British Folk Legend Shirley Collins Will Put Your Heart at Ease

There are certain plusses and minuses to enduring our current post-pandemic lockdown in the idyllic British countryside, claims legendary folksinger Shirley Collins, from her cottage hideaway in the East Sussex hamlet of Lewes. A distinct down side? The country’s now-emboldened vulpine population finally getting even for all those centuries of the cruel Hunt.

“The foxes make the most horrendous noises out here, and it’s always deep in the middle of the night,” sighs the otherwise placidly content 85-year-old. Because, on the other hand, “We’ve got a castle here, just around the corner from me—a great big Norman castle. So I don’t mind that I haven’t really been out since March, except in my garden and up and down the street. Although I admit that it’s very strange.”

But she’s more than familiar with simple twists of fate, of one’s peacefully chugging existence suddenly hurtling off the rails at a moments’s notice, plunging into darkness, then resuming its sunlit course again at the least expected, eleventh-hour moment. Her life story would—and did—make a riveting documentary, 2017’s The Ballad of Shirley Collins, and it’s far from over. In 1978, after developing dysphonia—a condition that robbed her of her scarlet-tanager singing voice—she bid goodbye to a recording career that had begun in the late ’50s and relegated herself to a gauntlet of non-musical jobs, even working at the British Museum’s posh gift shop at one point—her favorite offstage gig.

But in 2014, at the urging of her longtime fan David Tibet of Current 93, she accompanied him onstage to sing two tentative songs at London’s sacrosanct Union Chapel, and was so stunned by the enthusiastic crowd reaction that she re-entered the studio again, and by 2016 had issued her vintage-folk comeback album on Domino, Lodestar, which made many a UK critic’s Top Ten List that year. Now she returns, even more confident, her voice more resplendently weathered, with its successor, Heart’s Ease, an effort that edifies even as it entertains via inclusion of an English-gypsy popularized “Tell me True,” the classic traditional “Barbara Allen,” The Copper Family’s “The Christmas Song,” George ‘Pop’ Maynard’s “Rolling in the Dew,” and “Wondrous Love,” sung in the easy-to-learn shape-note singing style invented by New England music teacher Andrew Laws in the 1800s.

“I feel much more in control with this album,” says Dame Collins, who received her MBE in 2007. “When I listen to Lodestar now, I can hear all the nervousness of it. But that’s virtually gone now with Heart’s Ease—my voice has gotten a lot lower, and it’s not the voice that it once was. But I still think I know how to sing a song, and tell the story of that song. At least I hope I did!”

Paste: So let me get this straight, because it’s so incredible just to imagine—in 1959, the year I was born, you were over here in America, traveling the rural South and doing field recordings with your then-boyfriend, Alan Lomax? Who was introduced to you by your mutual friend, Ewan MacColl? I’m not worthy!

Shirley Collins: Yeah. As a teenager, I used to listen to the wireless all the time, because we only had a gramophone and a few records, and the wireless, of course, being a radio. And they used to have some programs on the BBC that I loved, mostly American music. And Alan had spent some time in Spain and France in the early ’50s, recording music, and he came back to England and Ewan MacColl threw a party for him, to which I was invited. And I just took one look at Alan and fell in love. He really reminded me of an American bison—because he had big shoulders and great head of shaggy dark hair—he just didn’t have the horns. But he seemed to like me, too, so that was nice. And it was just an everybody-stand-up-and-mill-around-and-drink party, and it was in London.

Paste: How did you approach him then?

Collins: I can’t honestly remember. I think I just walked over to him and said, “I love your radio programs.” Something quite naive. But then we got to talking, and it was as simple as that, really. Nothing Earth-shattering. Then he heard my voice later, when I started singing out, but it was a naive voice at the time, because I was slightly scared of singing, as well. But I think he picked up on something that was sort of true in it—it wasn’t anything I’d affected at all, it was really how I did sing and how I was, and the sort of songs I sang. I think he sort of recognized that I wasn’t somebody just trying to be a popular folk singer in pretty frocks.

