“It sounds a bit fanciful” explains the English folk singer Shirley Collins, sipping water from a glass goblet at her home in Lewes, “but it’s not, it’s actually what I feel and I just want to do the best I can with my singing for all those people behind me who were unknown, neglected, and lived really hard lives. We owe them so much and I think they’re behind me saying thank you sometimes. It is a bit fanciful, but it’s truly how I feel – I feel part of them.”
Fresh, glaring sunlight pours through the open door at Collins’ cottage in the banks of Lewes Castle in Sussex. It’s the first properly hot day of the year – unseasonably hot - and I’m sat at her heavy wood table as children play outside and brightly dressed shoppers shuffle upwards into the arcane town centre. Perfumed by hyacinths and surrounded by books, framed prints and all the artifacts of a full life in music, she’s discussing her newly published memoir – long in gestation – All In The Downs.
Aged 82, Collins is finally enjoying her own Indian summer after decades away from recording. Her comeback album in 2016 – the hauntingly brilliant Lodestar - was released on Domino Records and made the top 5 albums of the year in both the Quietus and Wire magazine. This was followed by a documentary about her life, The Ballad of Shirley Collins.
“I think it might have been more of a challenge to get it right and to get the tone right, but it just flowed out quite easily really – but it took four years!” she laughs. “As I was writing it so much else was happening like recording, which I never thought would happen again, so all that was going on and I was trying to write a book at the same time.”
All In The Downs is many things – it’s the story of England’s finest living folk singer, but it’s also the story of a woman navigating a music culture, and indeed a society, that privileges men, and the story of England’s post-war working class. Collins is from a class, she explains, that doesn’t really exist anymore – the labouring, rural working class. It was this class – especially in her native Sussex – where the folk song tradition was at its strongest, but it fragmented into the towns and cities with the Industrial Revolution, leaving only nostalgia for fading traditions. The fall of a generation of men in the First World War also had a profound effect on folk traditions in England, as Morris dance groups disbanded due to dwindling numbers and village maypoles were replaced by war memorials.
Collins herself was schooled in folk songs at her granddad’s knee – today she speaks admiringly of the plain, unaffected way he sang, which was a definitive influence on how she continues to approach songs. As such, her singing is devoid of ego, a conduit for generations past. Though at odds with our idea of what a great artist looks like and does – someone who means it, man – it is not her role to add personal expression into songs passed down through word of mouth.
Motivated by a working-class spirit of self-improvement, the young Collins threw herself into folk singing. She met the song collector Alan Lomax at a party, who would become her first husband and the two of them travelled to America to make field recordings from communities in the Deep South. In a staggering feat of airbrushing from history (something of a theme in her story), Lomax’s memoirs mention her key involvement with only the sentence “Shirley Collins came along for the trip too.”
Returning to England in the 60s, Collins hardened in her vision of how English music should be performed, and spearheaded the folk revival that – at its high water mark – saw hundreds of folk clubs the breadth of Britain that launched the careers of Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy, as well as visiting Americans like Paul Simon and Bob Dylan (Collins laughs at the mythmaking surrounding Dylan’s folk club performances, instead thinking it rude that he once smoked a joint in the toilets). Much of her best music at this period – made with her sister and arranger, Dolly Collins – are the finest records of the folk revival. In the early 70s, she was involved in the nascent folk rock moment – releasing the searing, electric No Roses album with a loose collective of that generation’s finest musicians – before disaster transformed her life thereafter.
In 1978, she was struck down by a rare vocal condition that would rob her of her singing voice for decades. The infidelity of her husband – Ashley Hutchings of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span – led to the collapse of their marriage just as she was performing onstage with him night after night in a National Theatre production, causing her to develop dysphonia – a rare vocal condition linked to psychological trauma. Bereaved of her voice for decades, it seemed that Shirley Collins was deemed to become her own part of mythic folklore. The book begins with her confronting what happened here.
