a long tale: celebrating shirley collin's seventy year folk career

The influential British Folk singer – has at the age of 81, released a new album  seven decades after her first.

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.


shirleycollins.co.uk

This Week

making images: behind the scenes

Take another look behind the scenes at photographer Harley Weir’s journey in capturing five women from around the world and get to know some more creators who are defining the image of today in documentary filmmaker Chelsea McMullan’s Making Images video. 

Read More

making codes: behind the scenes

Take another look at Making Codes, Liza Mandelup's behind the scenes video of digital artist and creative director Lucy Hardcastle's piece Intangible Matter that features producer Fatima Al Qadiri, artist Chris Lee and a host of more leading digital artists.

Read More

making films: behind the scenes

Take a look behind the scenes in director Eva Michon's Making Films with Alma Har'el video: a look at the making of JellyWolf and the current state of play within the film industry through the eyes of female filmmakers championing diversity, and Alma Har'els Free The Bid initiative. 

Read More

making movement: behind the scenes

Take a look behind the scenes in filmmaker Agostina Galvez’s Making Movements: a look at the making of The Pike and the Shield: Five Paradoxes with ballerina Nozomi Iijima and other leading movers and shakers from the world of dance including choreographers and dancers Holly Blakey, Aya Sato and the duo Project O. 

Read More

making exhibitions: behind the scenes

Take a look behind the scenes in director Christine Yuan’s Making Exhibitions with Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel: a look at the making of Just A Second: A Digital Exhibition Curated by Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, inspired by CHANEL Nº5 L'EAU, and a look at other leading curators and collectives from the art world including BUFU, Rozsa Farkas, Fatos Ustek, Angelina Dreem and Yana Peel.

Read More

seeing sound: in conversation charlotte hatherley & carly paradis

Two of London’s most sought after figures in visually-shaped music meet.

Read More

lizzie borden: feminist trailblazer

As her magnum opus returns to UK shores, Lizzie Borden – the visionary artist behind Born in Flames – talks rebellion, feminist artistry, and her nostalgia for 70s NYC.

Read More

rebecca lamarche-vadel's
just a second

Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel is the Paris based curator for the Palais De Tokyo. Dedicated to modern and contemporary art she puts on large scale exhibitions that span installation, dance, sculpture, photography and spoken word. For The Fifth Sense she created a digital exhibition based on the transformative power of Chanel’s Nº5 L’EAU.

Read More

reba maybury: she’s got the power

We sat down with the editor, writer and dominatrix Reba Maybury to discuss her taboo-breaking publishing house Wet Satin Press, her latest novel Dining With Humpty Dumpty and what it means to be a woman in control.

Read More
loading...