves coffee to a taciturn habitué of the clubs, one Richard Harris. A promoter threatens her with a knife after she defaces his dreary poster with lipstick. She is unimpressed by tyro folkies Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. Most significantly, Ewan McColl (even less impressive, apparently) invites her to a party where she meets the musicologist Alan Lomax, “an affable tall solid Texan with a big head of shaggy dark hair”, an “American bison” 20 years her senior. “Reader, I didn’t marry him,” she admits. But they do shack up in Highgate with his ex-wife and ten-year-old daughter after what she rather disarmingly calls “a short courtship”. When Lomax’s London work is over though, he returns to the States without her. “I waved him a broken-hearted goodbye one July day in 1958 at Waterloo station. To try to comfort me, mum bought a box of chocolates and took me to a cinema in Leicester Square to see Attila the Hun starring Sofia Loren and Anthony Quinn.”

It is a matter of folklore now, of course, that they were reunited within a year, embarking on a storied song-collecting trip across the American South. After the privations of postwar Hastings, even the transatlantic journey by boat is a delicious entrée into the realm of the senses. One knows exactly which British generation Collins belongs to by how much she includes here about food: her first avocado and slice of pizza, of sizzling T-bone steaks and fiery huevos rancheros after a childhood of stringy cheese on toast and liver and onions.

Of course, it’s not just a culinary epiphany. They visit infamous Parchman Prison Farm to record the darkly compelling songs of the black prisoners, where a racist guard molests her and then tells her to lose weight. They trawl the bars, bordellos and shanty towns, and discover and make famous Mississippi Fred McDowell, eventually buried in a silver lamé suit bought for him by his devoted acolytes the Rolling Stones.

When Lomax later dismisses her role in all this as simply “being along for the trip”, she bridles, but not for long. Such generosity and self-effacement is typical of her and her craft. Collins’s singing is as far from the performative, algorithmic gymnastics of the modern pop voice as can be imagined – not a value judgement, merely an empirical observation – and when first encountered it has the chill-bracing shock of a mountain beck. For many it soon becomes as familiar and warming as a fireside. As she writes, “no dramatising a song, no selling it to an audience, no overdecorating in a way that was alien to English songs, and most of all, singing to people, not at them.”

America Over the Water
Shirley Collins
White Rabbit, £14.99

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