Shirley Collins talks to Dave Freak for Folking

Shirley Collins
Photograph by Eva Vermandel

“It’s been a sort of fairy story!” is how Shirley Collins describes her unexpected return to the spotlight with a studio album and live tour after 30 years of silence.

The singer and song collector was at the forefront of the so-called folk revival, releasing a string of well-received and influential albums in the 1960s and 1970s as a solo artist, and with Davy Graham (the seminal Folk Roots, New Routes), sister Dolly Collins, and the Albion Band. But the shock of her marriage break up to Fairport Convention and Albion Band’s Ashley Hutchings in the early 1980s led to dysphonia, and she effectively lost her singing voice.

But after 20 years of polite pestering David Tibet, of Current 93, managed to get Collins on stage in 2014, at London’s Union Chapel, and the (former) singer (and a hushed audience) discovered she could hold a tune after all!

“Then two filmmakers approached me at one of my talks about gypsies, and wanted to make a film about me, so this started up as well,” Shirley reports on her surprising return to the spotlight. “I guess people wanted to meet me before I died!” she laughs, before quickly adding: “No! I don’t mean that … but there seemed to be enough people out there that remembered me, and it all snowballed.”

Hence the home recording and release of Lodestar at the end of 2016 – via the ever excellent Domino label – and a run of hugely acclaimed live shows.

“I couldn’t tell you how, but it’s been such a surprise. I’m glad it happened, it’s lovely to sing again,” enthuses the 82-year-old. “Domino have been so supportive. They do help promote the album and support you, unlike some record labels that just put out a record and watch it slip away. They’ve all become such friends, I’m so happy to have made this at this point … I do feel so blessed by it all.”

After so long away from recording and singing (Collins says she didn’t even sing at home, in private), it was decided to record Lodestar in the comfort of the folk doyen’s own home in Lewes, Sussex. Pulling together a collection of English, American and Cajun songs from the 16th century to 1950s, highlights include ‘Death And The Lady’, which Collins initially recorded over 45 years ago on Love, Death And The Lady.

“Yes, that was recorded with my sister, Dolly, in nineteen-sixty-whenever-it-was. I always loved that song and I sang that at the Union Chapel, so it was my first song in public again. Of course the key had to be lowered. When it came to doing it Ian [Kearey, Lodestar’s producer] wrote a new arrangement – I love the slide guitar.

“I love Muddy Waters, I love the blues, and there was a point when it suddenly turned into a Muddy Waters song where I’ve spelt death – D.E.A.T.H.” she chuckles. I did that song at Rough Trade [store in London] for the record launch and I did ‘Death spelt … T.R.U.M.P! It got a great cheer! I shouldn’t do it to that song, it’s a bit of mischief … I love the song anyway. It felt so right with the slide guitar on it, it made it sound mysterious, but strong.”

Taking Lodestar out on tour, Collins has created a full show which sees her perform the album in its entirety, plus film shorts, Morris dancing, and guest musicians.

“We’ve had guests like Graham Coxon – it’s unbelievable. Here’s this guitarist from Blur, and he sings, and plays, so beautifully – who’d have thought he’d be so into folk music? hen we visit Warwick Arts Centre [29 April 2017] we’ll have John Kirkpatrick [who] is just about my favourite singer, and Lisa Knapp – she’s a really gorgeous singer. At other shows, we’ve got Olivia Chaney, who is very good too, and others.”

In her time away from music, it would be wrong to suggest Collins was invisible. She published a memoir in 2004, America Over The Water, documenting her song collecting expedition with Alan Lomax; picked up an MBE for her Services To Music in 2007; curated a South Bank festival in 2008, and received a Good Tradition Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards the same year; and created a series of spoken word-based shows exploring Gypsy singers, Bob Copper, music from Sussex, and her trip to the USA.

Now back as a bona fide ‘recording artiste’, she’s full of praise for many younger performers (such as Knapp, Chaney, Alasdair Roberts and others), but finds the current popular use of the term ‘folk’ to seemingly describe anyone with an acoustic guitar somewhat misleading.

“People who write their own stuff – that’s not traditional music. I have to say that I don’t find it very interesting, I know that sounds harsh, but it’s not traditional folk music.”

Perhaps ‘singer/songwriter’ would be a better term?

“Exactly!” she agrees swiftly. “I get these messages from Amazon, and there was one about Folk Singers and number one on the list was Adele! Adele!” she repeats, exasperated. “I do like her as a singer … but she is not folk music!

“So I have to put proper folk songs in front of people – that’s my challenge. Folk … it gives us our music, it’s not global, it’s not about making money. I don’t like globalisation – everything is the same everywhere. I want variety. I want choice. I hear these kids singing with American accents and that saddens me … everything becomes a blur to me. I like difference, I like distinctiveness, I like the fact [folk is] still surviving, it’s working class music … and I don’t care if it’s not working class people recording, but I work to be part of that.

