Through The Work Of Shirley Collins, Centuries Of Folk Music Lives On

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In the near-century that’s passed since the inception of the modern music industry, there has never been a story like Shirley Collins’. 

Born in 1935 in southeast England, Collins actively released traditionalist folk music from 1955 to 1979. In that time, she recorded a plethora of acclaimed English folk albums, collaborated with genuine folk legends and became a well of knowledge for the centuries-old genre. A highlight of Collins career came in 1959 when she traveled throughout the American South, conducting field-recordings with her then-partner, Alan Lomax. On that trip — known as the “Southern Journey” — Collins and Lomax met and recorded artists such as Almeda Riddle, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Texas Gladden and more. Having been born and raised in World War II-era England, the Southern Journey was a tremendous adventure for Collins and it deeply affected her sense of artistry. After 1959, she devoted herself to the collection and preservation of the English folk music from her native region.

In 1979, however, Collins stepped away from music for a 38-year hiatus that ended with her triumphant “come-back” album, Lodestar, which dropped in 2016 via Domino. Now, four years later, she’s putting out another new album, Heart’s Ease, which drops on July 24 via Domino.

An unbelievably powerful record, Heart’s Ease is one of those things that feels larger than itself. That is to say, Collins’ haunting vocal performances and Ian Kearey’s tasteful arrangements are not only rewarding to listen to themselves, but they also build on a centuries-old folk tradition. Covering artists from her past like Almeda Riddle and a Sussex legend, George “Pop” Maynard, Collins is joined by the spirits of the many, many voices that kept these songs alive from generation to generation. 

Last month, American Songwriter caught up with Collins to talk about many things. While she’s 85 years old, Collins is still sharp as a thumbtack — humor, joviality and wisdom effortlessly flow from her words. Throughout our conversation, Collins offers invaluable insight on her career, her travels, her unique historical perspective and the folk music that she loves. 

Tell me how this album was different than Lodestar — you were more comfortable this time around?

Lodestar was the first album I had made in 38 years… it was a long silence. I was so nervous about singing in front of people who weren’t my friends. I was just too scared to go into a recording studio, so I decided to record that album at home. It took quite a long time and it’s quite fun to do, but I got my nerve back. After Lodestar, we had a series of concerts and I became more confident.

So, when a second album was proposed I said ‘well, we must go into a studio because the recording quality will be better.’ I also didn’t have to spend as much time making cups of tea for all the musicians. It was so much easier. You can really take your time, it made me feel at ease. After so many years, it became a lovely experience again. 

Do you feel that you were able to reach a deeper level of creative freedom?

I hope so. I was able to completely place my trust in Ian Kearey, who does all the arrangements. He’s a fantastic musician who I’ve known for years. When he does stuff on his own, he mostly does American music — he was in Oysterband, which was a rock-y group. I didn’t think that he’d be the right person to work on arrangements for English songs, and I said to him one day ‘how is it that you’re so wonderful at this, yet you’ve never done it before?’ He said to me ‘well, nobody ever asked me to do this.’ So, I was so pleased to be the first person to ask him and to benefit from his lovely ideas. For each song, everything he does feels so right. There’s not a bum note in there.

How did you choose the songs to include on this album?

It’s interesting how this stuff works. I had three or four songs that I loved and I’ve always regretted that I’ve never sung them. Almeda Riddle’s “The Merry Golden Tree” was one of them — I’ve had it in my head ever since I first heard her sing it in 1959. The songs are always in my head. I know this sounds silly, but when we sat down and started talking about what we were going to do, the songs just insisted ‘sing me!’ They demanded to come out of my memory and be on this on this album. That’s how I’ve always worked, really. There are two on this album that I have sung before, but, I don’t know, they just want to be sung, so I let them be sung. 

It really does sound silly, but that’s how it works. I’ll say it myself — I have a prestigious memory for songs. When they get in there, they don’t leave. So, it’s great to have the opportunity once more to give these songs an outing, an airing. I’m able to let them loose again… they’re not much use stuck in my head.

There is a sense of urgency because of my age now. Once the songs are out, I think to myself ‘Why did I wait so long to do that song? Why didn’t I do it before?’ But, the great thing, of course, is that I can do them now. 

