Shirley Collins 2009 Interview

Shirley Collins’ half century as a heroine of English folk music is an incredible record. That wistful, pure voice is the sweetest sound to have emerged from the sixties Folk Revival, and, during her recording career (1959-1978), she anticipated most of the really worthwhile developments in homegrown roots music. The occasion was the eve of Folk Roots New Routes, a five-day festival at Southbank Centre, curated by Collins. The story was for Metro (London edition). Dateline 18.3.08

SC: Is that Mike?

MB: Yeah.

SC: Hello, how are you?

MB: Pretty good, thanks. not bad. I tell you, I’m doing this from home.

SC: Right.

MB: I’d rather do it from home than the office. But sometimes the reception is very poor when I come to do the transcription. Let’s see. Can I ask... (sorry about this, it’s a bit unprofessional really), I’ll ask you a sample question, see if you come through OK, and if you do, all’s well and fine. If not, I might have to decamp to the office, which about a ten minutes cycle ride.

SC: Alright. Let’s hope it works.

MB: well Shirley, how did you get the offer of the Folk Roots New Routes Festival. How did you get the gig?

SC: Well about eighteen months ago I gave a talk at the Purcell Rooms. It’s more than a talk, it’s a show, America Over the Water, which is based on my book, America Over the Water, which tells of the field trip I made in 1959 in the Deep South with Alan Lomax, the American folk song collector. I’ve written a show about it, with an actor and with music and with pictures. And they just liked it so much at the Purcell Room, that James [Beith?], who’s the booker, offered me this whole series, which is fantastic.

MB: Excellent. It’s a sort of Meltdown thing, is it?

SC: It is a sort of Meltdown thing, yes. Yes it is. It’s a generic title now isn’t it for...?

MB: You following on from Morrissey and Elvis Costello and Robert Wyatt, I think.

SC: Fantastic. Oh, and Patti Smith, of course.

MB: Let’s not forget Patti.

SC: Yes, I’m in great company.

MB: Shirley, I’ll see if it’s playing back OK, and I’ll ring you right back.

SC: OK. Bye.

...

SC: Is everything OK?

MB: Yeah, you’re coming through loud and clear. So, let me see. The festival is named after the album you made in 1964 with...

SC: With Davy Graham, yes.

MB: The title seems to indicate that you were aware of the importance of what you were doing at the time. That’s an album which begs the word ‘seminal’.

SC: That’s right. And it still holds up when you hear it today.

MB: I think so.

SC:DIt still sounds fresh to me. I mean, when I made the album with davy we weren’t aware that we were making a seminal album. We just did it. Although Davy was experimental anyway, with his influences of North African music and Indian music. It just worked somehow. I mean, it shouldn’t, on the face of it. Align that with English music and American mountain music, and it shouldn’t have worked. Although, in a way, the modes are the same. And in Davy’s hands, of course, he was a genius. It did work. It caused a lot of fuss at the time. Some people liked it, and some people didn’t. But it’s held its own over the years. It just seemed an appropriate title for the Meltdown series, because it’s music that’s going back to its roots but also looking forward as well, with some of the musicians I’ve chose.

MB: Yeah, it’s really appropriate. But Davy and nnot many of the sixties generation are playing. So is the emphasis very much on the emerging generation?

SC: No it’s not. It seems to be an equal share between older singers that I like, but not big names. I mean, they’re big names in the folk world, and I’ve got people like Linda Thompson on. And well established people like John Kirkpatrick, who is just the greatest of all the people who are doing folk music in the country as far as I’m concerned. But he doesn’t get to play big venues often, you know. And I think it’s about time he appeared on a bigger stage. He’s such a wonderful musician. I don’t know if you know him.

MB: I do indeed. He’s great.

SC: He is great. He’s great in his own right. And people like Martin Wyndham-Read. Again, a beautiful singer, but doesn’t appear on big stages. I just like their music better than I like the music of a lot of other people. So with The Close of Play concert, I actually have chosen people I love, people whose music I love. And I’m thrilled to bits that we’ve got Ned Oldham coming over from Virginia. Now he’s Bonnie Prince Billy’s brother.

MB: My researches hadn’t gone so deep actually, but that’s interesting. And then there’s the connection with Alasdair Roberts who did an album with Will Oldham.

SC: Alasdair is just lovely.