Paste: Where did you guys go on your first date?

Collins: He took me to an Italian restaurant in London. And it wasn’t a grand restaurant at all, but it was quite grand for me, because I had grown up in Hastings on the South Coast, where during the war there weren’t any restaurants or tea rooms open. So going out to dinner was something virtually unknown to me. I mean, it seems impossible these days, but that’s the way it was—there was still food rationing in England during those times. But we went to this Italian restaurant in Soho, and I remember the dessert was a bowl of strawberries that they had splashed brandy on and some sugar, and then tossed into whipped cream. And it was so good. It seemed so sophisticated to me, and so delicious, and I still remember it. So I guess that was the start of it. I don’t remember how it all worked out after that, but the next thing I remember is being in his house and living with him. But that must have been a few weeks later.

And then I was working for him for a couple of years—living with him and working for him before he went back to the States. And then I joined him there in 1959. And at first I thought that that was the end of the relationship, when he went back there without me. But after a few months, he sent a letter—I didn’t even have a telephone then—asking me if I would join him on a field trip he was planning. So of course I did. I sailed out on an ocean liner, because in those days, only royalty flew. Film stars and politicians flew—everybody else went by sea. But now, it’s the reverse, of course. But it was the most luxurious five days I think I’ve ever had in my life, and the food on board was just out of this world—things I hadn’t even heard of, even. It was all American food, as well, but it was just splendid. I loved being on the ocean, anyway, and I knew Alan was going to be there at the other end. So it was just wonderful, and he met me at the docks in New York, and we sailed up the Hudson and we saw the Statue of Liberty. And all the passengers were lining the side of the boat just to see the Statue of Liberty as we sailed past. And I remember it was dawn, as well, and the light was just incredible. It was very moving for me, and such a thrill to be there. And then finally to see Alan, standing on the dock, just waving when we saw each other. It was lovely.

Paste: What was your trajectory then?

Collins: We went out to the Berkeley Folk Festival fairly soon after I arrived. And we stopped off in Chicago too see Studs Terkel and stay with him for a couple of days, before we caught the big train out from Chicago to the Bay Area. But can you imagine what that trip was like? It lasted three or so days, and we were going out across Salt Lake City out across the Salt Lake on what looked like a wooden bridge, then over the Rockies and stopping in Cheyenne and seeing cowboys. I was a girl from England who hadn’t traveled at all—the furthest I’d been was 60 miles up from home to London—so this was the most incredible journey. And then, once again, the food on the train was so amazing, as well—wonderful breakfasts and lunches and dinners. And I remember we saw Jimmy Driftwood in Berkeley, too. But this was the sort of music I was surrounded by, and I’m surprised that a lot of people don’t know anything about it—they just don’t recognize folk music. With the names I lob about, people always say, “Who? Who?” But Jimmy Driftwood, at the time we arrived, had the #1 hit in America with “Tennessee Stud.” It was a gorgeous song that he had written, and he himself was such a lovely man from the Ozark mountains. And we told him about the trip we were planning, and he said, “Well, you must come up and visit me in Timbo, Arkansas, and I’ll introduce you to my daddy and my neighbors, who all sing these old songs. So that was a great address to be able to go to.

And that wasn’t until autumn of that year. But Berkeley just seemed awfully glamorous and so easy—there were swimming pools everywhere and lots of fruit and stuff. So that was that. And then I had never flown in my life, and Alan decided to fly back to Chicago to pick up the car. And I’d never been in a plane, but looking down at this landscape we were flying over was just incredible—I couldn’t believe my eyes how large it all was, and how varied it all was. And then we got into the car at Studs Terkel’s place and drove back to New York, but most of that summer was spent planning that journey South, and it was just really difficult for Alan to plan, because Columbia Records were going to fund it in the first place. But they said we would have to take a union engineer with us, an Alan knew that simply wasn’t going to work, because you’re going to be working all day and all night, recording, because you have to wait until the people that you’re recording are free from work. And also, to have a stranger like that—a stranger to him and to me, as well as to the people we were hoping to find, they wouldn’t open up, necessarily, they might just look askance at this person and go, “Who’s he?” So Alan turned that down, and then Columbia withdrew the money and stopped funding it. But then it was the Ertegun brothers at Atlantic Records who finally came up with the money to pay for the trip. Alan never had any money—he was always broke. The way he had lived, really, the life he had led, always traveling, always recording other people, there was just no money in it. So once that money was put into his bank account by Atlantic Records, we set off, and that was in the autumn of 1959, and we just drove out of New York but bought a different car, a second-hand Buick with a Virginia license plate rather than a New York one, because he thought that a New York license plate wouldn’t go down very well where we were going.