Considering the experiences you’ve gained over the past several decades, do you think, perhaps, that you couldn’t have done some of these songs until now?

That might well be true. What I have found to be extraordinary in a way is that this album just seems right for these extraordinary times we’re living through. A few people who have heard it already have said that it consoles them, it comforts them. That’s good. That wasn’t my intention, of course — I didn’t know what was going to happen in the world.

The value of these songs — the mystery and the wonder of them — is how far back some of them go. They’ve lasted for so long, but they still tell of things that people want to hear about, whether they know it or not. Music has moved on — in a way, it’s been steamrolled and crushed into ‘big business music.’ I think these songs are precious. They take people back, they take them away from something. They open up a different field of thought and sensibility in a way. There’s magic in these songs. They’ve lasted for so long and people still are singing them, they’ve been singing them for centuries. They didn’t sing them because they had to, they sang them because they wanted to or because it was all they had. Nothing’s thrown at you, you just pick it up. That’s what I think I do. 

How did the Southern Journey with Alan Lomax influence your own artistry?

What it did give me, for starters, was an incredible respect for those old singers, whether they were in the Virginia mountains or the Ozarks or Northern Mississippi in the black communities. I had such tremendous respect for them, I had a deep sense of affection and love for them. They were singing the music that I loved. They had such incredible stories to tell and lived such incredible lives. I was just a young woman, but because I was used to hearing my granddad sing at home, all this music resonated with me. A lot of young singers can’t bear to hear unaccompanied singing of folk songs, they need accompaniment. But, I was quite used to hearing unaccompanied songs.

So, when I was hearing someone like Almeda Riddle or Texas Gladden, it was the biggest thrill for me. I knew I was in the presence of great singers and lovely people. When I heard Mississippi Fred McDowell for the first time, I felt like I was the luckiest person in the whole world to be there for his first recordings. You feel such real, genuine affection and love for them. It was just an honor to meet them. You learn so much — they sang the way I wanted to sing, where you don’t step in front of the song yourself, you let the song take you. You don’t try to over-embroider it or dramatize it.

Yet, when I got home to England after that year — Alan sent me home, I was kinda heartbroken for a while — I did know that I wanted to be a singer of English songs, not Anglo-American songs. It gave me that identity again, because of their identity. They had such strong identities. I knew from that that you have to be true for yourself.

Do you feel that you’re a torch-bearer of sorts for this musical tradition? 

I think I am. I’m such an admirer of those artists. There are not enough people singing this material and I don’t understand why. It’s a sort of duty. To Almeda, for instance, I want to be able to sing her songs the best way I can without copying her — I can’t sing in that mountain style of her’s. These people need to be heard and brought in front of audiences. They need to be praised again, they’re great singers and great people.

When I was in the States, segregation was still happening in the South. That was so extraordinary for me, a young British woman who had never seen something like that before. I remember how ashamed I was of swimming in segregated pools or eating at segregated restaurants. It wasn’t anything I had imagined. I’ve been privileged. It’s been a privilege to experience all of this and meet the people I’ve met. It’s unique, nobody else is going to be able to do something like now — times have changed, but not that much… 

I know that I’m not widely popular — a lot of people think it’s too plain or simple — but as I see it, modern music these days is so flashy and shallow. It’s mostly with women who have very long fingernails with their mouths wide-open. My current description for it is ‘talons and tonsils.’ 

Shortly after your tip to the South with Lomax, the folk music revival in the United States reached a peak — even at that time, was there tension between true traditionalists and those who were just lifting the aesthetics?

There were tensions, certainly. Ewan MacColl was such a bully, really. He had such strong opinions about it and was unkind as well. He insisted — and rightly so, in many ways — that you should only sing songs from where you came from. But, not enough people have the background to know the songs from where they came from. Of course, Ewan himself didn’t sing songs from where he came from — he sang a lot of Irish ballads. He was giving out advice that he wasn’t following himself, while being unkind to those who didn’t listen to him. 

