Shirley Collins’ infatuation with folk music has taken her on a journey. She travelled to the American South where she discovered Memphis country blues legend Mississippi Fred McDowell, released a string of albums on Harvest EMI with her sister Dolly and became a crucial figure in the English Folk Revival. Then, in the late 1970s, she withdrew from the music world after developing dysphonia – a dysfunction in one’s ability to use their voice. After years of coaxing from Current 93’s David Tibet, Collins found her voice again and is now celebrating the release of Lodestar – her first album in 38 years. Here, the 81-year-old British legend reflects on her extraordinary story.
1950s: Moving to London from Hastings
When I first got to London there wasn’t much of a folk scene. A couple of people were giving young singers like me an opportunity to meet up and sing together. We’d meet at the University of London where their professor of physics, John Hasted, was interested in folk music and encouraging people like me. Peter Kennedy, at the English Folk Dance and Song Society, opened up a room and let us sing there. As it got more popular, the scene began. Then in the 1960s it really started building – there were folk clubs up and down the country which you could sing at.
1959: Travelling to America with field collector Alan Lomax
I remember absolutely everything about this trip! These were authentic singers – people who just sang as part of their lives. We met the mountain people in Kentucky, they were still singing songs that their ancestors brought over 400 years before. I was singing them versions of their songs which I knew from home – that connected them to ‘the old country’ which was England. The clearest memory I have is of finding Mississippi Fred McDowell in Como, Mississippi. I have this clear vision of Fred appearing out of the trees, carrying his guitar and wearing dungarees, he’d been picking cotton all day. It gives me goosebumps even talking about it now. In the 1960s he came over to England and I saw him once again. He knew that us recording him changed his life and he was such a gracious, lovely person. It transformed his life, but it also transformed mine.
1969-1970: Releasing albums with her sister Dolly
Dolly and I were very close – we both had this great love of Englishness. Dolly was able to capture the sound of England in her arrangements and, from listening to all the field recordings I had, I knew you had to sing the songs directly and straightforwardly and let the arrangements enhance the melodies. It was quite unique for its time and groundbreaking, but we didn’t know that then! It was saying something about the people the music came from – the working class people of rural England. These people had been neglected and despised all their lives yet they produced these hundreds of songs which were so beautiful.
1970s-2014: Absence from singing
It was pretty bleak – the reason for me stopping singing was the breakup of my marriage in a very personal and public betrayal from my then-husband. I had to try and sing through this heartache while working at the National Theatre. I was just so heartbroken that some nights I was crying, some nights I couldn’t sing. When I finally gave up in some ways it was a relief – I didn’t have to humiliate myself anymore. I didn’t have to let the music down. I call them the ‘Wilderness years’. I knew I wasn’t Shirley Collins. That’s quite hard to bear when you’ve been a singer all your life.
2014: First live performance in 38 years at Union Chapel, London
Dear David Tibet! He phoned me up while I was still working at the Job Centre in Brighton. He said he’d always loved my music and wanted to come and see me. I just burst into tears on the phone – I thought I’d been forgotten. He asked me if I wanted to sing at a concert. For the first 10 years I said no, for the next five years I said perhaps but whenever it came to it I chickened out. Then finally he asked if I’d sing a couple of songs at his concert in London and I said yes… and I turned up! I did it, against absolutely all the odds. It felt like an act of heroism!
2016: Lodestar – first album in 38 years
Recording at home was absolutely essential. My voice had changed and I’d lost confidence – I didn’t want to go into a studio and meet some young engineer who might say, ‘What’s this old bird doing here?!’ I chose people I trusted. I’d always wanted to do that first song, Awake Awake (Sweet England). What’s extraordinary now is the lines, “Awake awake sweet England, for dreadful days draw near”, how prescient is that? We recorded it last summer and all the ghastly things that have happened took place since then. All these songs are really important to me – they are songs I’ve loved for a long time. It was brilliant to be able to visit them and sing them again. I’d forgiven myself for not singing for all those years.