Paste: Who was the most difficult person to track down? And who was the most amazing?

Collins: There were so many people that Alan had recorded before in the 1940s with his dad, John Lomax. And we were going back to revisit some of those people, like the Virginia singer Texas Gladden, who welcomed us immediately and made us feel right at home. There was just one tiny difficulty in getting somebody to come and record for us, and that was with Ada Combs in Kentucky, who lived up in the woods by herself, up a narrow little creek. We asked her to come down from her house and record with us one evening, but she didn’t show up. And the next evening Alan set off to find her. So we drove following the directions, and then you had to get out and walk because the path was too narrow. But the signpost said ‘Rattlesnake Creek,’ and I thought I shouldn’t dare go any further on foot. But Alan did. He just tucked his trousers into his socks and walked off. And he was gone for about two hours while I sat in the car, getting more and more nervous. And then he finally came down the mountainside with Ada Combs, who was an 80-year-old banjo player. And the sight of her coming down the mountain was just splendid. She really dressed up for the occasion. She lived in a wooden shack, and she had a rifle. But she was dressed in a bright red dress, she had painted her fingernails, and she’d put lots of lipstick on, and earrings. It was just so glamorous. But she had come from this background of absolute poverty. And she had her banjo with her, but when we sat down and started talking to her, she said she couldn’t play the banjo because her hand had been stung by a hornet—she said, “It’s all swolled up, and I can’t play.” So we just talked to her about her life in the mountains, on her own—she’d been there for some 20 years since her husband had died, and her boys had all left home. So she was the most difficult one, but in many ways one of the most fascinating, because she talked about preachers, about hard-shell Baptists, and about the snake handlers. And I sort of expressed horror, but she said, “Oh, yes honey—they bite and kill them.” And I said, “They bite and kill snakes?” But she laughed and said, “Oh, no honey—the snakes kill them.” But she did eventually play the banjo a little bit for us, and it was all bedecked with ribbons, as well. She’d hung satin ribbons on it, and it was the most beautiful sight. She was just wonderful.

But otherwise, there weren’t many difficulties. In one or to cases, Alan was going back to see people that he had recorded in the ’40s. So we went to the Mississippi State Penitentiary first, when we got that far south, and we recorded there for about five days, recording work songs and blues, and finally we left there and drove up into the hills of Northern Mississippi, where Alan was going back to find the brothers Miles and Bob Pratcher that he had recorded in the ’40s. He wanted to see if they were still there, and if they were still making the same sort of music, which was music that they played at country picnics, and a lot of it was pre-Civil-War music that they were still playing, dance songs and dance tunes. So we recorded them for a couple of days, and they introduced us to neighbors of theirs, Lonnie and Ed Young, who sang with a whistle, which they called a fife—just a whistle and drums. And they did the most remarkable dancing. Lonnie just wound himself down into the ground very slowly, like a serpent coiling, and then he was right down on the ground, reeling all around, bent over and beating the Earth with his hands, and then he just scooped up a pile of dirt and wiped it across his forehead. And then he slowly unwound and came back up to full height again, with this beating drumming and the whistle. And it was primitive, but it was so beautiful to watch. It really was the most magical sight. And they said that there was one other neighbor of theirs that we ought to record, and that was Fred McDowell.

