Shirley Collins, English folk luminary, has been amassing a repertoire of traditional songs since her childhood in 1940s Sussex, England, a period she associates with being sung to by her grandparents during frequent stints in air raid shelters. As she matured, her interest in folk eventually led her to the American Deep South, a trip which resulted in the much celebrated collection Sounds of the South. As moving and inspiring as that trip proved to be, Collins’s heart was in her motherland, England, where she returned, continuing to collect songs in the English tradition, and creating such seminal works as 1959's Sweet England and 1969's Anthems in Eden, a collaborative record with her sister Dolly. Shirley’s career took a decidedly negative turn, however, in 1978, when she began developing dysphonia. She lost her ability to sing, and retreated from both the stage and the studio. That is, until one David Michael Bunting, known to many as Current 93’s David Tibet, phoned her up, asking to meet for what, in hindsight, was a surely fortuitous exchange.
Fast-forward through the '90s and early 2000s: after a few contributions to Current 93 records and a number of foregone invitations to perform, Collins appeared on stage for the first time in 2014 at Union Chapel, opening for Current 93. But why stop at one performance? Following the concert, and bolstered by the positive reactions, Shirley “wanted to give it one more go” and record a new album. She picked an assortment of personally important songs that would eventually become that album, Lodestar, out last week on Domino. Across the record’s ten evocative tracks, Collins reveals herself as enraptured by traditional music as ever, showing off a resplendent selection of penitent songs, murder ballads, may carols, and more, a nod to her excellent power of curation. It’s a powerful, profound release—a much-needed reminder of the power of personal contact and lineage in the digital age, and a much-needed reminder of how the oldest and most authentic songs are sung out of pride and necessity, in addition to enjoyment. We spoke to Collins about collecting and interpolating folk songs, and getting back into the studio.
AdHoc: You’ve been hearing or collecting folk songs since you were very young. How did you decide which songs to sing on Lodestar? Were they new songs for you?
Shirley Collins: Oh! They just presented themselves, really. I’ve got so many songs in my head, but there are some that really stick with you, ones I’ve regretted not recording before. There were a couple of new ones that came in as well that wanted to be sung, so I sang them. The most likable one for me was the Cajun song “Sur le Borde de l’Eau.” I love Cajun music’s rhythms and its independence—it stayed itself. Once I heard this early 1920s recording of Blind Uncle Gaspard, a Louisiana singer, I fell in love with the song. We went ahead and did it, but that’s very unusual for me, because I mostly sing songs from the English tradition. It’s been my life’s work listening to as much as I can. Working with Alan Lomax in America was incredible, but back in England there were collectors too who were working throughout the country, noting down songs. That tradition had gone back as far as the mid nineteenth century when collectors just wrote down songs. Once the tape machine was created, the BBC sent out people in the 1950s to record and collect what were left in the countryside. Things changed so much with the proliferation of record players, radio, television, and pop music. It swamped a lot of the tradition. I understand why, but I never quite saw why you’d give up your beautiful tradition for something with built-in obsolescence, if you judge pop music that way [laughs].
AH: What was it like singing the Cajun song, “Sur Le Borde De L’eau?”
SC: [laughs] I wasn’t sure I had the right to do it because I’m not Cajun, and I’m not American, but I truly loved that song. The minute I heard it, I was captivated. It was fun singing it, although another language. I learned it, and sing it in my Sussex-accented French. I’ve tried to keep the spirit of Blind Uncle Gaspard going while I was singing it. It’s very strange though, Jordan, how people have reacted to that song. Some people think it’s mysterious and moody, and some people, think it’s so jolly [laughs]. I was quite surprised by that. I read a lot of James Burke who writes stories about Louisiana with his detective Robicheaux, so I felt I had a bit of Cajun in me [laughs]. Anyway, it was cheeky, but I have nothing to lose now, so I went ahead with it.
AH: In an earlier interview I read of yours, you mentioned going through places like Appalachia and hearing some of the songs they were singing, and knowing they were older British songs. Was that something you found frequently?
SC: Yes, it was very normal. I was there in 1959, a long time ago, with Alan Lomax on a field trip that lasted for three months in the Deep South, and we were recording virtually all the time. I remember interacting with people in Kentucky and Virginia with English surnames who sang for us. I could then sing English versions that they hadn’t heard back. They were so pleased these songs were being sung in England. They saw themselves as being from “The Old Country,” which is what they called England. If you love a song, then you’re always pleased to hear another version of that same song, sometimes even from someone who’s come two thousand miles to hear it.
AH: How does it make you feel when folk music, having historically been a working class kind of music, is commandeered by the music industry? Does it stay folk music? Can you define a genre by the instruments played on it?
SC: It’s not that, necessarily. It’s the song itself, where it comes from. The folk process is such that it’s passed down by word of mouth, through mostly working-class people, the rural laborers. I’m working class, as well, thank God—I was born into a working-class family in Hastings in Sussex and was sung to by my grandparents during the war, when we had to stay in the air raid shelters. You can’t write a folk song. What’s remarkable about it, Jordan, is that those people often couldn’t read or write, so they learned all the songs by heart, and loved them enough to want to pass them on. It doesn’t matter about accompaniments or arrangements—it’s the song itself that’s the absolute criterion.
