Re­turn of folk’s guid­ing light


The Herald - Arts - - FRONT PAGE - NI­COLA MEIGHAN Shirley Collins plays Glas­gow City Halls on Fe­bru­ary 4 as part of Celtic Con­nec­tions. Lodestar is out now on Domino Records

FOR al­most 40 years, it seemed as if Shirley Collins had gone to ground. Hailed as Eng­land’s great­est folk singer, she spear­headed the 1960s and 1970s folk re­vival, and toured Amer­ica with folk­lorist Alan Lo­max, col­lect­ing songs that would be pivotal to Rolling Stones riffs, Moby hits and the sound­track for O Brother, Where Art Thou. She re­leased sev­eral canonic al­bums, in­clud­ing 1964’s Folk Roots, New Routes (with Davy Gra­ham), and 1969’s An­thems in Eden, in ca­hoots with her sis­ter Dolly.

But in 1978, she with­drew from per­for­mance, so trau­ma­tised by a mar­riage break up that she suf­fered a de­bil­i­tat­ing vo­cal con­di­tion known as dys­pho­nia, which meant that for decades she was un­able sing.

Dur­ing Collins’ en­forced ab­sence, when she raised a fam­ily and ran an Ox­fam shop in Brighton, her vi­tal work as a folk con­duit and pi­o­neer carried on through her songs, map­ping our col­lec­tive past, shin­ing a light on our lives and our land.

Her voice – al­ways bright and beau­ti­ful, yet never eclips­ing the song – found avid fans in­clud­ing Billy Bragg, Blur’s Gra­ham Coxon and Cur­rent 93’s apoc­a­lyp­tic folk di­viner David Ti­bet.

Ti­bet slowly en­cour­aged Collins to find a way back to her voice, and the stage. In Fe­bru­ary 2014, al­most four decades since she’d last sung in pub­lic, she per­formed at Lon­don’s Union Chapel.

Now she’s set to play in Glas­gow, armed with a won­der­ful new al­bum, Lodestar, her first LP for 38 years. It’s re­leased on Domino, which makes Collins la­bel-mates with the Arc­tic Mon­keys, Buz­zcocks and Franz Fer­di­nand. She was al­ways qui­etly rad­i­cal.

Shirley Collins was born in Hast­ings, East Sus­sex, in 1935. She and Dolly were dis­cov­ered as teenagers by English folk chron­i­cler Bob Cop­per, who be­came a life-long friend and cham­pion. The first time they met him, how­ever, these trail­blaz­ers of the English folk tra­di­tion re­galed Cop­per not with a paean to Eden, but with a bal­lad from Scot­land. Leg­end has it they even adopted Scot­tish ac­cents for the oc­ca­sion.

“Oh, that’s ab­so­lutely true,” says Collins down the land­line, through hearty laugh­ter. “I wrote to the BBC when I was 15, to let them know I wanted to be a folk singer. Luck­ily, Bob Cop­per was work­ing there at the time, on field record­ing trips, and they passed the let­ter to him. When you think about that, it was a mir­a­cle. One day, Bob turned up on our doorstep.

“Dolly and I thought we ought to im­press him,” Collins con­tin­ues. “So in­stead of singing some of the songs that Mum and Aunt Grace and Grand­dad used to sing to us, we’d learned a song from the McEwen broth­ers, off the ra­dio – The Bon­nie Earl O’ Mo­ray. We sang it as much like them as we could.” Her voice is full of kind­ness and mirth. “And yes, we tried to do the Scot­tish ac­cents.”

What strikes most about this tale is that Collins was so clear-sighted at 15. Does she re­call when she de­cided to be a folk singer?

“Well, yes,” she nods. “It’s a soppy teenage story. Dolly and I used to go down town in Hast­ings on Satur­days – we’d go to the pic­tures. And we saw this B-movie called Night Club Girl. It was the story of a Tennessee moun­tain girl, who was dis­cov­ered by a tal­ent scout, singing folk songs in the moun­tains. They whizzed her off to New York, and there she sang in night clubs in sweet frocks. She fell in love with the owner of the night club, and he was an ac­tor I was rather crazy about. So I thought – ‘Oh, that’ll do for me. I shall be a folk singer.’”

An up­com­ing film, The Bal­lad of Shirley Collins, will cel­e­brate how she did just that, and so much more. Collins be­came one of Eng­land’s best-loved voices – a na­tional trea­sure – and she also played a car­di­nal role in up­hold­ing American folk tra­di­tions.

In 1959, she sailed to the US with eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist Alan Lo­max, col­lect­ing field record­ings, as glo­ri­ously doc­u­mented in her 2004 book, Amer­ica Over The Wa­ter.

Their tape of Trou­ble So Hard, by Alabama wash­er­woman Vera Hall, would un­der­pin Moby’s hit Nat­u­ral Blues.

