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 81)
Hastings, Sussex
Genres Folk
Occupation(s) Singer
Instruments Vocals
Years active 1955-1979, 2014-present
Associated acts Dolly Collins, Albion Country Band, The Young Tradition, Davy Graham, Etchingham Steam Band, Current 93
Notable instruments

Shirley Elizabeth Collins MBE (born 5 July 1935) is an English folk singer 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.[1]


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.[2]:33–37

On leaving school, at the age of 17, Collins enrolled at a teachers' training college in Tooting, south London.[2]:175 In London she also involved herself in the early folk revival, making her first appearance on vinyl on the 1955 compilation Folk Song Today.[3] In 1954, at a party hosted by Ewan MacColl, she met Alan Lomax, the American folk collector, who had moved to Britain to avoid the McCarthy witch-hunt, which was then raging in America.[2]:19 Lomax and Collins lived together in London, with Collins assisting Lomax on various European projects[4] and singing backing vocals on a version of MacColl's Dirty Old Town by Alan Lomax and the Ramblers, in 1956.[5] In 1958 Collins recorded her first two albums, Sweet England and False True Lovers.[6] The albums featured sparse arrangements with Collins accompanying herself on the banjo. Sweet England was released in 1959 and False True Lovers in 1960. Collins also recorded a series of EPs in 1958 and 1959: The Foggy Dew (released 1959); English Songs (released 1959); English Songs Volume 2 (released 1964); and Shirley Sings Irish (released 1964).[7]

From July to November 1959, Collins and Lomax made a folk song collecting trip in the Southern states. It 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 re-enacted 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' book America Over the Water (published 2005).

Back in Britain, Collins met Austin John Marshall, whom she later married.[8] She also proceeded with her singing career, appearing releasing on three compilations albums (A Jug of Punch, A Pinch of Salt and Rocket Along) in 1960[9] and an EP, Heroes in Love, in 1963 (now included with False True Lovers on the CD release). It was after that, in a series of influential albums, that 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.[2]:184 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. 1968's The Power of the True Love Knot also featured Dolly's accompaniment. 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 until 1995.

Collins's seminal recording is considered by many[who?] to be Anthems in Eden, released in 1969 (and the first to be credited to Shirley and Dolly Collins). 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. Several critics[who?] 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.[citation needed] Anthems in Eden was followed by Love, Death and the Lady, also co-credited with Dolly, in 1970.

Collins married her second husband Ashley Hutchings in 1971.[2]:186 He left Steeleye Span that year and he and Collins assembled the first incarnation of the Albion Country Band to accompany her on the 1971 album No Roses, with a total of 27 musicians participating over numerous sessions. Shirley also provided guest vocals on the Hutchings project Morris On in 1972. Following the breakup of a later version of the Albion Country band in 1973 (shortly after recording the album Battle of the Field) the couple created the all acoustic Etchingham Steam Band with Terry Potter, Ian Holder and Vic Gammon, in 1974. The couple were living in Etchingham at the time and the decision to eschew electricity was inspired by the Three-Day Week. The Etchingham's repertoire was drawn from the traditional music of Sussex. The only recording by the band available at the time appeared on the 1974 compilation album A Favourite Garland, although Terry Potter and Ian Holder (as well as Simon Nicol and Roger Swallow, formerly of the Albion Country Band) appear on some tracks on Adieu to Old England, a Collins album also released in 1974 (and produced by Ashley Hutchings). Live recordings of the Etchingham Steam Band from 1974 and 1975 were released on a self-titled CD in 1995.

A largely new group of musicians (with some participation from Etchingham Steam Band members) was assembled for two 1976 releases: the Morris On follow up Son of Morris On (with Shirley again providing vocals); and the newly recorded tracks for the Shirley and Dolly Collins album Amaranth (half of which was a reissue of the side-long suite of songs from Anthems in Eden). The involvement of Philip Pickett and John Sothcott in these recordings saw a return to the use of early music instruments. The bulk of the musicians became The Albion Dance Band, performing traditional material on a mixture of modern (electric) and early music instruments, with Collins on vocals. They recorded the album The Prospect Before Us and a BBC session in 1976, with a single ("Hopping Down in Kent") released that year and the album following in 1977. Live recordings from this period were released on the CD Dancing Days are Here Again in 2007.