There was also tension with the skiffle craze at the time. That followed ‘Rock Around The Clock,’ I think. I saw the film Blackboard Jungle with Bill Haley & His Comets. It was showing and we went. As I watched that film, I thought ‘everything is going to change after this point.’ It just struck me as a 24-year-old. And everything did change. The whole music scene opened up and the love of it was quite… violent. I was threatened at knife-point one day by one of the club owners in London because I had gone to an evening that was advertised as ‘folk and blues.’ They didn’t play any folk music at all — and hardly any blues — so, I got my lipstick and scrubbed out the word ‘folk’ from the sign outside. The owner of the club was watching me and he came up with a knife and said ‘if you come here again, I’ll use this.’ So… I didn’t go back. Lipstick comes in handy for quite a few things.

As a folk artist, did you feel that the rise of rock ‘n’ roll was threatening? Or did it kind of open up everything to be more creatively liberated?

Everything opened up simultaneously. Skiffle, blues, English blues, pop-folk, traditional folk. There were so many clubs at that time that you could find any sort of music you wanted. Because we were all young, we were all learning. It was a fascinating time to be around, I have to say. I was one of the very few people who actually looked for songs to sing. I went to the library — the English Folk Dance and Song Society — I would get books and look through songs and words that I’d like to sing. Because I couldn’t read music, I used to jot the notes down onto manuscript paper and take it home to my sister who would play it on the piano. If I liked the tune, I’d learn the song. That’s how it was in the early days.

Then, about two or three years after that, I met Alan and Peter Kennedy and listened to their field recordings — that just opened up a whole world of songs that I had no idea about. You don’t love them all, of course, but I was able to try out all these songs. It was incredible. 

You’ve mentioned Almeda Riddle a couple of times already — what was it like to see her perform in person for the first time? 

We didn’t discover her and she was already known as a singer in the Ozarks. I think John Quincy Wolf was the first person to ‘discover’ her. But, there she was, the most mountainly woman. She had been involved in a couple of hurricanes and tornadoes and twisters, but she was very welcoming. She just sat down and sang. I was spellbound. She was so kind and generous. She allowed me to sing some of her songs that I had learned at home — sorta Anglo-Americans one that have been carried on by settlers. She was so pleased for me to sing to her. She realized that there I was, from the place where these songs come from, and I loved that music despite my age and the times. She was so generous. I still have a letter that she sent me when I got home in 1960, I really treasure it. I think she is the finest thing I have ever heard in my life.

It’s heartbreaking in many ways — the book she had written her hundreds of songs in was lost in a tornado. She said she didn’t have the heart to write them out again. But, with people like Almeda, they were still in her head and she could sing any version of any ballad. She knew them completely, they were locked in her memory. Although this sounds a bit sentimental, they weren’t only in her memory — they were in her heart.

Tell us about George “Pop” Maynard, the source of “Rolling In The Dew.”

I was lucky enough to meet George when I was a very young woman. I only met him twice, at the headquarters of an English folksong society. He was brought up to London to sing a concert — he was in his late-70s or early-80s by that point. He was a dear old man with a silvery, grey beard, a waist-coat and a cloth cap. He reminded me of my granddad, who had died when I was away at college. So, I instantly loved him. His repertoire of songs was in the hundreds like Almeda’s. I’ve sung quite a few of his songs over the years. 

“Rolling In The Dew” is a sort of light-hearted song, so I thought ‘well, I might as well try to be cheerful for a least a couple of songs.’ That’s who George was. The great thing about him is that he was actually a proper Sussex countryman through and through. I’ve written about his poaching. He said he poached a lot, but they were poverty-stricken people. The country people of Southeast England were especially poor. So, he poached game to provide for his family. He even said ‘I hold any man a coward who would not poach to feed his family.’ He was lovely. I loved him. 

That’s quite a slice-of-life — it puts things in a certain perspective. 

That’s true. I feel such great gratitude that these people kept these songs alive by singing them. I don’t understand why people today don’t appreciate it more and see the value of it. The history alone is so fascinating, some of these songs go back centuries. These songs exist because generations of farmers and laborers learned the words, learned how to sing them and then passed them on. It’s just a miracle that these songs survive. It’s a miracle that they are as incredible as they are. 

