Shirley Collins is a folk legend—as her MBE attests. She played a pivotal role in the English Folk revival of the late 60s and 70s, and was also a collaborator of the American folk collector Alan Lomax. After a 38 year hiatus, Shirley released an album Lodestar in 2016 to critical acclaim, and a new fanbase of young folk fans. In March this year, she released her latest record Heart's Ease.
For In Process, Shirley wrote to Hook about her incredible career, reflecting on her collaborations, her rich and varied recording experiences and being heckled by Pink Floyd fans.
Looking back over my career as a folk singer, I can almost chart my recording history running in tandem with the advancement of recording techniques. I don’t go back quite so far as those early days when the first primitive but remarkable cylinder recordings were made. They were, by and large, commercial recordings, but from 1906 folk song collectors, who up to then had no option but to write down the words and music of the songs they were hearing sung by ordinary people, now took advantage of this new invention. From 1906 on, Percy Grainger, Vaughan Williams and Lucy Broadwood made cylinder recordings in the field for the very first time. I can only imagine the wonder with which those source singers heard their own voices emerging from a horn! Remember those images of His Master’s Voice (later to become EMI) of the little black and white terrier, Nipper, head cocked to one side, peering into the horn?
Fast forward a few years, and in the States, John and Alan Lomax were driving around the country making their first field recordings of American folk music, blues, cowboy and prison songs. In the late 1930s to early ‘40s, they used a machine for recording on wax (and later metal) cylinders which weighed over 300 pounds. Heavy work loading it, along with the several large car batteries they needed, in and out of vehicles and setting up!
By the time I recorded my first two albums in 1958, Sweet England, for Argo—a subsidiary of Decca, and False True Loves for Folkways USA, the methods of recording had improved out of all imagining. Now reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorders were the things used in the field by the two leading collectors of folk music, Alan Lomax and Peter Kennedy, and the tape machines were portable, though still heavy. So the albums were recorded rather speedily in the living room in Peter’s house, getting down on tape many of the songs I had learned from home, or school, or from books of folk songs from my early forays in the library of the English Folk Dance & Song Society. When I joined Alan in the States on ‘The Southern Journey’ field recording trip of 1959, we used a reel-to-reel Ampex tape recorder, and carried four heavy batteries for use in out-of-the-way places where there was no electricity, plus four microphones, (it was the first time that field recordings were made in stereo). How cumbersome it all was—and how tiresome and risky was the precision splicing of tapes that you did with a razor blade and a steady hand! We had also been lent a prototype portable tape recorder by the Swiss firm, Nagra, for trial in the field, mercifully small—about the size of a loaf! Even that would seem ridiculously over-large to people nowadays.
But it wasn’t until 1964, when I worked with guitar genius Davy Graham, that I began to give careful thought to the selection of songs on the album. I had to choose good songs that Davy would be interested in playing, and I think I succeeded, with the exception of one poorly chosen song. We recorded Folk Roots, New Routes in London in Decca’s large studio—a step up from recording in Peter Kennedy’s front room. Davy was placed at the far end in a cubicle, and at the other end, I sat perched on a high stool – not the best thing for me as I kept losing my balance! You’d call it being properly distanced these days, but at the time it felt disconnected. The best thing about it though was having Gus Dudgeon as the sound engineer.
I felt on a more secure footing with the album I made three years later with my sister Dolly, who wrote the song arrangements for the portative pipe organ, known as the flute organ, that we had discovered while attending sessions at The Early Music Centre in London. The Sweet Primeroses was recorded by Bill Leader, for Topic Records, and Austin John Marshall was the producer. The following year came The Power of the True-Love Knot for Polydor Records, with Joe Boyd as producer, and with Robin Williamson and Mike Heron of The Incredible String Band as guests.