MB: Yeah, in fact... Let me tell you. I was kinda bounced into this piece just yesterday - I’m officially a freelancer. Didn’t give me that much time to prepare. But they did set up an interview with Alasdair that very afternoon, so I spoke to him yesterday.

SC: Oh good.

MB: He’s a very deep chap isn’t he?

SC: He certainly is, yes. I’m quite superficial.

MB: It’s just that he made me feel a glib, shallow journalist.

SC: I know. He slightly has that effect on me as well. He sent me a book that I found almost impenetrable. But don’t put that in the article. The point about him is that he has his own way of interpreting traditional music. I wasn’t ever sure how successful it was. I liked it and I liked him, but I think with his new album, The Amber Gatherers, which is all his own songs. They’re so absolutely beautiful. What somebody in Mojo said about it (which I can just ssee it, it’s on the programme now), it says ‘The whole album seems like some beguilingly beautiful charm against modern evils’. And I think that really hit the spot. But I have a lot of time for Alasdair anyway, so I really wanted him on. And I’m glad he’s on. And he’s sharing his concert with a new singer, Ian King, who is just making his debut album. What’s lovely about something like this is that you can give somebody new, who’s just starting out, an opportunity as well. So he’s supporting Alasdair. It’s incumbent on us older singers anyway to encourage the young, and help them out when you can, because I know how tough it is to get started.

MB: It begs the question, is folk music a pursuit for the young rather than the oldsters?

SC: Well it is. When you look at it, it was always the music of both young and old because it was passed on from older singers to the younger ones, who in their turn become old, you can’t help it, and the music just gets passed down through generations. But I think what’s lovely about the young singers is they’re so talented a lot of them. They’re really fine musicians as well, and they just bring a lot of energy and a new life to the songs, and it’s really important that they are encouraged.

MB: Do you see something of the youthful Anne Briggs in Lisa Knapp or, I don’t know, the youthful Robin Williamson in Alasdair?

SC: There’s a couple of tracks on Alasdair’s album, it does sound a bit like Robin Williamson. Riddle Me This sounds a bit like an Incredible String Band song, for instance. Close your eyes and you can almost see Robin there. But he’s not copied that. I think it must be come sort of Celtic thing that comes through perhaps... It may be that he hasn’t even heard the Incredible String Band. He’s not as whimsical as they are, or they were. He’s a strange combination is Alasdair. He really feels connected to the earth and to life, and he’s down to earth as well. There’s something quite magical about him, I think.

MB: Medical?

SC: Magical, not medical (laughs).

MB: Sorry. Oh dear. It’s all coming back. He said ‘archetypes’, and I said ‘architecture?’

SC: This is going to be a fascinating article (laughs).

MB: I said to him that you represented the bucolic, English, Copper Family tradition and did he represent some dour, dark Scots alternative? He demolished the argument in one line: Love, Death & The Lady.

SC: Yes. the Copper tradition is... What never quite gets said is that there’s such a dark heart at the centre of English music. I mean it goes back centuries and it’s not all sweetness and light. There’s some very, very heavy stuff going on. The traditional ballads, to deal with all the big subjects, and in a very straightforward way. He’s quite right.

MB: He’s right, but do the Coppers represent an alternative strand? Bearing in mind that you called your talk A Most Sunshiny Day? Pleasant and Delightful, and all that.

SC: ‘A most sunshiny day’ is a quote from one of the Copper songs. And the lines are, ‘There’s many a dark and cloudy morning turns out to be a most sunshiny day’. And it comes right at the end of the show. It’s a plea really to the young singers to make sure they listen to the proper traditional singers, in order to carry the true tradition on. Not just a version of it but the real thing. And I do feel optimistic about it, so there’s that little optimistic line in there.

So that’s why that’s there. Although the talk gets quite heavy as well. It deals with the first World War and it deals with how impoverished people were, the working classes in the countryside, and yet they managed to... They still had this spirit to keep this beautiful music going. I think it’s a huge achievement. But they didn’t necessarily do it consciously. It was just there as part of their lives. And I think the country would be a bit better off if it was stll part of people’s lives. I think music is so superficial these days. And this music just isn’t. And when you listen to... I’m doing the gypsy talk as well, talking about the gypsy music. It’s just stunning stuff. And again it is mostly old singers, the field recordings, because that’s how it was when the music was being recorded in the field. They sing some of the ancient ballads. They sing ancient carols, and they sing songs about what’s happening to them, and what’s happening in the countryside. The English tradition and the gypsy tradition exist side by side and share as well. The songs would have been given from one to the other, and then back again as they travelled to the work.