“It’s music from the labouring classes provided by people who’ve kept it going, learning it off by heart and passing it down. That’s a great achievement – people who’ve been exploited by the wealthy providing this glorious music.”

She agrees that the rise of gloablisation and dominance of pop music would make a song collecting exercise like she embarked on in 1959 virtually pointless today.

“Big business has encroached on everything and everywhere. I don’t think I want to go there now. It was bad enough in 1959, but now? I wouldn’t feel safe – would you? America feels sad to me now. It was dangerous in 1959,” she recalls of her trip as an outsider in her mid-20s. “It was right on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement and we were going to places like Mississippi State Penitentiary, where we recorded these work songs, and black communities, but we were always welcomed, we always felt welcomed by the old blues men and the true, old mountaineers. They wanted to meet us, they wanted to meet people from the old country. But we were held up at gunpoint – we stopped to take a photograph of a chain gang. There we had a gun pointed at us and we were told ‘get those wheels rolling!’”

Collins also recalls a run-in with an aggressive Kentucky Baptist who took offence to her short hair and clothes

“I had to run to escape,” she says. “There was something scary … but if we’d been there a year later, I might have ended up as a pile of bones in the Mississippi mud. There was this sense that people were watching … always watching …”

Dave Freak

* Shirley Collins appears at Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, on Saturday 29 April 2017. For tickets and more information, see: www.warwickartscentre.co.uk

Artist’s website: www.shirleycollins.co.uk

VARIOUS – From Here: English Folk Field Recordings (From Here Sitw005)

From HereThey may be newcomers to the scene, but Stick In The Wheel are certainly making their mark, not just with their own recordings and associated artifacts, but in their involvement with the folk world in general, and the traditional in particular.

Band members Ian Carter and Nicola Kearey serve as curators, collaborators and producers for this collection of new live recordings by both the great and good and some of the lesser known luminaries in the genre. The remit for those involved was to record songs that explored either place or their musical identity, culminating in a gathering of field recordings captured in locations as diverse as a stone cottage in Edale, a bank vault and a garden at Robin Hood’s Bay using just two stereo microphones and with no subsequent overdubs.

As you would imagine, the tracks are stark and raw, first up being ‘Bedfordshire May Carol’, chosen by performer Jack Sharp, leader of psych-folk outfit Wolf People, as it supposedly originated just a few miles from where he grew up. Next up, Eliza Carthy leads a flurry of more familiar names with a self-penned number, ‘The Sea’, a new setting of the broadside ballad found in Manchester’s Chetham Library and featuring on her current album, the initial pizzicato fiddle giving way to more robust playing. She’s followed by one of the veterans of English folk, John Kirkpatrick, applying his accordion to a song from his lengthy repertoire and a folk club staple ‘Here’s Adieu To Old England’, while his sometimes musical partner, Martin Carthy, also chose a number he’s recently reintroduced back into his sets, ‘The Bedmaking’, a familiar tale of the abused and cast aside servant girl. fingerpicked here to a halting rhythm.

Sandwiched in-between is one of the rising stars of the few folk firmament, the Peak District’s Bella Hardy, who went to 19th century collection The Ballads and Songs of Derbyshire for ‘The Ballad of Hugh Stenson’, setting it to a more upbeat tune than the hymnal adapted by Jon Tams, while, another member of folk royalty, Jon Boden puts his squeezebox to work on a contemplative take on 19th century drinking song ‘Fathom The Bowl’.

There’s a couple of spokes from the Wheel, both unaccompanied, Kearey delivering glottal version of the much covered ‘Georgie’ and Fran Foote ‘The Irish Girl’. They’re not the only numbers to be sung naked as it were. BritFolk alumnus Lisa Knapp has a lovely treatment of the tumblingly melodious ‘Lavender Song’, while, also from the female side, Fay Hield tips the hat to Annie Briggs with her choice of ‘Bonny Boy’.

On the other side of a capella gender fence, Geordie folkie Stew Simpson mines his Newcastle roots for ‘Eh Aww Ah Cud Hew’ (which the accompanying booklet helpfully translates as “Oh Yes, I Could Pick At The Coals”), Sam Lee turns the evergreen ‘Wild Rover’ on its head to transform it into a slow, sad lament rather than more familiar rollicking rouser of Dubliners and Pogues note, and, from Wales, a deep-voiced Men Diamler closes the album with ‘1848 (Sunset Beauregard)’, a self-penned political protest ballad about Tory policies. The remaining unaccompanied track is actually a duet, Peta Webb and Ken Hall joining voices for an Irish in London in the 50s marriage of Ewan MacColl’s ‘Just A Note’, about the building of the M1, and Bob Davenport’s account of the dangers of ‘Wild Wild Whiskey’.