“I wanted to get the breakdown of my marriage to Ashley in there because that’s really what caused me to lose my voice for all those years, and I didn’t want it to be thought that I’d lost interest in the music because it means everything to me. Writing it was quite cathartic actually and I think it’s quite nicely told – I’m not horrible to Ashley, I give him a lot of credit…it’s sort of difficult, he probably has got a different view of it perhaps – though he does admit in his biography that he behaved rather badly. And so it’s not me trying to be nasty about the whole thing but I did want to tell it and I remembered it so well, all of it, and the implications – what happened afterward that took years and years and years to resolve. It’s only fair to do it for my sake.”
She tells me that Domino have just confirmed that they will release the follow-up to Lodestar, which she is plotting at the moment. Unlike Lodestar, which was recorded at her home (still plagued by self-doubt, Collins was anxious that sound engineers wouldn’t understand why she was in a studio at all), the next record will be recorded at a studio in Brighton. Listening to her latest, I got the sense that these were songs she’d been keeping to one side for years, so I ask if a similar process underway already for the follow-up.
“Yes. I could do another one and another one and another one. I don’t think I’ll last that long but I’ve got such a stock of songs that I would like to sing, and I must say that on this next album there are songs that I really – really - want to sing, and I just want to get going. A couple of people think I ought to try and join forces with really well-known people perhaps in the world of rock – I don’t want that. I don’t want to make a record and sell it on the strength of the guest star, I’ve got this lovely band of people I’ve known for a long time and respect – why would I give that up? It just seems daft to me that you’ve got to latch onto something else.”
I point out that those same ideas – the idea that folk music isn’t interesting enough in and of itself and needs rock music or celebrity to make it interesting – have persisted throughout her career. Even celebrated folk producers like Joe Boyd (Nick Drake, Fairport Convention) struggled to understand quite what Collins was aiming for – she laughs remembering Boyd “trying to make me sound like Sandy Denny”. I ask why she feels that people continue to misunderstand English folk music.
“I don’t think people understand it and it’s never given much of a chance. People have this vague idea of what folk music is, and they think that anybody who sits down with a guitar and plays a song they’ve written in their bedroom last night is a folk song but of course it’s not. It’s got to have undergone that process of being handed down by word of mouth. I got a CD this morning and my heart sinks when I look at it – it’s all about how lovely the earth and the air is, semi-hippy stuff which I really don’t like and didn’t even when I was a younger woman, so flimsy! It was always tiresome, with no strength or purpose to it. I’ve just never been able to (compromise). That might seem like vanity, and it might seem like cussedness but it isn’t, it’s just I know what folk music is and how I want it to be heard.”
“I think it’s really sad that the English don’t know their own music. One night I did sit and watch Britain’s Got Talent because I criticise this stuff and don’t watch it, and all the women doing it were just fluttering – everybody’s using the same gestures, little finger out. It’s a bit like watching Trump!”
One of the most influential British records of the 1960s was Collins’ collaboration with the guitarist Davy Graham – Folk Roots New Routes. Though she had little time for jazz (something she delights in returning to in All In The Downs), Graham was able to convince her that his blend of jazz, folk and North African raga could add something to traditional songs, rather than distract. They collaborated on just one album, but it anticipates the folk-jazz-blues melting pot that would occur at the end of the sixties with groups like Pentangle. As well as being stylistically ground-breaking, never again would her voice sound quite so haunting.
“I always felt that he just enhanced the song every time and it had this ability to enhance its natural flavour, where it came from in the first place, and I don’t understand how he did that. But if I influenced Pentangle, well that’s a bit of a pain to me because I thought that was quite flimsy. I’m not being cruel, it’s just that it doesn’t resonate with me or have any depth – I know lots of people love Pentangle and still do, but I like my music a bit stronger than that. I’m not a strong singer myself now, but I know the strength of the songs and if you sing them straightforwardly then that comes through.”
One of the grim realities of a long life is witnessing the promise of earlier generations trundle into a repetition of the same mistakes, the same tragedies. “The class system still exists in quite an extreme form in this bloody country – sorry, England!” says Collins. “I was shocked when my mum once told me that a homeless man was found dead in Hastings before the war. That was one person. There are hundreds now and it’s just unbelievable that this has happened, and it’s continuing. Things haven’t got better. It’s appalling.” Though political personally, she’s never been an explicitly didactic presence in folk music. “I know what I think but I can’t be ruled by politics. Which is why I don’t like protest songs too much, I don’t like being told what to think, generally speaking. They want to straightjacket you and I can’t quite cope with that.”
