Subculture Unsung: Shirley Collins

One of British music's quietest comeback stories.

Thursday 6th June 2019

Folk music may not be the first genre that springs to mind when considering the 20th Century's rebellious UK counterculture, but the story of Shirley Collins, with her disappearance at the end of the 1970s and her return to the scene in recent years is a remarkable one.

Along with her sister, Dolly, Shirley was raised in a musical family, learning songs from her grandfather, passed on in true folk tradition from generation to generation. When Shirley moved to London in the early '50s, living in a bedsit and training as a teacher, she became involved in the British folk revival movement, and at a party organised by Ewan MacColl, a renowned left-wing renaissance man (and father of Kirsty MacColl), she met, and fell in love, with Alan Lomax.

An ethnomusicologist, Lomax had relocated to Britain to escape the oppressive atmosphere of McCarthyism in his native America. Despite losing his US government funding, his work archiving and documenting American folk music for The Library of Congress had already brought the like of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Peter Seeger to the world's attention. While residing in Britain he documented European folk music, collaborating on many of the projects with Shirley.

In 1958 Shirley recorded her first two albums, which in turn were released in 1959 and 1960. The records were namely 'Sweet England' and 'False True Lovers', each documenting folk songs from the South of England. Even by folk standards, the recordings were very stripped back, featuring Collins' strikingly stark voice accompanied simply with her own banjo playing among the pared-back arrangements.

In 1959 she travelled to the Southern states of the US with Lomax, making field recordings of songs and music of regional religious communities, prisoners and chain gangs. The recordings became Atlantic Records' influential 'Sounds of the South' album. Lomax later dismissed Shirley's involvement in the project, but she adamantly pointed out that she was involved in every aspect of the recordings.

Shirley continued to release collections of English and Irish folk songs as EPs and LPs through the early 1960s. She collaborated with Jazz guitarist Davy Graham in 1964, upsetting traditionalist factions of the folk establishment, then in 1967 she began to expand on her own formula. Teaming up with her sister, Dolly, and a cast of niche early music experts. Shirley recorded 'Anthems In Eden', a collection of traditional songs brought together to create a narrative about the loss of native British folk culture caused by the disruption and destruction of World War I. The album featured fantastically named archaic instruments such as the crumhorn, the sackbut, the rebec, the rackett and the sordun. The ethos and concept behind the album, reframing and repurposing ancient constituent parts into what was effectively a concept album were brave and new to the folk music community.

In the 1970s two more albums credited to Shirley and Dolly Collins followed, 'Love, Death and The Lady' and 'For as Many as Will', interspersed with many other projects that challenged the conventions of folk including work with folk/rock crossover, Albion Country Band whose line up included her husband, Ashley Hutchings.

In the early '80s following her stressful divorce from Ashley Hutchings, the unthinkable happened when Shirley Collins lost her voice and was diagnosed with dysphonia. Understandably the condition brought an end to her musical career and Collins resorted to selling her equipment and working in shops to make ends meet.

"Shirley Collins is, without doubt, one of England's greatest cultural treasures" - Billy Bragg

Thankfully her creative legacy lived on, and be it directly or indirectly, her juxtaposition of old and new remains audible in a diverse array of artists. From the obvious folk elements of artists such as Billy Bragg and the otherworldly storytelling of Nick Cave or Bat For Lashes to less obvious fans such as Graham Coxon and Norwegian art-metal band, Ulver, echoes of Shirley's innovations can still be heard. A fitting outcome for an artist who set out to rescue songs from history throughout her career. Coxon and Ulver were among the artists that contributed to 'Shirley Inspired', a 45 track album of various artists paying tribute to Shirley's work.

That wasn't the end of the story though. In 2016 Shirley released 'Lodestar' a new album of ten new recordings via Domino Recordings. Having found her voice again, encouraged by some of the artists she had influenced, her career began all over again, over 35 years since it had faltered.

The well-received 'Lodestar' sparked a new wave of interest in Shirley. The ten songs from another era sound curiously modern and new, coming for all intents and purposes from another world that has laid hidden for so long.

Although the British folk revival started out as a counterculture, its traditionalists feared change, and Shirley Collins was one of the voices that brought folk into the 20th and 21st centuries, when it would feed into other subcultures, from jazz to punk to electro and everything in between.

Shirley's story became the subject of a documentary film in 2017 titled 'The Ballad of Shirley Collins'.

Find out more about Shirley Collins at www.shirleycollins.co.uk

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