Paste: Uhhh…as in, Mississippi Fred McDowell? Whoa.

Collins: Yeah. That was Mississippi Fred. But the silly thing was, I thought, “Now, I don’t want a modern sound coming in here, because of the old songs that we’ve been listening to, because they had created such a great atmosphere.” But the next day, we went into the clearing near where the shacks were, and there were hens scratching about in the dirt and there were kids playing and running around. And about five o’clock in the clearing, this rather slight figure dressed dungarees came out of the trees carrying a guitar. He walked across and sat down, and Alan and he had a discussion. And then he started playing. And I still get goosebumps at the thought of it. It was so thrilling, I’ve never heard anything like it. He was playing slide guitar, which I hadn’t heard much of, and I wrote in my notebook that it was a shimmering and metallic sound. And Alan wrote one word in his notebook, and that word was “perfect.” As indeed it was. So we went on recording for two or tree days with Fred and his wife and his sister. And I can’t tell you wonderful their music was, and how poor they were but how welcoming they were. They were singing “This Little Light Of mine,” but in this very soft way, not showing off or the way that modern Gospel singers do. It was one of the loveliest sounds I’ve heard, ever. And I was there, and I heard it all. And I still can’t believe I was that lucky.

Paste: There were all these other curiosities you uncovered, like shape-note singing, which you tap into on Heart’s Ease with “Wondrous Love.”

Collins: And that was completely new to me when we reached Fife, Alabama, where we were at this Sacred Harp Meeting for three days. And that sound was just unbelievable—it was so beautiful and so fervent and so country—no trained voices there, but everybody was singing at the top of their lungs, full of fervor and belief. And the beauty of it, the majesty of those tunes? It’s glorious stuff, and I’m so glad that people are still doing it. They’ve even got it in England now, groups who do traditional shape-note singing. And I think it’s absolutely beautiful and still thrilling to listen to. But in Alabama back then, it was really extra-thrilling.

Paste: So let’s fast-forward to that fateful Union Chapel concert in 2014. How did this Tibet guy from Current 93 convince you to try it?

Collins: David had come to see me in the days when I wasn’t singing, but he had collected all my music up to the point when I couldn’t sing anymore. And he used to come and visit me and try to persuade me to sing. And the first time he arrived, he said, “You are one of my two favorite singers.” And I said, “Oh, that’s really flattering—how nice. Who’s the other one?” And he said, “Tiny Tim!” So anyway, he persisted, and it was his friendship that’s lasted to the present day—he was always going at me to try and sing again. And I knew I couldn’t, so I kept saying no. I mean, I sang a couple of verses on a couple of his albums that he asked me to do, but I wasn’t pleased with them at all. I still couldn’t sing. And this went on for years, him asking me. So finally he said, “Hey—I’m doing the Union Chapel in a couple of weeks. Why don’t you just come by and sing a couple of songs? And they can be short ones if you like.” And after all those times of saying no, I said, “Alright, David—I will.” And I did. I took Ian Keary, the guitarist on “Cart Thieves,” and we went and did the two songs, and that was the sort of break that I needed. The ice melted at point, and I started slowly to begin to sing again. That night, David asked me to sing an American lullaby that I knew, “All the Pretty Little Horses,” and it was only a couple of verses, very short. So I did that for him, unaccompanied, and then he wanted an American shape-note singing hymn—we got a lot of people to sing verses of it, and I sang one verse of it. So then Ian and I sang the British song “Death and Milady,” and the audience was just lovely. I got quite a nice reception, and I didn’t have to feel too embarrassed. So I don’t think I sang very well, but at least I did it. But what I had got was this sympathetic and understanding audience, so even though I think I did falter a couple of times, nobody minded—they were just pleased that I had done it, I think.

Paste: But take me back to 1978, when you ostensibly quit the business to raise your two children from your first marriage, Robert and Polly. Whereupon your second husband Ashley Hutchings suddenly chose divorce? That seems pretty callous. Especially since it led directly to your dysphonia.

