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Shirley Collins - This Time Roses

Shirley Collins’ career as a singer started in the late ’50s, with an initial leaning towards American songs, rapidly followed by a deepening interest in her own native songs, including those of her family in Sussex. Her popularity steadily increased through the ’60s when she worked as a soloist, with the unique guitarist Davy Graham, with her sister Dolly, and with a group of musicians who specialised in early music on original instruments. During the early ’70s she became involved with Ashley Hutchings and hence with electric folk music, or folk/rock as it was then called. She also worked with the Albion Band in the National Theatre in The Passion and Lark Rise.

Shirley Collins
Shirley, mid-1950s

I first heard Shirley Collins on a Topic album called The Sweet Primeroses in the late ’60s. My first and abiding impression was “Oh, then it’s alright to sing in the same way that you speak.” (This in the context of a burgeoning club scene full of Joan Baez clones). Subsequently I saw and heard her sing fairly frequently until the late ’70s. I came to value her singing more and more highly. Many of the southern English songs that she sings are gems – exquiste melodies and lyrics both – and she delivers them in a way that lets the song speak for itself. The power is not in her voice in technical terms, but in her ability to sing with complete lack of affectation, a great sense of familiarity and ease with the song, and with complete honesty.

In recent years, many of her albums have been reissued or reactivated, including Sweet England from the ’50s and Anthems In Eden (with Dolly) from the late ’60s, both now on See For Miles, Love, Death & The Lady (also with Dolly, from 1970) now on BGO, the 1964 Folk Roots, New Routes (with Davy Graham) on Righteous, the 1967 Power Of The True Love Knot now on Hannibal, and 1971’s No Roses with the Albion Country Band. But I had heard to my sadness that Shirley had stopped singing – there were rumours of throat trouble – and the last I’d heard was that she was managing Brighton’s Oxfam shop. So I was pleased and intrigued when it was suggested I interview her. As it turned out, she had just given in her notice and has decided to try to make her living in music once more; writing, broadcasting and maybe even singing.

I visited her in July at her home in Brighton. We spent a very enjoyable evening talking in company with her friends Ian and Rebekah Kearey who live close by, and who both contributed to the conversation.

The first question that occurred to me was how did an innocent young Sussex girl get to go off round the southern states of the U.S.A. with Alan Lomax all those years ago?

I met Alan Lomax at a party that Ewan MacColl gave and I’d been a great admirer of Alan Lomax’s for some time, just through listening to his work on the BBC. I knew that at that time American music seemed to me much more exotic than any other music I’d ever heard. I was quite obsessed by it. I thought that the greatest thing in the world would be to go to the Library of Congress and listen to the music, and actually when I met Alan Lomax at Ewan’s party I mentioned the Library of Congress and nobody else he’d met had ever heard of the Library.

Although, yes, I was an innocent person from Sussex, I had luckily been brought up to listen to all sorts of music, and I just happened to say the right thing to Alan at the right time. I mean, I did admire him; I thought what he’d done was wonderful.

So what happened; did he just sort of say “Come with me, my dear”?

No, but he was on a collecting trip; he was collecting in Britain at the time. I think he did rather like me and I rather liked him. He came down to Hastings to record me and my mother and my sister and he brought his wife with him. I think he was still married to her at that time… or not? No, she’d always had another person she was living with, but she was in England with him.

I mean, it was a sort of romantic thing as well. Probably this is the first time I’ve admitted this in public, but yes, I did have an affair with Alan Lomax. I mean, I’ve never said it before, because it would seem not a necessary thing to say; but now that I’m grown up one doesn’t have to pretend that one wasn’t in love with Alan at the time, because I was.

So many people seem to get into things like music through some sort of romantic involvement which they don’t admit at the time.

Well, of course. Human love is the greatest thing there is and the most affecting thing there is. The effect it has on people’s lives is extraordinary, and you get into all sorts of situations because of it.


From Folk Roots 65, November 1988

 

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