Collins does not appear on the next Albion Band album (Rise Up Like the Sun, recorded in 1977 and released in 1978, with the "Dance" dropped from the band name) and decided to focus on home life and her children from her first marriage whilst Hutchings and the Albion Band collaborated on several National Theatre productions. It was during this period that Hutchings left Collins.[10] However, she does make one last appearance with the Albion Band, on the 1980 album Lark Rise to Candleford (the soundtrack of the plays).

1978's For As Many As Will was the last studio album recorded by Shirley and Dolly Collins, although live recordings from 1979 have been issued since and in 1979 she released a single, "The Mariner's Farewell", with Bert Jansch.[11] Collins has largely retired from public performance, but she continues to lecture and to appear on radio as an authority on traditional music.

In 1993 David Tibet of the apocalyptic folk band Current 93 released a collection of her recordings, entitled Fountain of Snow on his Durtro label. Since then, she has appeared on a number of Current 93 recordings and sings on the final version of "Idumæa" on their 2006 album Black Ships Ate the Sky.[12]

In 2009 Topic Records included in their 70-year anniversary boxed set Three Score and Ten two tracks from The Sweet Primeroses: "All Things Are Quite Silent" and "The Rigs Of The Time".

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 appeared on Justin Hopper's text composition, "Fourth River: Ley Line", to be released on the Contraphonic Sound Series.[13]

On February 8, 2014 at Union Chapel in Islington, London, UK, Shirley sang for the first time for many years, performing 2 songs; "All the Pretty Little Horses" and "Death and the Lady." She was accompanied by Ian Kearey, from the band Oysterband. She returned to recording and in November 2016, Collins released Lodestar, her first new album in 38 years.[14]


In 2004, she was awarded a Gold Badge by the English Folk Dance and Song Society. She was awarded the MBE for services to music in the 2007 New Year's Honours List. She holds and Honorary Degree from the Open University (for a "notable contribution to education and culture") and an Honorary Doctorate. In 2008 she was given the "Good Tradition" award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. She is currently patron of the South East Folk Arts Network and Folk South West.[15][16] Also in 2008, she was elected as president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.[17] Shirley was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Music from Sussex University, at a ceremony at The Dome in Brighton in July 2016. She was proposed by Richard Elliott, Professor of Popular Music, and was presented with her degree by the Chancellor of the University, Sanjeev Bhaskar.


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.

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.


Shirley and Dolly Collins[edit]

  • Anthems in Eden - EMI Harvest (1969)
  • Love, Death and the Lady - EMI Harvest (1970)
  • For as Many as Will - Topic (1978)
  • Harking Back - Durtro (recorded 1978-79, released 1998) - [live]
  • Snapshots - Fledg'ling (recorded 1966 and 1978–79, released 2006) - [demo and live recordings]

Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band[edit]

Shirley Collins with Ashley Hutchings/The Albion Band[edit]

  • Morris On, by Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Dave Mattacks, John Kirkpatrick and Barry Dransfield - Island/Carthage (1972)
  • Son of Morris On, by Ashley Hutchings and others - Harvest (1976)
  • The Prospect Before Us, by The Albion Dance Band - Harvest (1977)
  • Lark Rise To Candleford, by The Albion Band - Charisma (1980)

The Young Tradition and Shirley and Dolly Collins[edit]

Shirley Collins and Davy Graham[edit]

Etchingham Steam Band (includes Shirley Collins)[edit]


