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The ‘first lady’ of Folk, Shirley Collins

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In celebration and recognition of what would have been the start of this year’s Great Escape music festival in Brighton, today’s pioneering woman of Sussex blog puts the spotlight on Shirley Collins, the so-called ‘first lady of folk’.

Shirley Collins, image courtesy of Brian Shuel

When Hastings-born Shirley Collins MBE (b 1935) released the album ‘Lodestar’ in 2016 it was her first release for 38 years and a happy day not just for fans of folk music but anyone interested in the traditional songs and folklore of Sussex, which Collins has always championed in her work.  The album, recorded at home in her cottage in Lewes, won universal plaudits and two BBC Radio Two Folk Awards.  It was a remarkable return for a woman who penetrated the predominantly male domain of the folk music scene of the late 1950s and ‘60s, became a major figure in its revival and development, and changed its landscape with her innovative use of instruments and styles before abruptly dropping out and disappearing from view in 1979. 

Collins’ interest in music began as a child growing up in working class Hastings with a music loving family who were interested in the songs of old Sussex.  Collins credits her grandfather and mother’s sister, Aunt Grace, as kindling her and her sister, Dolly’s fascination with traditional songs passed down orally from generation to generation.    

Leaving school at seventeen, Collins abandoned teacher training to pursue her interest in the kind of traditional rural and working class music that came to be known as ‘folk’.  She was soon immersing herself in the blossoming of interest in the form, now termed the ‘English folk revival’ where she formed a rare female presence in a scene described more recently by Billy Bragg as ‘beery and beirdy’.  With her unaffected singing voice and Sussex accent, and her approach outlined in her recent memoir ‘All in the Downs’ (2018) of ‘No dramatising a song, no selling it to an audience, no overdecorating in a way that was alien to English songs, and most of all, singing to people, not at them.’ she soon found herself at the epicentre of the movement.  Her first recording was the old English song ‘Dabbling in the Dew’ for the landmark ‘Folk Songs Today’ compilation in 1955, and in 1959 she recorded her first album as a solo artiste.  ‘Sweet England’ is a collection of love songs and ballads from southern England, some with no accompaniment, others with banjo or guitar.  Many of her songs were sung from a woman’s point of view and explored the experience of women in a rural environment.  In her memoir she writes ‘whenever I sang I felt the old singers standing behind me and I wanted to be the conduit for them, for their spirit, these people who’d kept the songs alive.’ 

During this year she also accompanied Alan Lomax, American folklorist and song collector, on a song collecting trip around the Southern States of the USA.  Visiting prisons, chain gangs, churches, and social gatherings, they discovered songs that were about to become lost and discovered a number of musicians, who later found fame.   

Collins went on to record many further albums, her innovative approach, introducing jazz-folk fusion on 1964’s ‘Folk Routes, New Routes’, for example, developed and diversified the appeal of the burgeoning genre of folk.  She often recorded with her sister, Dolly, who accompanied her on the portative organ and arranged the music.  The 1969 ‘Anthems of Eden’, featuring a suite of songs about the changes in rural England brought by the First World War, is considered a game-changing moment in English folk for its unusual combination of traditional instruments such as rebecs, sackbuts, viols and crumhorns, which proved that the guitar didn’t always have prevail.  Many critics pinpoint this work as opening the door to big-name bands such as Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention.   

With her second husband Ashley Hutchings, and based in the East Sussex village of Etchingham, Collins then formed the Etchingham Steam Band.  Preferring acoustic largely due to the lack of electricity during the three-day-week, the band’s repertoire drew on the traditional music of Sussex and became fixtures on the folk club and festival scene.   

Sadly, 1979’s single ‘The Mariner’s Farewell’ recorded with Bert Jansch was the last time her many fans got to hear Shirley Collins’ voice.  Following a painful divorce, Collins lost her voice and retired from music completely.  Getting rid of all of her musical equipment, Collins got jobs which signalled a total break with her past, including spells in the British Library and the job centre.   

It wasn’t until 2014 when, aged 78, she accepted an invitation to sing an unadvertised slot in the Union Chapel, Islington for the band Current 93 that she appeared on stage for the first time since the 1970s.  The new material of ‘Lodestar’ created a resurgence in interest and is reaching a new generation of new fans who, after the manufactured polish of much of the twenty-first century’s music, lap up the authenticity and simplicity of Collins’ work.  In 2017 a film about her life ‘The Ballad of Shirley Collins’ was released.  Collins has been given many awards, including a Gold Badge from the English Folk Dance and Song Society, an organisation of which she became president four years later, an MBE for services to music in the 2007 New Year’s Honours List and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Sussex.  She continues to be, not only a cultural treasure giving pleasure to millions with her music, but, like Rottingdean’s folklorist Bob Copper, a crucial key in preserving the heritage of Sussex through its songs.   

Written by social historian, Louise Peskett