There can be no crueler fate for a singer than to lose their voice. For Shirley Collins, a longtime champion of the folk music of her native Sussex, losing her voice was not some brief annoyance but a long-term case of dysphonia, caused by the emotional trauma of the break-up of her marriage to Fairport Convention’s Ashley Hutchings, which struck her in the late 1970s and from which she is only now emerging.
“I’d always thought of myself as a singer so I felt I wasn’t Shirley Collins anymore,” she says, ahead of her appearance at Celtic Connections. “I tried all sorts of cures, went to see doctors and throat specialists and tried a faith healer and nothing worked. I call them my wilderness years because I wasn’t singing and it didn’t feel right, but I had my children to look after and had to find other work.”
And so it seemed to the outside world that the woman who was a major figure in the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s, and who had recorded such influential albums as Folk Roots, New Routes with jazz guitarist Davey Graham and Anthems In Eden with its use of Renaissance-era instruments, had quietly retired from music.
Happily, Collins has tentatively returned to performing over the last few years (“slow steps,” she says), encouraged by David Tibet of alt.folk outfit Current 93, and she recently released Lodestar, her first album in 38 years, on the hip indie label Domino Records.
She recorded Lodestar at her own pace in her own cottage with a hand-picked line-up of musicians, including Ian Kearey of the Oysterband and Trembling Bells drummer Alex Neilson. As for the repertoire, there was nearly 40 years’ worth of unsung songs for her to choose from, including the revenge ballad Cruel Lincoln and the prescient Awake Awake.
“These are songs that have been simmering away in my mind for a long time and even though I wasn’t singing, I was still listening to songs and learning,” says Collins.
Having learned about the tradition by listening to older voices, including her grandparents who would sing to her and sister Dolly during the air raids of The Second World War, Collins was initially reluctant to embrace her own older, more austere voice.
“I didn’t want to ruin the songs or do them badly because I’ve got too much respect for the tradition,” she says. “In a way it was vanity because once I could sing in such a carefree way, I didn’t have to think about singing. Over a great many years I opened my mouth and what came out I didn’t like at all, so I thought it had all gone forever, quite honestly.”
Her old friend Martin Carthy played an unwitting role in her decision to sing in public again when he made the assumption that Collins had stopped singing because she was fed up with the music. “I was so angry that anybody, especially Martin who knows how much I love the stuff, would think that I just stopped because I’d got bored with it. But it was my own fault, I was holding back.”
It turns out that anger is an energy for Collins. Some of her fondest memories and proudest achievements of her career stem from the 1959 song-gathering field trip she made with folklorist Alan Lomax (her partner at the time) to the southern United States where they discovered, among other unsung musical talents, the bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell.
“I loved every bit of music I heard but it still gives me goosebumps when I visualise Fred,” she says, “the sight of this slight figure dressed in dungarees coming out of the wood into the clearing where all the shacks were. He’d been picking cotton all day and he was still in his workclothes and within minutes he’d sat down and played his first blues, just overwhelmingly beautiful. Alan wrote one word in his notebook – ‘perfect’ – as indeed it was.”
But when Lomax’s autobiography reduced her contribution to “Shirley Collins came along for the trip” she was spurred to set the record straight, developing an illustrated talk and writing her account of the expedition, America Over the Water. “It makes me sound like quite a harridan, doesn’t it? But I don’t think I’ve got much anger left in me now. I don’t think anything else has to come out.”
Yet, at the age of 81, Collins remains refreshingly passionate in her advocacy of folk music and the need to preserve our varied musical traditions down the generations.
“The world is getting so bland and so homogenised and so global,” she says. “Everything is starting to sound the same and I think it’s really important for all of us to keep what we have of our own culture. You’ve got such a fantastic one in Scotland, and people do seem to appreciate it more there, whereas in England we’re just sort of letting it go, even despising it, and that really hurts because they don’t know what they’ve got.
“A lot of people now are calling themselves folk singers but they sing songs they have written themselves and it’s just not really the same thing at all. I only want to sing songs that have come down through the tradition to us. What I love about it is you get such an insight into other people’s lives and histories coming down to us from ordinary – though I think they are quite extraordinary – working class people, travellers, farm labourers, people who learned this stuff by heart.
“I hope this doesn’t sound too vain but I think I know how to sing a song,” she adds. “I just think I understand them and have lived with them so long. I quite like my voice now and I’m just setting the songs in front of people. You are singing to people and not at them.” ■
*Shirley Collins plays City Halls, Glasgow, on 4 February as part of Celtic Connections. Lodestar is out now on Domino Records