MB: I guess an important event was when Topic released Voice of the People a few years ago. That brought all that source material back into circulation.

SC: It did. Absolutely. I can understand if a lot of people find that difficult to listen to, because it is unaccompanied, and it is largely older voices, but if you listen past that, what you get from the songs is the truth of them, and the experience of the singers. The whole of their lives are in those songs. I just think that it’s a miracle. I just love the stuff.

MB: The siixties counterpart, was it called Folk Song of Great Britain?, that Topic again issued. I’ve got some of those too. There seems to be a shift of emphasis. Whereas in the old collection the singers represented an archetype - the farm labourer, the fisherman - listening to The Voice of the People the character of the individual singers comes across, and there’s more importance placed on the biographies of the individual singers.

SC: That’s true, and I think that’s the right way to go. Whenever I sang a song that I learned from the old singers I always said where I got it from. I always mentioned their names, because I figured that a lot of these people had really hard lives, coming from the labouring classes as they did, they had had such tough lives, and they had hadd their stuff neglected and despised for so long, and they’ve been exploited all their lives, you know. The least we can do is to honour them, I think, even by just remembering their names and where the stuff comes from. It’s just so important to me.

MB: So are a lot of songs that we know as ‘trad’, if people can be botherred to look, they have names attached.

SC: That’s right. If people can be bothered to look. That’s what I try and do, to encourage people to bother to find out. And you find out such fascinating things about the people as well. It suddenly comes alive, because it’s not come from a book or, ‘I don’t know where this came from, I just sing it’. There so many stories to be found out about the people and their lives as well, which is why I’ve written the talks really. It just brings it to life. It’s not just a dry history, it’s a living history.

MB: I guess the link in your case ws the Copper family. Bob Copper, perhaps?

SC: Yes it was Bob. Because when I was 16, and I lived in Hastings. My grandad was a gardener on a big estate there, and I listened to lots of... There were folk music programmes were on the radio at that time. Country Magazine and As I Roved Out. Both of which programmes had millions of people listening to them. And they played field recordings of the British Isles on them. And I just loved this music. And it was the music I was hearing at home as well from my grandad and my mum and my aunt. And when I was 15 I decided I wanted to be a folk singer and I actually sent a letter to the BBC to tell them. Idiotic as it sounds, it’s a great stroke of luck because - and this is back in nineteen-fifty-something - the BBC were then recording folk music. They had several collectors who were going out in the countryside and were recording what was left of the music. Someone at the BBC handed my letter to Bob Copper, who was recording in Suffollk and Surrey. And when Bob came down to Hastings to record the fishermen in the old town, he had this letter in his pocket and he just came up and knocked on the door, and there he was one day. He recorded one or two songs from my mum and from granddad. And then he asked me, because I had written the letter, and I said, well I’ve got to really impress this bloke, and I sang a Scottish ballad that I’d learned, and I think I tried to sing it in a Scottish accent (laughs). Bob luckily saw past this bit of flim-flam. He understood. He always had a great sense of humour, and he had teenage children of his own. Just a couple of years before he died Bob actually gave me his worksheet for that day, a copy of it, in which it said ‘Shirley Collins. Occupation: schoolgirl’.

It was lovely because it started a lifelong friendship with Bob, a friendship I kept up over the years, right until he died. An incredibly vaulable part of my life. So what started out as one of those silly things to do - to write to the BBC - turned out to be a great blessing.

MB: I was going to ask your opinion of Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger, those guys. Did they emasculate the music when they made it suitable for singing in middle-class parlours?

SC: Well in a way they did. It is strange. I mean, I love Vaughan Williams and, of course, he collected so much stuff in Suffolk and Surrey, and he adapted a lot of the folk tunes from hymn tunes, because he was compiling the New English Hymnal at the time. And of course his greatest hymn, the Bunyan hymn, To Be a Pilgrim, he set to a tune that he had recorded in Sussex from a Mrs Verral. In the Hymn Book it says, ‘Tune: Monks Gate’, and Monks Gate was the name of the village that she lived in.