They also are great vehicles for understanding the past. It’s not like a protest song, but within the songs there was plenty of protest, plenty of content that tells you what life was like, how difficult it was, how treacherous it was, how hard the ruling class was. It’s all there, and I like them better that way. The protest is thoughtful, you’re not banging anyone on the head with it. It’s implied and it’s told the way people actually lived it. I think that allows for a more nuanced message, but a lot of people seem to need to be hit on the head with a message.

Sacred Harp singing has always been one of the most fascinating branches of the American music tradition — what was it like to go to the 1959 Sacred Harp Convention in Fyffe, Alabama?

I have goosebumps on my arm right now just thinking about it. It was so thrilling. It still moves me to tears when I hear it — tears of joy because the music’s so wonderful. There must have been hundreds of singers — at least 200 from all over rural Alabama — and they all came for the ‘big sing.’ It was a democratic thing, certain folks would get to pick songs on certain days and sing certain parts before the whole ensemble came in.

We were at their convention for two days and their hospitality was just lovely. They had tables full of the most wonderful Southern food. I didn’t even know food like that existed since I had come from England and grew up with war rations. They offered us roasted ham and chicken and sweet potatoes and all of that — I gobbled it down.

But, I realized something after a couple of days. An old farmer said to me ‘so, where are y’all off to next, young lady?’ And I said ‘well, we’re going into Mississippi to record some black musicians.’ He stopped short and said ‘don’t want no n***ers here. N***er came here last year and the boys ran him to death with their guns.’ Could you imagine? My blood ran cold. I had never heard anything like in my life. It was so straightforward. The horror of that stayed with me my entire life. 

In that moment, you were able to directly experience a certain side of American culture — the combination of that beautiful harp singing and the country’s complicated legacy of hate. Do you feel that having that experience gives you a unique historical perspective of the current moment?

Yeah. People have occasionally been critical of me and Alan. It was the time of the civil rights movement and people ask why we weren’t more involved with that. But, Alan said that he was recording these artists to bring their voices to the rest of the world. It was a vehicle for them to expressive themselves. I think if we had been more open about our support for the civil rights movement, I would be dead, buried beneath six feet of Mississippi mud right now. 

We weren’t just there recording and preserving the music, we were recording and preserving the people and the stories too. That trip made people realize that they were valued, that their music was valued and loved, that what they had to offer was important. As Alan used to say, it gave them a voice and a platform. 

You’ve dedicated the better part of your life to the preservation of this folk tradition — what do you think is its future? 

That’s a difficult question. I find that young people are putting themselves in front of the songs. They’re not doing enough research, they’re not looking enough. Even professional folk singers keep singing the same songs, nobody’s looked any deeper. There’s so many songs to hear and discover, why don’t you find something new? Err, it’s old, but it’s fresh. Find something that nobody is singing. But, that doesn’t seem to be clicking with anyone. Young artists are hell-bent on what they want to do, but they’re not expanding themselves or the music. 

In a way, there’s a rush to be a success. Of course, I was extraordinarily lucky to get the experiences I got, and a lot of young people don’t have that. At the same time, at the drop of the hat or the press of a button online, they can load up any song in the world. All the recordings that Alan and I did are available online. Yet, people still aren’t expanding their repertoire. That does bother me a bit.

After so many years away from it, how does it feel to have been able to come back to music in such a triumphant manner?

It’s a miracle. I’m so happy to be doing it. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have thought it was possible. Somehow, it’s worked. I was born under a lucky star that I was able to come back after being away for over 30 years. I sometimes think ‘well, nobody else is doing the real stuff, so I better do it.’ It’s wonderful to be singing again. I don’t have the voice I once had, but most of the people we recorded in the field were in their 60s, 70s or 80s. It’s vanity to want to sing the same way I did back in my 20s or 30s. You just keep learning all the time. 

I can feel those old artists. I feel that I am one of them now, part of the legion of old singers. I always try to think of the singer when I sing their song. When I sing Alemda’s song, I can see her standing there behind me. They’re there with me. When I sing one of George’s songs, he’s there. It’s fanciful, but that’s just how it is. I’ve finally joined the old singers, and that’s great.

Listen to “Wondrous Love” by Shirley Collins below:

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