Shirley Collins new book ‘America Over The Water’ is a surprise and a delight.
Widely acknowledged and recently honoured and celebrated as one of key voices of English folk – Shirley reveals herself to be a wonderful writer in this very moving memoir of her family life in Hastings during the war and her meeting and love affair with the seminal folklorist Alan Lomax.
[The Alan Lomax recordings have featured on the soundtracks to ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou’, and Scorsese's ‘Gangs Of New York’, and have been sampled by Moby amongst many others. Currently an archive set up in Lomax's name carries on his work.
According to Brian Eno: ‘Alan Lomax is a completely central figure in 20th century culture. Without Lomax it's possible that there would have been no blues explosion, no R&B movement, no Beatles and no Stones and no Velvet Underground. He was the conduit, mainlining the uniqueness and richness and passion of African-American music into the fertile early beginnings of Western pop music.’]
This lead to her boarding the ‘S.S.America’ and sailing to America, where she joined Lomax on an astonishing journey around the South, travelling through Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Georgia, collecting and recording music in the field. One of the many highlights of the trip was their discovery of the music of Mississippi Fred McDowell.
Shirley was a young white girl ‘living in sin’ with a man twice her age, travelling through black districts in towns, areas where the KKK were rife, places where it was easy to get shot, beaten up, arrested or all three. The photo of Shirley on the front shows a young woman of character and courage – and it is these qualities which no doubt carried her through what she makes clear was, by turns, an ecstatic and frightening experience.
The two accounts and locations – wartime Hastings and Southern states - are intercut. This works extremely well, each narrative strand highlighting the other.
The vividness of the writing throughout, both in the material drawn from notebooks she kept at the time – beautifully handwritten they are too – and new material composed for the book, is constantly delightful. The book contains lots of family photos and memorabilia of her trip which gives the account even more intimacy and integrity.
Yet one is also left with a sense of mystery. The haunting scenes reverberate. The book leaves you wanting to know more and one can only hope that Shirley will continue to expand and develop her memoirs into a broader picture of folk music history, in which she has played such an important role.
I enjoyed this as much as ‘Chronicles’ and ‘Bound For Glory’. It gave me that same strange tingle in my brain and flutter in my stomach you get when you know you’re reading the real thing.
America over the Water
A great piece about the book by Maddy Prior appeared in The Times
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A comprehensive overview of Shirley Collins' recording career.
There is a footnote to the story. We have already noted in the previous Ramblin’ Jack Elliott posting that life is often subject to chains of coincidence.
So it proved once more. I happen to notice in our local hostelry – the Lewes Arms – a notice that Shirley Collins was appearing that night in the folk club upstairs. I was too late to see the whole thing but was determined to pop upstairs and say hello for one good reason.
Way back then, when I was a young long-haired folkie haunting the trad clubs and running our own folk & poetry scene in a pub in Worthing as part of the activities of our local Arts Lab group – the Worthing Workshop – we booked Shirley Collins.
I met her at the station, guided her to the club, where she sang and played brilliantly. I remember I was into the Incredible String Band at the time, had recently got ‘Wee Tam and the Big Huge’ and had just learnt ‘Ducks on A Pond’ which I played in it’s entirety that night.
So when the show was over I went upstairs, introduced myself and said you probably won’t remember me, only to discover that Shirley is in fact one of my neighbours in Lewes. She said she had often been going to say hallo but that I always looked very preoccupied when I was walking down the street. It was quite a shock. Small world.
A week or so later, son Louis (of Ant Man Bee fame) and I go to the Royal Festival Hall to see the Patti Smith ‘Meltdown’ show (see previous posting: ‘Out and About’) and the first person on stage in both halves was Shirley Collins.
Then, a few days later, he and I bump into Shirley again and that’s how I came to have the book in my hands – a gift. You may think this affects my impartial judgment but then you probably haven’t read the book yet.