But he had such an ear for this music as well, and then he was able to re-interpret it in his bigger things, like Dives and Lazarus, and The Lark Ascending and the Greensleeves Suite. I don’t think you can fault Vaughan Williams. He did understand it. But Percy Grainger and Sharp, in their arrangements... Percy Grainger, for me, he did lighten it too much. He didn’t seem to understand that this is really quite profound music, with profoundly beautiful melodies, and he just did things like In An English Country Garden and stuff. A bit too slight for me. And people like Benjamin Britten didn’t understand traditional music. They can’t do the right thing with it. While Sharp collected this stuff, and thank god he did, otherwise so much would be gone because the generation that was wiped out in the First World War was carrying those songs, and a lot them would have died with them. So what Sharp did was absolultely invaluable. But in a way it felt like he was collecting for the middle classes. And when you hear a Sharp arrangement it is drawing-room stuff. It has very little to do with the people it came from. But his work was invaluable.

MB: Is this a state of affairs - if it doesn’t sound too grand, which I guess it does - but a state of affairs you were trying to rectify when you made Anthems in Eden with classical guys like Christopher Hogwood and David Munrow?

SC: Well I mean it’s robust music. And early music instruments are robust, and just slightly off-key sometimes. It just felt truer to me than piano or string arrangements, or flute. I can’t bear flute with folk song. It’s just the kiss of death, I think. I just love early music as well, you see. It’s another great passion of mine. And I just love the sound of those instruments. And I always thought English folksong should be accompanied by something more appropriate. Those seemed to me to be the right instruments. And, of course, my sister Dolly was absolutely so thrilled to be able to score for those instruments as well, and musicians like David Munrow. It was such a wonderful thing for her to be able to do. And for me to be able to sing with them as well.

MB: It’s such a distinctive sound: your singing, Dolly’s arrangements. Those were wonderful albums.

SC: Oh thank you.

MB: And I suppose that side of your interest is represented by Catherine Bott in the Purcell Rooms recital.

SC: Yes it is. Catherine and I have been friends for a long, long time, and at one point in the eighties at one of the early Meltdown things at the Royal Festival Hall, Jim Lloyd who used to introduce Folk on 2, he decided to give Anthems in Eden a new airing, and Dolly played and because I couldn’t sing at that point, Catherine sang the songs. And she understands them so beautifully. Although she’s a classically trained singer she can par herself down to just singing the songs as simply as they should be sung. But absolutely beautifully. I was just so thrilled when she accepted. She’s pretty famous and I just think it’s lovely for her to take this little step aside from her career and do this. But as I say, she’s done it, just as an act of friendship really. And she loves singing the songs anyway. I’m looking forward to that evening enormously.

MB: That should be good.

SC: And she’s got a little flute organ as well, and she has a wonderful accompanist. That’s all working out...

MB: They’re Dolly’s arrangements.

SC: They’re Dolly’s arrangements, yes.

MB: That should be good. I was going to ask too about your own experiences in the States. I must catch up with the book. But I have some of those Southern Folk Heritage records. It must have been absolutely extraordinary to hear the congregation belting out Jesus On The Mainlline, what was it, in Mississippi, in 1959?

SC: It was. The whole experience was remarkable and fascinating. You just get to hear so much contrasting music as well. Because while you’ve got the black congregations, as you say, belting out that stuff, and it’s really powerful. On the other hand you’ve got the white Baptist singers up in the mountains singing their hymns, which were based on the Scottish lining hymns. Their music comes across as so powerful, but so mournful and almost tormented,. And then other white religious singers, like the Sacred Harp singers. They were doing everythiing through a so-fa version and then they would launch out into the words, and that’s such a big sound as well. It gives me goosebumps still when I hear it.

MB: People are just catching up with that music now, post Oh Brother Where Art Thou, but to have been there in 1959...

SC: It’s a unique experience, and of course we discovered Mississippi Fred McDowell, the bluesman, which was... I can still see Fred. He’d been picking cotton all day, and we’d been recording some older musicians in a clearing where their tumbledown shacks were, and Fred came after work, and he just walked into the clearing carrying a guitar in his dusty old dungarees, and just sat down and started playing just unbelievably beautiful blues. We spent three days with Fred and his wife, and the people there, recording blues and spirituals from Fred, and children’s games, and music from other people that dates back to the Civil War: the fife and drum bands, the black musicians played. It was just... When I think about it, it just seems like a miracle that we found the people we did. I can talk about it endlessly (laughs).

MB: Ever since I noticed your name on those records, I wondered if, after the tape stopped rolling, did you sit around swapping songs?

