A tale of love, tragedy, adventure and creative homecoming, Shirley Collins’ life resembles one of her beloved folk songs. A star of the ‘60s and ‘70s Folk Revival, aged 23 she travelled the American Deep South with her lover, the famous song collector Alan Lomax. On a huge early tape recorder, they captured the songs of ordinary working people – including bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell, who’d later influence the Rolling Stones, and a prison chain gang whose work song ended up on the soundtrack to Oh Brother Where Art Thou. Collins went on to record over a dozen of her own highly influential albums. Then, in 1978, life took a cruel turn. Devastated by the breakup of her marriage to folk rock luminary Ashley Hutchings, Collins lost her voice on stage. She was diagnosed with acute dysphonia, and didn’t sing another note for over 35 years. Now, against all odds and at the age of 81, Collins is back. On Nov 4 she releases Lodestar, a new album recorded in her Sussex cottage.
How does it feel to be back?
Rather wonderful. What’s great is to be able to sing the songs out loud again, because I’ve kept them going round and round in my head. I never lost my interest or my love of the music. It’s just that I couldn’t sing. I feel restored!
What was it like to live without your singing voice for so long?
Really bleak. I wasn’t the Shirley Collins I had been or wanted to be. I couldn’t even sing indoors on my own. I had to set singing aside. What I didn’t realise was how long I was setting it aside for. A few years ago I got a call out of the blue from a musician called David Tibet. He said, ‘I really love your music, can I come and talk to you and bring some friends?’ I burst into tears and said ‘Oh, I thought I’d been forgotten’. David kept trying to persuade me to sing. I said no for years. Then one day I said yes, and did two songs at the Union Chapel in London. It turned out people really had been listening to my albums all those years.
“You have to be brave, and to stop worrying about what people think”
Your friend and fellow folk singer Linda Thompson also lost her voice after the breakup of her marriage…
I think there might well be a connection to being a woman. I know people of both sexes fall apart if they have a dreadful marriage breakdown… Mine was so sudden. I’d been walking hand in hand with Ashley on our wedding anniversary. The next day he said ‘I’m leaving you, I’m consumed with love for somebody else’, and off he went. I think perhaps women start to feel that if they’re not loved then they’re worthless. But you have to be brave, and to stop worrying about what people think. In the end I decided I can’t keep all these songs to myself, that would be too selfish!
Your voice was once compared, by a poetic fan, to a potato. Is plainness and straightforwardness underrated in modern music?
Oh god yes, everything is so over the top. I think you sing a song to people, you don’t sing it at people. It’s always been important to me to sing with the same voice I spoke with, not to add anything or pretend to be anything I wasn’t. You have to trust the song.
One of your key roles on the recording trip with Alan Lomax was coaxing songs out of the womenfolk…
One of the songs on the new album, Pretty Polly, I collected from a woman called Ollie Gilbert up in the mountains of Arkansas. She was unforgettable! Her husband and Alan were sipping on moonshine. Ollie and I naturally formed a friendship though she was three times my age. When I needed the loo she took me down the garden to the outhouse. It was a double seater! Ollie hitched up her skirt, patted the other for me to join her, and sang me two of the filthiest songs I’d ever heard in my life. They had hard lives, those women, but they could laugh.
Were the folk clubs of the 60s and 70s dens of iniquity, as your mother feared?
They were just very smoky! The male singers would stick a cigarette on the end of a guitar string and sing with the smoke curling up in their faces. The only time mum might have been right was when I went to a particular folk club in London. The sign outside said ‘folk and blues’, but no one played any folk. I was so annoyed that I took out my lipstick and crossed out that word. The organiser drew a knife and told me ‘If you come here again I’ll use this’.
Is it true you turned down Jimi Hendrix?
That’s all been exaggerated! Would I have turned him down?! My first husband was making a film about him. Hendrix came to our house one day and sat my daughter on his knee. He was just the sweetest man. It was a hot summer’s day and I was wearing a sleeveless dress. He rubbed my upper arm and said ‘I can see why Austin chose you’. Ha! I went all trembley. The awful thing is in those days we didn’t bother with photographs. I’d love to have a picture of Polly on Jimi Hendrix’s knee.
You’ve saved songs from extinction and kept the folk flame alive. How hopeful do you feel for folk in the future?
“There is a great interest in the revival of folk music. The one thing that bothers me is that people think it’s only creative if they write their own songs. I can’t see that. I think it’s equally creative to carry this tradition and pass it on. These songs show us our history, and our nature. And in any case the songs are absolutely beautiful. There’s still so much out there to hear and to learn. ”
What do folk songs reveal about the nature of woman?
In these songs women are mourning lovers, or being thrown overboard with their newborn babies, or being married off to keep land intact… There are also lots of defiant women. Folk music just seems to be a true representation of the weaknesses – if you can call wanting love a weakness – and the strengths of women. These songs are about the things that can knock women down, but also the things that can raise you up again.