She voted Remain in the referendum and tells me aghast about folk singers she knows whose songs have been used without permission by right-wingers and Brexiteers for nationalistic purposes. “England’s such a lovely country but everybody loves their own country – England is home to me. Not necessarily the British Isles, but England. And it all boils down to Sussex really, that parochial in a way. Nationalism has no association with the decency of folk music.”
Though by no means a central theme of All In The Downs, Collins is perceptive and unsparing on the men in her life and career who let her down – and led, ultimately, to the dysphonia that ended her singing career. Davy Graham, in the aftermath of the success from Folk Roots New Routes, refused to travel on the same train as her to a concert outside of London. “We arrived at Kings Cross and he said he couldn’t travel on the train with me” she tells me, more with disappointment now than anger, “and I thought…‘Don’t undermine me!’ And we did the concert but I don’t remember how it went, I just remember him saying he couldn’t travel on the same train.” On another occasion recounted in the book, she jokingly defaces a poster outside a folk club with her lipstick – the promoter confronts her in the night-time street and pulls a knife out on her.
And one of the most celebrated (and divisive) figures in 20th-century folk – Ewan MacColl – comes across as especially grubby. He had invited Collins to his home in a professional context, though on arrival she was repulsed to discover his intentions. “It was a dreadful moment” she explains, “I’d just got into the house, into the hall, and there he was undressing. He was a real womanizer. It could have been a little bit worse than that because I could have described his skin as like a green frog’s skin! But in the book I let him retaliate when he quotes what they thought about me, there was worse too, it was horrible”.
Collins also reproduces a bitchy poem about her sent into a magazine from an anonymous sender – almost certainly MacColl – dubbing her ‘the Lady Baden Powell of English song’ (not exactly a sick burn is it?). “I always resented it because I was more working class than any of them! In many ways I agreed with him, it was better to sing songs from where you come from, that’s a very good point, but when I listened to the singers in that group they all sounded the same, trying to sound like Ewan. He wanted everybody under his control really, and he was a pompous – talented – twerp. He wasn’t a nice person; the pomposity, the arrogance, the self-love you know? It just isn’t the sort of thing I like.”
Before the interview, I had looked at the roster of Harvest Records – the celebrated psych and prog label that was home to Shirley and Dolly Collins at the end of the sixties. Out of a huge roster, they were the only female artists on the label. “The only female artists!” she exclaims, “I knew we were the only folk artists, but female!” Like a lot of areas of music, the history of folk music seemed entirely written by the men. Was it a challenge navigating such a blokey world at the time, and is it a frustration that for a time you didn’t get the credit you deserved? Shirley looks into the distance.
“I think it’s certainly true that there were far more blokes singing than there were women, and the groups were mostly men…I did hate the fact that they were mostly in pubs because walking into a pub on your own in this town you don’t know, it was nerve-racking, women didn’t go into pubs so much in those days anyway. And I think with the responsibilities I had and that a lot of the other women singers had, you’re not there making your voice heard a lot – you’re doing your job and then going home to your domestic responsibilities whereas the blokes didn’t have to. I suppose if you’re a performer you put yourself out a bit, and perhaps the men were better at doing that than I was. I wasn’t neglected altogether, it’s not that, but I think life’s easier for men anyway, especially if you’re on the road, it’s not nice being on your own as a woman.”
As her marriage to Ashley was disintegrating, Collins writes that she wished she’d got angry, but instead got sad. It’s a curious response I say, and not what you would expect.