Collins: Well, it all started when I was working at the National Theatre in London, in a production of a Victorian play with folk music in it called “Larkrise.” And there was a band that Ashley had formed [after working with Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span], which I was in at the time, and we were playing this music for the show, and it was dotted about throughout the show. And they were promenade performances, and after a couple of weeks, I remember it was the day after our wedding anniversary, and we were walking down the lane to our cottage out in the country, and we were walking down hand in hand. And then the next morning, Ashley had to go off to London to do something, and he came back that evening and said, “I’m leaving you—I’m consumed with love and I’ve got to go.” It was just as plain as that. And off he went. But we were still doing the show at the National Theatre , and this wretched actress that he’d fallen in love with, she used to come to this promenade performance and stand right in front of me when I was trying to sing, and she would be wearing his clothes., his sweaters. And it just did it for me. Some times I would open my mouth, and nothing would come out at all, and some nights I would just croak my way through the songs, and some times I was just trying not to cry. But It was just dreadful. It was humiliating. Can you imagine? Because I was doing this in front of a band, in front of Ashley, and in front of this audience, and then I was going home alone at night, afterwards. It was a mot dreadful time.

But it only leads you to something really good in the end. I’m happier now than I’ve been in a long time, and singing again, as well, which is just wonderful. So everything sort of works its way round, and I feel very fortunate to be in the position I’m in right now, making a second album for Domino and singing these songs that I still really love. And I’m singing some new ones, as well. And I had to seriously raise my kids. I had to. I had two failed marriages and no support, and because I couldn’t sing and earn an income anymore, I had to give that side of it up and just turn to other jobs to get me through. And I had to sell all my instruments, as well, because I just didn’t have any money. The banjo was my main instrument, but I had a beautiful instrument personally made for me by an English guitar-maker, and he made a beautiful instrument from a banjo neck and a dulcimer body. It was a beautiful instrument that we could never think of a name for. And luckily, I sold that one to Ian, the musician I work with now, and he’s still got it, so I can work with that one again any time, thank goodness. But it was heartbreaking, really. Alan had gotten me a mountain dulcimer, made from cherrywood in North Carolina, that I brought back home with me, and I had to sell that, too. When I look back now, I think, “Why didn’t I find some other way to not have to sell the instruments?”

Paste: But life is not about the getting there, it’s about the journey, right? As in The Alchemist?

Collins: Yeah. That’s very true. And I’ve certainly had an interesting one. I mean, it hasn’t all been smooth, and it’s dotted about all over the place. But looking back, I think I had an incredibly good run.

Paste: And you’re still teaching people the importance of a great folk song on Heart’s Ease.

Collins: Yeah. And I hope people pick up on that. Because there aren’t very many of us who are still singing genuine traditional folk songs. And this is something that I particularly mind—everybody thinks that they can go sit in their bedroom and write a song, and the come out and sing it the next morning and go, “Oh! I’ve written a folk song!” No! You haven’t! It’s got to have been passed down by word of mouth, certainly for generations, and sometimes for centuries, before you can really call it a proper folk song. And it’s just the misuse of the word ‘folk’ that really does make me cross these days. Because these songs are so important, and they’ve got so much history in them, and it’s the history of the ordinary working-class people. And it’s the labor class that did all the work and fought all the battles and won all the wars. This is their music, and I feel like they have to be honored and remembered.

Paste: But “Locked in Ice” on the new album is more recent, the tale of a ghost ship, The Bay Chimo, cast adrift in the ice and spotted occasionally over the years, still missing its crew.

Collins: And it’s a true story, as well. My nephew Buz Collins wrote a song about it. But he treated it as a really fast rocking number, quite hard. And I couldn’t sing it like that. But it was such a lovely song and I wanted to do it, but I had to slow it right down and sort of become the ship itself. And in order to do that I set the whole song a century earlier, because I don’t do modern. I just don’t. It was originally set in 1936, but in my case it was set in 1826, because I just couldn’t visualize a modern ship with an engine being moved around the Arctic. But a sailing ship? I could see that quite clearly.