Their work with blues gui­tarist Mis­sis­sippi Fred McDow­ell had a

for­ma­tive in­flu­ence on the Rolling Stones. And James Carter and the Pris­on­ers’ Po’ Lazarus fea­tured on the Grammy Award-win­ning sound­track to O Brother, Where Art Thou.

Lodestar in­cludes two songs from that jour­ney, in­clud­ing Pretty Polly, from Arkansas.

“I recorded that my­self, be­cause Alan was in the next room with Ol­lie Gil­bert’s hus­band, who was a moon­shine maker, and they were hav­ing a very pleas­ant af­ter­noon to them­selves,” she re­calls.

“I was sent off to join the wom­en­folk in an­other room, and recorded songs from Ol­lie all af­ter­noon.”

There are also songs col­lected by Cop­per, and from Collins’ child­hood, on Lodestar. “They’re songs I’ve al­ways wanted to record,” she says.

“The Sil­ver Swan goes back to my days as a teenager. We used to sing it at home – Mum and Dolly and me – try­ing to sing the five-part madri­gal, never suc­ceed­ing, and end­ing up with lots of laugh­ter.”

Collins’ work res­onates with such cel­e­bra­tions of women’s voices, women’s lives. Her first Glas­gow con­cert in what she says is “cen­turies” (it’s cer­tainly decades) at Celtic Con­nec­tions will fea­ture, among other thrills, a fe­male Mor­ris Danc­ing team. And she de­lights in re­call­ing how she’d wind up pa­tri­ar­chal folk purists such as Ewan MacColl back in the day.

“He dis­ap­proved of me wear­ing nail var­nish,” she tuts. “I had no time for MacColl. He was pompous. He was pre­ten­tious.” She chuck­les un­der her breath. “And I didn’t like his singing. Or the rules he laid down for peo­ple.”

SHE de­fied the male gaze, too. Her frol­ic­some take on Hares on the Moun­tain, recorded with Davy Gra­ham, sees her wryly ob­jec­tify and lam­poon the op­po­site sex. (“Young men are given to frisk­ing and fool­ing / I’ll leave them alone and at­tend to my school­ing,” she sagely con­cludes). “It’s sort of cheeky isn’t it?” Collins muses.

“There’s a con­trol in there, and [the sense] that ac­tu­ally we’re in charge, re­ally. I sing sev­eral songs where women get the up­per hand. That’s to sort of coun­ter­act the many more where they un­for­tu­nately don’t. . .”

The men­folk don’t come off great ei­ther, as is of­ten the way in tra­di­tional song. Lodestar’s litany of woe­be­gone fates was a source of amuse­ment while mak­ing the record, as Collins at­tests. “We recorded ev­ery­thing in my cot­tage here, and one morn­ing Ian Kearey, who’s the al­bum’s ma­jor ac­com­pa­nist, pro­ducer and mu­si­cal di­rec­tor, burst through the front door and said – ‘Right, what’s the body count to­day then?’” She bursts out laugh­ing.

Record­ing in her Lewes home al­lowed Collins to re­dis­cover her voice in her own time. “We took it as slowly as we needed to,” she says. “I hadn’t sung prop­erly for a while, and I wanted it to be as good as pos­si­ble. But I had to ac­cept that my voice has got much lower, and it’s not as re­li­able. I had to learn to live with that.

“Ex­cept, I did get worked up some­times,” she adds. “I’d get cross if I wasn’t do­ing things well. So I’d start to swear a lot.” More laugh­ter. “Fi­nally, I de­cided to get a swear box. I said to Ian and Os­sian and Steve, who were record­ing the al­bum, ‘I’ve got a swear box on the ta­ble. Ev­ery time I swear, you have to put in a pound.’”

THERE’S a comet in the night­sky on the cover art of Lodestar. It’s part of an 18th-cen­tury paint­ing, and was brought to Collins’ at­ten­tion around the time her daugh­ter sent her an idea that be­came the al­bum ti­tle. “There’s a sort of magic in that co­in­ci­dence, isn’t there?” Collins beams. “When my daugh­ter texted me that word – lodestar – I looked at the dic­tio­nary, to make sure I knew what it re­ally means.

“I read it was the guid­ing prin­ci­ple, the North Star, and I thought – ‘That’s ab­so­lutely right,’” she says. “Be­cause mu­sic has been my lodestar for as long as I can re­mem­ber. This mu­sic has meant that much to me, through all the years. Even though I wasn’t able to sing.” She re­calls her shock (and tears) when David Ti­bet first phoned her dur­ing that time, to tell her how very well-loved she was. “I just had no idea,” she qui­etens. “I thought I’d been for­got­ten.”

Un­der the comet, Collins is pic­tured cradling a sex­tant, as she once did a banjo. It’s an ar­chaic in­stru­ment, used for ce­les­tial nav­i­ga­tion and re­flect­ing on hori­zons. Collins, too, has long helped us find our place in the world. Al­most 70 years since she first sang for Bob Cop­per, the voice she once lost is more pre­cious than ever: old as time, warm as home and bold as starlight. She leads the way.


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