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Ian Anderson
Photo: Judith Burrows

The Editor's Box

Ian Anderson's comment column

Another July issue, another year slipped by. With this one we begin our 37th year of publishing and my 37th at this desk. Every time I mention that so far we have an unbroken record of publishing every single issue on time I hear a cackling in the walls and avoid the typewriter at the crossroads until it subsides. I didn’t expect to become by far the longest continually serving folk magazine editor ever when we founded this beast, but it just sort of happened. “What’s the secret of your success?” they ask. Never really having had any, probably. And staying independent. And the desire not to fuck up in public. They don’t give out awards for that!

Another magazine editing hero (a serial offender), my friend Mark Ellen, recently published an excellent autobio­graphy titled Rock Stars Stole My Life. It’s a great read. The chances of me ever writing mine are rendered close to zero by the lack of a potential readership, let alone the hours needed. But were I ever to do so, it possibly ought to be called Shirley Collins Stole My Life. Let me explain…

In 1959, while I was still a short-trousered school oik barely aware of music other than Six-Five Special on the telly, Shirley went around the southern USA with Alan Lomax and in the process ‘discovered’ and first recorded Mississippi Fred McDowell. Six years later, as a direct result, he appeared at the Colston Hall, Bristol, the first person I’d ever seen playing guitar with a bottleneck slide. It blew my teenage mind, I tried to work out how to do it, and the first time I did so in public (a mere 24 hours later) I got praised by A Famous American Folk Star. I decided then and there that I’d like to do it for a living, which I eventually did.

The only places you could play that sort of thing were folk clubs, so I then encountered a lot of Britfolk. There was some stuff I really didn’t like, sung by serious men like Ewan MacColl with beards and opinions and silly, mannered voices. And there were things I loved a lot, sung unaffectedly by role models like Shirley in their own natural accents. Eventually I kicked my silly blues voice habit and learned how to do that.

Fast forward to the early 21st Century and some of Shirley’s exemplary sleevenotes about the sources of the songs she sang led to the startling discovery that my great grandmother had songs collected from her by Vaughan Williams in 1904. “Oh yes,” said my late mother, casually, after this revelation, “she used to sing those old songs you’re interested in.” So I rang up my old friend Bob Copper to tell him. “See, we always knew you were one of us,” he chuckled.

By then I thought I’d stopped playing live. But then Ben Mandelson and I got a command performance to go and play at a club night celebrating Shirley’s MBE. We took our friend Lu Edmonds. It resulted in us being asked to make an album, and then to tour. I really thought I’d given up all that motorway and Travelodge nonsense, but when Shirley steals your life…

It’s all her fault, you know. And on July 5th she’s 80 years old, celebrating it with a gig at the QEH. Many happy returns, Auntie Shirl. I forgive you for everything!

Ian Anderson

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