  • A Favourite Garland - Gama (1974) - [compilation]
  • Fountain of Snow - Durtro (1992) - [compilation]
  • The Classic Collection - Highpoint (2004) - [compilation]
  • Within Sound - Fledg'ling (2003) - [box set, compilation]
  • The Harvest Years - EMI (2008) - [compilation of Anthems in Eden, Love, Death and the Lady and Amaranth, with one track each from Son of Morris On and The Prospect Before Us]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Unterberger, Richie. "Shirley Collins | Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved 2016-12-08. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Shirley Collins (2004). America Over the Water. SAF Pub. ISBN 978-0-946719-66-2. 
  3. ^ Reinhard Zierke. "Various Artists: Folk Song Today". Mainly Norfolk. Retrieved 15 August 2016. 
  4. ^ Johan Kugelberg. "Shirley Collins Interview, Part 2 of 5". Perfect Sound Forever. Retrieved 15 August 2016.
    JK: ...So he asked you if you wanted to come with him to the U.S. and assist him.
    SC: Eventually, yes. I lived with him for a couple of years in England first, and we worked on various things there.
  5. ^ Reinhard Zierke. "Alan Lomax and the Ramblers". Mainly Norfolk. Retrieved 15 August 2016. 
  6. ^ Johan Kugelberg. "Shirley Collins Interview, Part 3 of 5". Perfect Sound Forever. Retrieved 15 August 2016.
    JK: I'm confused about the chronology here. Were False True Lovers and Sweet England already recorded by the time you came to the U.S.?
    SC: Yes. I recorded those in '58. Lomax and Kennedy recorded those.
  7. ^ Reinhard Zierke. "Shirley Collins: The Collector EPs". Mainly Norfolk. Retrieved 15 August 2016. 
  8. ^ Johan Kugelberg. "Shirley Collins Interview, Part 3 of 5". Perfect Sound Forever. Retrieved 15 August 2016.
    JJK: ...You met John.
    SC: We got married within a couple of years...
  9. ^ Reinhard Zierke. "Various Artists: A Jug of Punch / A Pinch of Salt / Rocket Along". Mainly Norfolk. Retrieved 15 August 2016. 
  10. ^ Johan Kugelberg. "Shirley Collins Interview, Part 3 of 5". Perfect Sound Forever. Retrieved 15 August 2016. I think when I made Amaranth, I thought that was going to be the last album I made because I'd been away from the kids so much when they were little. And I really wanted to be home with them when they were coming into their teens. I wanted to look after them and be around them. I felt the guilt that any parent feels when you know you've been away from your children. Not at crucial points in their lives. And Ashley, I thought he needed a lot more attention and care at home as well. We'd talked it all through and I thought I was not going to go out on the road anymore, I'd stay at home with the kids and Ashley was going to continue what he wanted to do. I would just do that and look after them all and I was quite happy to think about doing that. Because being on the road is quite exhausting, isn't it? And then the work had started up at the National Theater and Ashley fell in love with first one, and then several other actresses and just left over night. I wasn't sure whether this had been in the back of his mind or not. This is what's so unpleasant when something like that happens, that I had been sort of egged into making this agreement. But I don't really see what the point of that would have been because I still would've had to make a living. But it all really did fall to bits. After the National Theater things did sort of come to a halt for me because that's where my voice got damaged, where my ego got damaged and my heart and everything and I stopped being able to sing properly. 
  11. ^ Reinhard Zierke. "The Mariner's Farewell / Black Birds of Brittany". Mainly Norfolk. Retrieved 15 August 2016. 
  12. ^ Reinhard Zierke. "Current 93: Black Ships Ate the Sky". Mainly Norfolk. Retrieved 15 August 2016. 
  13. ^ "Fourth River on Vimeo". 2013-05-08. Retrieved 2013-07-02. 
  14. ^ Bob Boilen (4 November 2016). "After 38 Years Of Silence, A Legend Of Folk Music Sings". NPR. Retrieved 2 November 2016. 
  15. ^ Pip Barnes. "Honours". Retrieved 15 August 2016. 
  16. ^ "Shirley Collins on her rise to the top, Jimi Hendrix and turning 80...". The Argus. 6 June 2015. Retrieved 15 August 2016. 
  17. ^ "EDS Magazine 70-4 Winter 2008". English Folk Dance and Song Society. Retrieved 2 September 2010. 


External links[edit]