Shirley Collins

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For the former MPP, see Shirley Collins (politician).
Shirley Collins
Birth name Shirley Elizabeth Collins
Born (1935-07-05) 5 July 1935 (age 79)
Hastings, Sussex
Genres Folk music
Occupation(s) Singer
Instruments Vocals
Years active 1960s to present
Associated acts Dolly Collins, Albion Country Band, The Young Tradition, Davy Graham, Etchingham Steam Band, Current 93
Website www.shirleycollins.co.uk

Shirley Elizabeth Collins MBE (born 5 July 1935) is a British folksinger who was a significant contributor to the English Folk Revival of the 1960s and 1970s. She often performed and recorded with her sister Dolly, whose accompaniment on piano and portative organ created unique settings for her sister's plain, austere singing style.

Biography[edit]

Shirley Collins and her older sister, Dolly, grew up in the Hastings area of East Sussex in a family which kept alive a great love of traditional song. Songs learnt from their grandfather and from their mother's sister, Grace Winborn, were to be important in the sisters' repertoire throughout their career.[1]

On leaving school, at the age of 17, Collins enrolled at a teachers' training college in Tooting, south London.[2] However, in London she also involved herself in the early folk revival and in 1954, at a party hosted by Ewan MacColl, she met Alan Lomax, the famous American folk collector, who had moved to Britain to avoid the McCarthy witch-hunt, which was then raging in America.[3] Lomax and Collins made a folk song collecting trip in the Southern states that lasted from July to November 1959, and resulted in many hours of recordings, featuring performers such as Almeda Riddle, Hobart Smith, and Bessie Jones, and is noted for the discovery of Mississippi Fred McDowell. Recordings from this trip were issued by Atlantic Records under the title "Sounds of the South", and some were reenacted in the Coen brothers’ film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. The experience of her life with Lomax, and the making of the recordings in religious communities, social gatherings, prisons and chain gangs was described in Collins's book America Over the Water (published 2005).

Back in Britain, Collins proceeded with her own singing career, and in a series of influential albums, she helped to introduce many innovations into the English folk revival. In 1964, she recorded the landmark jazz-folk fusion of Folk Roots, New Routes, with guitarist Davy Graham.[4] 1967 saw the essentially southern English song collection, The Sweet Primeroses, on which she was accompanied for the first time by Dolly Collins's portative organ.

In 1969, there was another collaboration, this time with The Young Tradition (featuring Peter Bellamy, Heather Wood and Royston Wood) and Dolly Collins, The Holly Bears the Crown. However, the album was not released to the public until 1995.

Collins's seminal recording is considered by many to be Anthems in Eden, released in 1969. It featured a suite of songs centred on the changes in rural England brought about by the First World War. Dolly Collins created arrangements featuring David Munrow and various other players from his Early Music Consort. The highly unusual combination of ancient instruments included rebecs, sackbuts, viols and crumhorns, and hinted that the guitar was not the only appropriate accompaniment for the folk song. Several critics have suggested that it is impossible to imagine that electric accompaniment for traditional song, as successfully purveyed by Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, could have developed quite as it did without the pioneering Anthems in Eden.

All these recordings strove to marry a deep love and understanding of the English folk music heritage with a more contemporary attitude to musical settings. Anthems in Eden was followed by Love, Death and the Lady, and No Roses, recorded in 1971 with the Albion Country Band, and a total of 27 musicians.

Collins married her second husband Ashley Hutchings in 1971.[5] He left Steeleye Span and the couple created the all acoustic Etchingham Steam Band with Terry Potter, Ian Holder and Vic Gammon. The Etchingham's repertoire was drawn from the traditional music of Sussex. With The Albion Dance Band, performing traditional material on a mixture of modern (electric) and mediaeval instruments, Collins recorded The Prospect Before Us.

1978's For As Many As Will was the last studio album recorded by Shirley and Dolly Collins. Collins retired from public performance, although she continues to lecture and to appear on radio as an authority on traditional music.

In 2004, she was awarded a Gold Badge by the English Folk Dance and Song Society and became patron of the South East Folk Arts Network in 2006.[6] She was awarded the MBE for services to music in the Queen's New Year's Honours List, announced 30 December 2006. On 14 April 2007, she was awarded an Honorary Degree by the Open University, for a "Notable contribution to education and culture", while in 2008 she was given the "Good Tradition" award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. In 2008, Collins was elected as president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.[7]

With actor Pip Barnes, she tours with her three illustrated talks "America over the Water" (about her field trip in the Southern States of America with Alan Lomax), "A Most Sunshiny Day" (about the traditional music of England and Sussex in particular), and "I'm a Romany Rai" (about the Gypsy singers and songs of Southern England). She has also edited a CD entitled "I'm a Romany Rai" for issue (2012) in the series The Voice of the People.

In 2013, Collins will appear on Justin Hopper's text composition, "Fourth River: Ley Line", to be released on the Contraphonic Sound Series.[8]


On February 8, 2014 at Union Chapel in Islington, London, UK, Shirley sang before an audience performing 2 songs; All the Pretty Little Horses and Death and the Lady. She was accompanied by Ian Kearey, from the band Oysterband.

Influence[edit]

Both the collaboration with Davy Graham (Folk Roots, New Routes) and the Anthems in Eden album are seen as milestones in the English folk revival.

Shirley Collins's voice has a breathy, unearthly quality, which alienates some people but draws in fans from unexpected quarters. The American folk-rock band 10,000 Maniacs did a cover of "Just as the Tide was Flowing", closely modelled on the version on the No Roses album. David Tibet of the apocalyptic folk band Current 93 released a collection of her recordings, entitled Fountain of Snow, and she sings on the final version of "Idumæa" on Current 93's 2006 album Black Ships Ate the Sky.

Billy Bragg said of her: "Shirley Collins is without doubt one of England's greatest cultural treasures."

Few singers of the English folk revival have attempted as much on record as Collins – an extraordinary combination of fragility and power. "I like music to be fairly straightforward, simply embellished – the performance without histrionics allowing you to think about the song rather than telling you what to think."

Colin Meloy of The Decemberists recorded a whole EP of Shirley Collins tunes. It was sold on Meloy's 2006 spring United States tour in limited quantities.

Discography[edit]

Shirley and Dolly Collins[edit]

Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band[edit]

The Young Tradition and Shirley and Dolly Collins[edit]

Shirley Collins and Davy Graham[edit]

Etchingham Steam Band (includes Shirley Collins)[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Collins, Shirley. America Over the Water. 2007 (Paperback edition). SAF. ISBN 0 946719 91 8 Chapter 4 pp 33-37
  2. ^ America Over the Water p 175
  3. ^ America Over the Water p 19
  4. ^ America Over the Water p 184
  5. ^ America Over the Water p 186
  6. ^ http://www.sefan.org.uk/ South East Folk Arts Network
  7. ^ "EDS Magazine 70-4 Winter 2008". English Folk Dance and Song Society. Retrieved 2 September 2010. 
  8. ^ "Fourth River on Vimeo". Vimeo.com. 2013-05-08. Retrieved 2013-07-02. 

Literature[edit]

External links[edit]