The three remaining tracks are all instrumentals. Bristol’s acoustic instrumental quartet Spiro are the only band on the collection and provide their self-penned ‘Lost In Fishponds’, apparently about getting lost en route to a gig, joined here by North Wales violinist Madame Česki, while Sam Sweeney brings his fiddle to bear on two tunes. ‘Bagpipers’, one of the first things he played with his band Leveret, and ‘Mount Hills’, an English dance tune from the 17th century. Which leaves Cumbrian concertina maestro Rob Harbron to provide the third with a pairing of ‘Young Collins’, a Costwolds’ tune learned from Alistair Anderson, and, another from the Morris tradition, ‘Getting Up The Stairs’, which, by way of a pleasing synchronicity, he actually learned by way of John Kirkpatrick on the influential Morris On album.

It more than does the job it set out to achieve, and, likely to loom large in end of year awards, fully warrants a place in any traditional folk fan’s collection.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.stickinthewheel.com

Stew Simpson – ‘Eh Aww Ah Cud Hew’:

Lisa Knapp announces new solo album

Lisa Knapp
Photograph by Teresa Klasener

Lisa Knapp first emerged in 2007 with a remarkable, independently released debut Wild And Undaunted which was followed a full seven years later by the equally striking Hidden Seam. Both albums were met with critical acclaim and saw Lisa established as one of the most creative and distinctive artists around. Her third solo album, Til April Is Dead – A Garland of May Songs is due for release by Ear to the Ground Records on 28th April 2017.

This sparklingly fresh album features eleven startlingly original versions of traditional songs. With a radiant interpretation of traditional folk, Lisa merges fiddle, hammer dulcimer and strings, with birdsong and sonic delights from the technological age. ‘May Garland’, which Lisa found at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, reminds us – “a man a man, his life’sa span, he flourishes like a flower, he’s here today and gone tomorrow, he’s gone all in an hour” – that in the midst of celebration, there are limits on our time. Lisa is joined by another ground-breaking folk singer, Mary Hampton on ‘Bedfordshire May Carol’. Lisa’s version of the title track, ‘Til April Is Dead/Hal-An-Tow’ was inspired by the Mystery Play in Helston, Cornwall. Originally printed as ‘The Maypole Song’ in 1656, ‘Staines Morris’ has a melody with a courtly, theatrical sound and this version features the lively and mischievous vocals of David Tibet. In ‘Searching For Lambs’ – a song Lisa first heard sung by Shirley Collins – she is joined by Graham Coxon. Both Lisa and Graham have performed with Shirley and here he lends his vocals and guitar to this English folksong gem.

Lisa first conceived a May EP to mark a time of year that has long been celebrated in the folklore calendar. Many children growing up in the UK have experienced dancing around a Maypole. The Victorian version, complete with pretty ribbons, was a modern vestige of a much older practice dating back to at least 1400, probably earlier. May songs are sung across Northern Europe, suggesting that even when the language alters, the ideas, beliefs and customs across borders remain similar. With inventive production by respected producer and partner, Gerry Diver, Lisa populates her latest recordings with the sounds of insects and birds, making the connection with landscape and nature emerging, teetering on the edge of eruption. She also makes use of old clocks, bells and barrel organs, considered to have been ‘modern’ musical gadgets in the 18-19ths century when many of the May traditions we’re still familiar with took place.

As well as now being synonymous with International Workers Day on 1st May – the entire month is long been filled with celebration of the cycle of life, of summer coming in; of May garlands, May Queens, chimney sweeps making Jack in the Greens and Milkmaids dressing themselves in silver pots and pans – at odds with the mundane aspect of the everyday, descriptions of these events now seem evocative, raucous and strange.

A South Londoner born and bred, Lisa’s early musical development led her through drum and bass, teenage raves, acid house and an electric guitar bought to learn Jimi Hendrix songs. In her teens, she also came across folk music when she heard a friend’s record collection and she was hooked! In the intervening years, Lisa has established and evolved her own distinctive voice. She’s toured the UK with her own band, but also in the company of James Yorkston, Sam Lee and Leafcutter John and most recently, as a special guest of Shirley Collins on her ‘Lodestar’ live shows.

Lisa regularly appears at UK festivals and alongside a diverse range of artists on the stages of London’s Southbank and Barbican Centres. Lisa has appeared on BBC Radio 2/3/4 & 6Music and has also presented an acclaimed documentary for BBC Radio 4 called Shipping Songs, based on the Shipping Forecast and one of her tracks, described as “one of the most original and astonishing songs of the sea you could wish for” – Folk Radio.

Artist’s website: www.lisaknapp.co.uk

‘May Garland’ – Lisa live with Gerry Diver:

New Video from Lisa Knapp + BBC Folk Awards

Lisa Knapp Hidden Seam

Lisa Knapp first emerged in 2007 with a remarkable debut album, ‘Wild And Undaunted’ and quickly established herself as a highly distinctive, creative artist, merging a radiant style of traditional folk and self-penned song with vocal, fiddle, hammer dulcimer, strings, banjo and contemporary production.

It was a long wait but evidently worth it – the South Londoner’s much anticipated 2nd full length album, Hidden Seam, is finally available from Navigator Records. Continue reading New Video from Lisa Knapp + BBC Folk Awards