Iconic English folk singer and song collector, Shirley Collins, has enjoyed a momentous recent return to the stage. Her deep and lasting influence on many contemporary singers is significant, inspired by her belief in the ‘song not the singer’ at the core of her performances of traditional material.
Emily Portman is one such singer. She met Shirley as a 17 year old on a Folk SouthWest Summer School, where she benefited from Shirley’s sage advice, her encouragement and a treasured gift of Pop Maynard’s song book. Shirley has remained an influence ever since, and, with their shared passion in the source material, this event promises to be an insightful and engaging conversation about lives lived in song.
Shirley Collins, born in Hastings in 1935, was fascinated by folk songs as she was growing up, whether songs she heard on the radio or sung by her grandparents in Anderson shelters. She left home for London to immerse herself in the burgeoning folk scene. At a party held by Ewan MacColl she met Alan Lomax, and in 1959, she joined him in the USA on the renowned field trip ‘Southern Journey’, recording American folk songs and blues, a formative journey for her personally and professionally.
On her return to England, Shirley cemented her role at the forefront of the Folk Revival, recording over a dozen albums including the influential Folk Roots, New Routes with avant-garde guitarist Davy Graham, and No Roses, from which The Albion Country Band was formed. However, in the 1980s, Shirley lost her singing voice – later diagnosed as a form of dysphonia – and withdrew from performing live. It was only in 2014, that Shirley sang in public for the first time since 1982. Since then she has produced an acclaimed album Lodestar, for Domino Records in 2016 and performed live at a host of important festivals including Celtic Connections, Brighton Festival, Copenhagen Documentary Festival, Supersonic as well at major venues including The Barbican, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and The Sage Gateshead.
Though Shirley Collins (MBE) was absent from the music scene for many years, her impact did not diminish, as the likes of Graham Coxon, Jonny Greenwood, Stewart Lee and Angel Olsen lauded her.
‘Shirley is a time traveller, a conduit for essential human aches, one of the greatest artists who ever lived, and yet utterly humble’ Stewart Lee
A documentary The Ballad of Shirley Collins was released about her in Autumn 2017. She was given the ‘Good Tradition’ award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2008, elected President of the English Folk Dance & Song Society and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Music from Sussex University all in the same year. Shirley released her first memoir, America Over the Water, in 2004 and has just published her autobiography, All In The Downs.