Paste: I was just listening to The Louvin Brothers’ “Tragic Songs of Life,” and “Knoxville Girl,” in particular. And it occurred to me that the Appalachian murder ballad probably didn’t start in Appalachia.

Collins: Yeah—it did start over here. I recorded one on one of my earlier albums, and what I found fascinating about the one that I chose to sing was, they go out for a walk, this young couple, it all looks lovely, he’d asked her to be his bride. And then suddenly, he takes a branch out of the hedge and hits her with it. But in the song, he says, “I gently knocked her down.” Then he grabs her by the hair and “gently” drags her through the field, and then he “gently” throws her into the river. I mean, it’s extraordinary, but it really heightens the horror of it, in a way, and you just can’t quite grasp what went wrong there. There must have been love there, but somehow that transmuted into this act of violence. But there are several versions of that still sung around the country, and it’s the most fascinating song. And that leads us to the question of just how many songs came from the British Isles to America with the early settlers, and then just gradually changed as they were sung to make place names more familiar, I suppose. So that people thought they knew it was something that might have happened where they were. That’s part of the theory, anyway. But people will adapt songs for their own use, anyway, but it can sometimes take 100 years to work.

Paste: On one of your early records, the character in “Geordie” sounds like might have murdered someone.

Collins: Well, we don’t know. I mean, he was accused of it, wasn’t he? Geordie might have murdered somebody, but in most versions of the ballad, he’s just stolen a couple of the king’s deer—he’s been out hunting, and killed a couple of deer that belonged to the king, and for that he’s going to be tried and hanged. So in a way, I suppose you could call it an early protest song, because Geordie is looked up to as the hero of the ballad, and the judge who condemns him him to death is the villain of the piece.

Paste: The Heart’s Ease song “Tell Me True,” also known as “Sweet William,” was popularized by Gypsies in the South of England. But by one person in particular, a seven-year-old girl named Sheila Smith?

Collins: Have you heard it? It’s on Topic’s The Voice of the People collection, and it’s called “I’m a Romany Rai,” two albums of all-Gypsy songs from Southern England. And Sheila Smith was recorded in 1954, just about five miles along the road from where I live. And she sang her version of “Sweet William” that is the most beguiling thing you’ll ever hear—a little pipe-y voice and she gets the words slightly wrong and has little catches of breath, and it’s absolutely the most gorgeous thing you ever heard. And it’s a proper version, six or seven verses long, but she got all the way through it.

Paste: What was the difference between Gypsy music and traditional English folk?

Collins: Not a lot, actually, because the Gypsies would travel the country ’round for seasonal work, and there was always fruit picking, and when the crops needed harvesting, the Gypsies would turn up for work. And at campfires in the evenings, there would be singing, and the two people—the working class and the Gypsies—would swap songs. So the songs would pass from the Gypsies to the local people, and from the local People back to the Gypsies, and then everyone would move on , and it would be passed on to another lot. So you’d get all these songs, but different versions of them, because people didn’t remember them perfectly, or they sang their own versions, sang what they wanted to sing. And that’s how the music spread—by farm laborers basically moving on, traveling from farm to farm, just to get a job for the summer, perhaps, and taking their songs with them. So the Gypsies and the local people, most of their songs were intertwined, and it’s just fascinating hearing all the different versions that you can find.

Paste: What concessions to modernity have you made in your castle-adjacent cottage? Have you got an omnipresent iPhone?

Collins: No. I’ve got a mobile phone that I use occasionally to send messages on, but I hate it. I hate my mobile phone. And I hate mobile phones altogether. I watch people outside of my window walking up and down my little street, and there will be a beautiful sunset but none of them will be looking at it—they’ll all be looking down at their phones instead. And I think, “Look up! Look up!” I just want to go out and shake them up and say, “Look at the sky! Look at the sky!” I can’t bear it. The world is all hunched over their phones now, and that’s really not for me. I really want to be able to look out and around me while I still can.