SC: I did up in Virginia, and especially in the Ozark Mountains. There was a place we went through called Timbo, which was just almost as if the pioneers were still... Well, the pioneering spirit still existed there. In one house, the house of Oscar and his wife Ollie Gilbert, the men and the women were separated. The men all went off into one room, and I was sent off to join the women. When food was served the men ate first and the women ate when they were finished. It was quite extraordinary. But it worked in my favour because Ollie had an absolute fund of Ozark balld songs, and of course they’re all songs from the British Isles, that were taken over by the settlers. And I recorded Ollie for a whole afternoon and we did it. We did swap songs. And she was often amazed that I knew her songs, but in different versions, you know. We got on absolutely like a house on fire. She was just wonderful. She was in her sixties then, I guess. It was a great time. But Oscar... Oscar was a fine singer too, and a fiddle player. But he had murdered seven people in his lifetime.

MB: What!

SC: Over women and whiskey. Yes! And he was out of jail again, and had quietened down, I guess, because he’’d gone blind. Surprisingly, because he was a big and wild and aggressive man, but when he sang, he was so gentle. These gentle songs. Although he was singing a gentle song about Cole Younger and the James Boys, who were atrocious outlaws.

MB: it’s interesting that when you got back from that trip... Did it have the effect of reinforcing your English roots? There’s not a trace of Americana anywhere.

SC: You’re absolutely right. I did obviously have one or two American songs that I still loved and still wanted to sing. Because I love the Appalachian music. It is beautiful stuff. So with Davy, for instance, I sang Pretty Saro, which is from Tennessee, I think, and I sang Boll Weevil Blues, which we recorded from Vera Hall. So there was still part of me that hadn’t quite let that go, but after that, it was English all the way. And as it went further on I tried really to concentrate on the songs of Southern England. Because that’s where I’m from, and I understand them. Besides, when I was a young singer in the sixties and seventies, Scottish and irish music were just overwhelming everything else. It was a real struggle to be an English singer. But it was what I was, and it’s what I am, so I had to do it.

MB: Again, that situation is reversing now, I guess through the work of the Carthys, Martin and Eliza.

SC: Absolutely.

MB: What else? There’s so much. I’m never going to be able to use a fraction of this.

SC: I’m sorry. There’s an awful lot.

MB: There is, isn’t there? Well I suppose the obvious question, which you must be tired of people asking you, is will you ever start singing again?

SC: No, I don’t think so. I did actually lose my voice, and couldn’t sing, and still can’t really sing very well. I love the music too much to want to sing it badly. But what I can do is talk about it and... Especially with the talks. They’re about three topics that I really love. Are you going to be able to come to any of it?

MB: Well I’m based in Manchester. I’m strongly considering timing a visit around this. It sounds too good to miss.

SC: The America Over the Water talk is particularly good. I know we did a good show. There’s so much music in it, and so many wonderful pictures, and the story is just incredible really. If you did want to, you must let me know because I could certainly get you a complimentary.

MB: I might hold you to that. Thanks, Shirley. OK, we might as well call a halt, as we can go on for a couple of days and nights, and I’ve got a maximum of 450 words and Alasdair to fit in too. I’ve got my work cut out. But no, what a great thing. Well done and the best of luck with it.

SC: Thank you so much. It’s very nice, Mike. I just hope you get your piece done. I don’t envy you taking this lot down, I must say.

MB: The phrase, ‘embarrassment of riches’ comes to mind somehow.

SC: Anyway if it brings a few more people to the show, that will be fantastic. I really do think this is going to be a lovely week, and I think it’s going to be a bit of an eye-opener, or an ear-opener.

MB: That’s right. Again in that great folk tradition, you’re cutting across the generations.

SC: Not only that, but also to bring some people in who don’t get enough of a hearing. I know Eliza’s wonderful, but she’s so ubiquitous at the moment. You could hear her seven nights a week it seems to me, and other people are as good. I know Close of Play is going to be the most brilliant evening.

MB: You do well... Without wishing to appear condescending, but you do well to keep up because there’s such a tidal wave of emerging talent, isn’t there?

SC: (laughs) That’s true. I’m not sure I quite keep up, but I do my best. I love this music. It’s the thng that runs my life, so...

MB: And it’s in a fairly healthy condition right now.

SC: It is. It’s great, yes.

MB: Probably the best since your generation in the sixties.

SC: I think so. There’s just lots of vitality at the moment. That’s wonderful.

MB: Right, Shirley.

SC: Thank you so much, Mick. Erm, Mike. I really do appreciate it.

MB: I enjoyed our talk Shirley...


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