“I wish I’d retaliated and let myself get angry more – it might have been easier if I’d flown in and…I just bore it , which was so stupid in that respect, I let it all happen. I did try a couple of times. The trouble with a reaction is you don’t know how you are going to react to something until it happens and I was so deeply hurt by it and so shocked, that I just got sad. I’d had the experience of my dad leaving and…it just floored me. I couldn’t cope – I did cope, but I wasn’t…doing enough.” A long pause. “I think now I feel ashamed that I was a bit feeble and didn’t respond in a strong way. If I was angry, I was angry at myself then, which is ludicrous when I think about it. I was taking all the blame for everything and blaming myself as well.”
Still, Collins exacts her revenge against the male rewriting of history in a fantastic chapter where she explores the lives of three female pioneers in traditional song, three women who have inspired her own work. “What I admired about them, Lucy Broadwood and Ella Mary Leather especially, they had this deep interest in the music – and Mary Neal was different, she was a pioneering spirit looking after working-class women and she brought the Morris to women as well which is a good thing. I thought we ought to have women in here just to point out I’m quite a feminist really.”
One of the real literary strengths of All In The Downs is her ability to connect the landscape – specifically her beloved Sussex landscape – to her own life. Modern nature writing suffers from twee assumptions of nature as a paternalistic healing place but for Collins, the land calls to her regularly and remains full of mystery, up to and including conjuring strange, ghostly apparitions.
There’s a gorgeous section late in the book recounting her romance, and subsequent friendship, with the actor Pip Barnes, a romance that shakes her from her depression after having lost her singing voice. And here, it’s in nature too that Collins celebrates and finds life’s riches again. This comes from her childhood in the Sussex countryside she explains.
“Dolly and I were out in the country most of the time walking and being free – it was quite extraordinary what freedom we had as children then. It’s so restricted now and nobody’s looking around them, everyone’s walking along looking down – it’s really sad and I don’t know what sort of people they’ll be later on, how will people be themselves really?”
I point out that her childhood, facing out to nature, seemed to manifest itself later in her desire to document England through its traditional song. “Yes, I think so. I listened to English music anyway like Vaughan Williams and Purcell, and it all sort of reinforced my sense of Englishness.” This was then furthered by her travels across England when touring the folk clubs. “I learnt a wonderful lot about the geography of England from travelling everywhere by train and relishing it. There were good clubs and bad clubs, but you could put up with the bad clubs, it was an amazing time. The enthusiasm and the energy of it all was quite remarkable.”
After the folk revival boom was over, and Shirley had lost her voice, she would gain an unexpected cult following amongst doomy, avant-garde psychedelic fans. One such figure was David Tibet of occult underground group Current 93 – after years of persuasion and false starts, it would be at a Current 93 show in 2014 that Shirley would sing her first song in public for decades. “I don’t understand his music and he knows that,” she laughs. “I’m utterly baffled by why he likes my music but it just speaks to him, which is wonderful. Had it not been for him I think I’d have never found my way out into singing again – so I do owe him a great deal.”
Another fan is the comedian and writer Stewart Lee, who writes the foreword to All In The Downs. In 2003, Lee went to interview Shirley for a profile for Wire magazine and the two struck up an unlikely friendship. “If I’m feeling down,” she tells me, beaming, “I go upstairs and switch on YouTube and watch all the Stewart Lee clips…he’s got such integrity in his comic life and I just appreciate him, and he likes what I do too, he’s very generous. I wouldn’t be without Stewart Lee or that friendship, he’s such a lovely bloke. He’s got all these interests and a lot of them coincide with what I love as well.”
After our interview ends, Shirley takes me to her garden at the back of her cottage. It’s beautifully kept, with flowing ivy looped in semi-circles over a stone wall, and a long unruly bank ascending up to the 11th-century castle. Standing in the sun, Shirley looks all the world like a monarch in some parallel England, a throne reclaimed after years in exile. She’s telling me about the first live concerts she gave after the release of Lodestar, and how communing with the generations behind her helped settle the nerves that still gave her sleepless nights before shows. “When we did our first big gig, in Newcastle – and I know this sounds really soppy – but I did stand at the side of the stage thinking: ‘Come on chaps, be with me now, be with me.’ That is fanciful” she smiles, “but it does help.”
All In The Downs is out now via Strange Attractor. For more information about Shirley Collins, please visit her official website.