In 1969 we made our most ambitious album yet. Anthems in Eden was a suite of traditional songs; it told of the loss of innocence, and the change in the country after the First World War. Each song was carefully chosen and linked, and we recorded it in EMI’s studios in Abbey Road, in a studio large enough to hold the genius David Munrow and members of his Early Music Consort, playing the music that Dolly had scored for early instruments. David was the musical director; he had such spirit, and he crackled with energy. He was a kind man, too. In the presence of so many talented musicians I felt nervous as I didn’t read music, and they were all working from scores. Of course I knew all the songs by heart, and I knew when to come in, but I confessed to David that I couldn’t read the score. He waved my concerns airily aside, saying that he’d learnt a great deal from folk musicians in Peru who couldn’t read music either. We recorded a second album ‘ Love, Death & the Lady. Both albums were on EMI’s newly-formed (1969) so-called ‘underground’ label - Harvest.
Quite what we were doing on that list baffled a few critics – our stable-mates included The Edgar Broughton Band, Deep Purple and Pink Floyd. And when we all appeared on the same promotional concert in London’s Roundhouse, the audience clearly didn’t know what to make of Dolly and me and our English folk songs, in that company. We got heckled, I heckled back, everyone laughed and it all cheered up after that!
All this time, studio recording was becoming more and more sophisticated, and with the introduction of digital recording, sound desks got larger and more complicated – a far cry from those early basic, primitive recordings. In 1971 No Roses, my one and only ‘folk-rock' album, was recorded in Sound Techniques, a studio built in a converted dairy in Chelsea which was the favourite studio for Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention. No Roses boasted 26 musicians, and a first for me – singing accompanied by electric instruments, as well as acoustic, traditional ones. What a line up it was – among them Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Simon Nicol and Dave Mattacks, Nic Jones, Barry Dransfield, John Kirkpatrick, the Watersons and Maddy Prior. Ashley and I decided to call them The Albion Country Band. Such great people to work with, and fun, too. It was all so skillfully and beautifully recorded by John Wood; I counted it a privilege to work with him.
It was a productive time. Ashley’s Morris On, my A Favourite Garland, Adieu to Old England, Amaranth…. And finally in 1978, what I thought would be my last album – and again with Dolly and Barry Dransfield, ‘For as Many as Will ’ for Topic…. I had stopped singing – I had dysphonia, and it lasted for almost forty years and I believed that my singing career was over.
So where is all this leading? …. In the words of the theme song of the brilliant Scandi-thriller The Bridge … ‘goes back to the beginning’.
Too long a story to tell here, but in 2018 I started to record an album, Lodestar, for the Domino Record Company. Because I hadn’t sung for so long, I knew that I couldn’t bear the possible humiliation of going into a studio and facing a sound engineer who (I thought) might wonder what I was up to, - or even was I up to it! So I decided to record at home (as countless others were doing). Back to the domestic set-up of my very first two albums.
Surrounded by old friends, Ian Kearey (formerly of The Oyster Band and Blue Aeroplanes), Pip Barnes (with whom I toured the show America Over the Water (my account of the 1959 field recording trip in the Deep South)), Pete Cooper and Dave Arthur, John Watcham and Ossian Brown, one-half of Cyclobe – the other half being Steven Thrower who volunteered to be the sound engineer, bringing along four mics and a very unthreatening computer.
I live in a Victorian cottage in a narrow street that has a slight incline which is irresistible to young skate-boarders, and where infant school children pass in the afternoons, scampering and chatting. There is a railway cutting not too far away and the rumble of trains is a frequent sound, so we often had to be patient and wait for silence. There was beautiful bird song from my back garden and the great bank behind it. This we were able to use in one of the songs Cruel Lincoln; with the kitchen window wide open the sound came flooding through, and we decided to keep it on the recording – the juxtaposition of the grim story of the ballad, and the beauty of the everyday, felt just right.
When a second album was proposed, I chose to go into a studio, Metway in Brighton, owned by The Levellers, and as they say ‘run by musicians for musicians.’ Here our sound engineer was Al Scott, an old friend of Ian’s and still playing with The Oyster Band. The huge sound desk seemed to me more like the controls of a huge and sophisticated space craft….. but I didn’t have to worry about that. Al was the perfect sound engineer, skilled, calm and patient. Recording Heart’s Ease was a pleasure. But watching Al as he worked all the controls, I couldn’t help but think back to how simple it was in the late 1950s, when all you had to do was switch on the Ampex, see the needle flicker into life and press the record button.