(Photo by Grant Gee)
THE GREAT FOLK SINGER, song collector and historian of the working classes, Shirley Collins, will not stand on ceremony in conversation any more than she does in her music, where her singing is famously austere, pared back to the bones of the song.
“I’m Shirley. Just call me Shirley,” she insists. Yet she is as gracious and polite as she is self-effacing.
When I say that speaking to her is akin to speaking to a griot, the West African traditional keepers of knowledge and teller of stories, this Essex native, an Elder of a disparate, but long-lasting tribe that has spread from the British Isles to the mountains of the American East, the small towns of the American South and further on to places like Australia, she demurs with a chuckle.
But the 87-year-old who has been singing professionally – often solo; sometimes with her sister, the composer and arranger, Dolly, who died in 1995; and with pioneering groups such as Albion Country Band – since she was a teen, and was a leading light of the folk revival in the 1960s, will accept some connection.
“The great thing is my memory for songs, and the people who sang them, is so completely keen still,” she says. “I often don’t remember what I went to the kitchen for, but I can remember the words to every song I ever sang.”
She has just recorded a song she first heard sung by her grandfather in the air raid shelters during World War II, The Bonnie Labouring Boy, and she still recalls how it “sounded right … built into me”. Why is her memory for songs so vast? Is it because these were more than songs, but rather things that she took into her spirit?
“That sounds a bit fanciful,” she says. “But in many ways I think it’s true. I was fortunate to be born into a rural, working class family who encouraged my sister and me to listen to music, to read lots of books, and to appreciate the arts. The music that I loved most, and that I loved from quite an early age, are these old songs that absolutely fascinated me and prompted me as a late teenager to find out more about them. More than I could learn at home.”
That enthusiasm took her around the UK and then, in the late 1950s, through large parts of the USA with the folklorist, Alan Lomax, with whom she annotated and recorded songs of the workers and the poor, some of which had travelled across the Atlantic; many of which had never been put down on tape or even transcribed.
“And it’s just a passion that I’ve still got it. I’m still learning songs,” Collins says. “They’ve had this this great hold on me that I can’t let go, and don’t want to let go, because I think they are the best songs ever. Most of the people I heard singing them they sang them so directly, not bound up with anything else but the song itself. It meant, it seemed to me, so much to them but they didn’t pour that emotion into the singing; the singing was quite restrained.
“You weren’t pushed in a direction with a song; the songs were just sung to you and you could make up your mind about it.”
This is no small matter for her, that a listener isn’t pushed in a direction by anything other than the tale being told. Some 63 years after her trip around the USA, with a new album called Archangel Hill, which may well be the final one of her recording career, that restraint, that eschewing of excessive emotion, remains as important to her, as defining, as it did when she began exploring folk songs.
“I find that is false emotion,” she says, firmly of a century of popular singing. “With pop singers it is a performance every time and I don’t perform songs so much as sing them. When I say everything is false about it, it’s false eyelashes, false teeth, false bosoms, false almost everything. I just don’t get it."
She says this with a sense of humour underpinning her seriousness – declaring “here I go on my hobbyhorse again” with another of her little laughs – but nonetheless adding, “all I want to do is sing proper, true traditional songs that were sung by the working class people of a country”.
Given she literally lost her voice for three decades, a case of dysphonia turning into a seeming inability to sing at all, and had to be coaxed back slowly by a younger admirer, the three albums she has now released with the independent pop and rock label, Domino, are a late-in-life bonus.
“I shouldn’t be able to sing at my age, but I still seem to manage it,” Collins says. “My voice has dropped a whole octave, which you can hear on the album because there’s a song recorded at Sydney Opera House in 1980, and that’s my higher voice. When the first Domino album came out someone said ‘oh she sounds like Tom Waits’,
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to go on singing. I have had three albums with Domino and I think three sounds like a good number. I keep forgetting how old I am, but I think am 86, and it’s all very well I think for reviewers to say ‘the octogenarian’, but if this was happening in my ‘90s, and I’d be the nonagenarian I think that would be pushing the limit too far. So I think this probably will be my last album. And I think in many ways it is a good one to finish on.”
And let’s be honest, she’s given more than enough . Shirley Collins doesn’t need to do any more.
“All I’ve been able to do is just present as many songs as I could to people to let them know what the culture is or was, and how proud we can be of singers who just kept singing,” she says. “They were singing the songs because they loved them and wanted to sing.”
Which sounds familiar.
Archangel Hill will be released on May 26.