AH: Speaking of accompaniment, on “Washed Ashore,” you have one of your sister’s arrangements?
SC: It’s almost one of Dolly’s arrangements. It was one of the last arrangements she wrote for me to sing before she died, but at the time she had written it, I wasn’t able to sing. I kept this song in my mind, and Ian Kearey, who was the music director for the album said “I’ll transcribe it for you, and I’ll play the instrument with it.” Note for note he listened to Dolly’s arrangement on the keyboard and then… just did it, and it’s so lovely. It reminds me of Dolly so much, and I knew it was one song I wanted to do as well. It had always been in mind. I knew I wanted to be able to sing it one day, and thanks to Ian Kearey, I was able to do it. It reminds me—in Sussex, we have many old churches and the song goes back to as far as Saxon and Norman times—there’s a church not far from me in the South Bounds where you walk down a beautiful red brick path into the church yard itself and you come across a cross there with a pointed top, which is actually plain wood, and you go around to the other side, and it says “Washed Ashore.” Obviously a body had washed up on the beach close by, and the local people put that body in a grave, buried it, and attended it. It’s beautifully looked after.
AH: During the first song on Lodestar, “Awake, Awake,” you have quite a recording cast, and a number of movements. How did you get to that stage?
SC: I’d known this song for many years, but never recorded it. We knew it was written in the sixteenth century in London by Thomas Deloney because it was actually printed at the time, concerning an earthquake in Southern England that hit London and part of old St. Paul’s Cathedral. Mr. Deloney wrote this song to warn the people of England that God was displeased with them, and if they didn’t change their ways and improve their lives, then they’d suffer hell and damnation. I find those somber verses fascinating—it’s fundamentalism, isn’t it? [laughs] It wasn’t found in England, or noted down until 1907 when the composer Vaughan Williams, also a collector of folk songs, noted it from a folk singer up in Herefordshire. Where had it been all that time? And suddenly there it was, sung by a farm laborer’s wife. By the time we come to the fourth verse, whoever sang it all that time thought, “Well, that’s enough of this misery," [laughs] so they transformed the last verse into a May Carol.
AH: You recorded with Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown of experimental group Cyclobe. Did you meet those two through David Tibet?
SC: Yes, I did. Remarkable musicians and lovely people. Their music is so dense and so layered that I can’t really understand it. I say I’m a simple soul, which isn’t exactly true, but I like the simplicity of the songs that I sing... I owe so much to David Tibet, because it was he who came to see me over twenty years ago when I couldn’t sing. He phoned up one day and said he’d like to come see me because he really liked my music. He told me later that I burst into tears. I thought I had been forgotten. From that day, we became such good friends. He would try to get me to record, and I’d do one or two short songs on a couple of his albums, but I wasn’t very happy with it. Over the years, he kept asking if I’d sing at one of his concerts. Then one day about eighteen months ago, he asked me again, though I had previously either turned his invitations down or found myself unable to perform, and I said yes, and that time I did it! It surprised me as much as him, I think [laughs]. It was a lovely evening. It was remarkable. I owe him so much. He’s a wonderful man.
I’ve been fortunate with all the musicians I chose to be on Lodestar. They’ve all come up and absolutely trumped everything—actually, I’m sorry! I don’t say that word! Ignore the word “Trump!” [laughs]. They provided the right things, the right sound, the right accompaniment, and I’ve been so blessed. Everything worked out so well, and there was one real moment of serendipity on “Cruel Lincoln,” the bloodshed ballad. It was a beautiful summer day when we recorded it. All the windows at the back of the house were open, and the birds were singing so loudly that day, but after we recorded and played it back, we could hear the birdsong. We had to keep it in. It was an antidote to the horror of the story.
AH: So what made you want to record again?
SC: Because I just love this music so much. I hear what a lot of so-called “folk singers” are doing these days and think “you’re not a folk singer.” I don’t think it was a single moment when it happened, but I knew I just wanted to give it one more go. Luckily Laurence [Bell], who owns Domino, knew of my previous work and liked it, thank goodness. It was my son Robert Marshall who manages Asian Dub Foundation who went to Laurence and said, “Look, mom’s got a few songs she’d like to record. How about it?” Laurence said yes immediately. They’ve been so supportive and friendly. We’re all friends now. It’s a turning point in my life again, but this time, it’s a turn for the good. I’ve so enjoyed singing and listening to the arrangements, which are remarkable. There’s no excess. My voice has gotten much lower since my carefree days, and a little uncertain at times, but another friend of mine—when I said I couldn’t sing because I was too old—pointed out all of the recordings I made while in the field. How old were the people I was recording? Well, they were in their seventies, and I thought of them as old people then, and my friend pointed out that I was ten years older than them, but needed to forgive myself. You can’t help aging! So I forgave myself for being old. You’ll understand when you get there, Jordan.