Monday, April 23, 2018


Published by Strange Attractor Press

The Generalist first briefly met Shirley Collins in 1969 when she came to play at a folk club we had set up in Worthing. We reconnected in 2005 in Lewes when I discovered that she was one of my neighbours. She gave me a copy of her wonderful book documenting her travels to the southern States of America with the folk song collector Alan Lomax which is reviewed here:
 Over The Water and Over The Road

By this time Shirley had made tentative steps towards singing again after a gap of nearly 40 years. Then in 2016, this site was one of the first to announce the fantastic forthcoming release of a stunning and magical new album Lodestar. Post contains extracts from Stewart Lee's brilliant sleeve notes. See: Shirley Collin's Lodestar. This was followed by a review in Shirley Collins2:

Running alongside the plans and recording for this album, work was already underway on a documentary 'The Ballad of Shirley Collins' which I got to see last week. Directed by Rob Curry and Tim Plester, with sound recording by Ludovic Lasserre and camerawork by Richard Mitchell. Happily this is not a sterile BBC4 run-through of Shirley's recording career but instead a much more creative and magical exploration of  Shirley's life and times. The film is layered with material from different time periods and places. Lewes and Hastings feature as does the South Downs and the southern USA. Shirley is a wonderful narrator and story-teller of her own life and her remarkable recent flowering means the film ends in triumph over adversity. It's now out on DVD in a package with the CD soundtrack.

Photo by Brian Shuel
The Lewes screening was also a launch event for Shirley's new book 'All In The Downs' [published in a finely produced and illustrated form by Strange Attractor Press] which I have been under the spell of for the last five days. Its a window into a lost world. Shirley paints wonderful word pictures, is very open about her personal affairs and has so many great tales to tell - including a sweet meeting with Jimi Hendrix. 

The period when she wasn't singing is remarkable in itself. It was long struggle to keep the family afloat and she worked in a variety of jobs - including at a Job Centre, the British Museum bookshop, an Oxfam shop and for a London publisher's agent (during which, incidentally, she typed up the manuscript for Len Deighton's The Ipcress File).

Shirley is widely known to be not only one of the great singers of English folk songs but also as someone who is hugely knowledgeable on their history and background in a completely non-academic way. She has had many years of touring word and music evenings that enlighten and inform. Her love for the subject and the singers of the past is palpable.

Her style of singing is focused on presenting the original song in its original form without stylistic additions, in clear, beautiful and authentic renditions. She says in the book that when she sings these songs, many of which have been passed from singer to singer over hundreds of years, she feels as if they are standing behind her. These were, by and large, workers and labourers whose names and importance would not have been recognised without the efforts of impassioned song collectors like Shirley and the Copper Family.

The South Downs captured her imagination from childhood but it was in the 1970s when the spirits of the downland worked their magic and inspired much of her work. She writes movingly of her sister Dolly who was both a music arranger and sensitive player on an ancient form of pipe organ. Her death hit Shirley hard but their work together is happily fully preserved and available for posterity.

Shirley has, in recent years, been showered with Honours, including the MBE, but she remains totally modest and down-to-earth, overjoyed to be once more presenting the music she loves so much. Her musical collaborators are first-class and have lifted the presentation of Shirley's musicality to an even higher level. She has also acquired a huge band of admirers who see, in her remarkable life story, a strength and integrity that has earned her the soubriquet of the Queen of British Folk. Shirley's substantial collection of recorded works is a testament to her dedication and passion for bringing the old haunting tunes and stories of these lands back to life. Her warm words and her belief in the presence of the spirits of the land and nature are an inspiration to like-minded folk and an encouragment to younger generations at a time when we need to reconnect with our roots.

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