Shirley Collins

Traditional folk singer, collector, writer, researcher and presenter Shirley Collins played a major role in the English Folk Revival of the 1960s and 1970s along with her older sister Dolly, whose accompaniment on portative organ created unique settings for her sister's austere singing. Alongside her work with her sister, Dolly arranged Peter Bellamy’s The Transports, and worked on albums by the Incredible String Band, Ian Matthews, Mark Ellington, Chris Darrow and Tony Rose.

Dad was a milkman, Mum was a Communist, and Shirley and Dolly grew up around Hastings in a family which kept alive a great love of traditional song. Leaving school, Collins enrolled at teachers' training college in south London and involved herself in the early folk revival, singing at folk clubs, and researching English folk music at Cecil Sharp House. In 1954 she met Alan Lomax, the American folk collector who was in the process of avoiding the McCarthy witch-hunt, at a party hosted by Ewan MacColl. 

Lomax and Collins made a trip through the American South in the second half of 1959 collecting material issued by Atlantic Records as Sounds of the South, reenacted in the Coen brothers’ film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, and resulted in the discovery of Mississippi Fred McDowell. The trip was described in Collins's book America Over the Water (2004).

Returning to Britain, Collins helped introduce innovations to the folk revival including the jazz-folk fusion of Folk Roots, New Routes with guitarist Davy Graham and collaborations with The Young Tradition, the Incredible String Band’s Mike Heron and Robin Williamson (The Power Of The True Love Knot) and sister Dolly Collins, culminating with Anthems in Eden, a suite of songs based on the changes in rural England wrought by the First World War. 

Anthems In Eden was followed by Love, Death and the Lady, and No Roses,  the latter recorded in 1971 with the Albion Country Band and her second husband Ashley Hutchings. The couple went on to the all acoustic Etchingham Steam Band, performing traditional music from Sussex and The Albion Dance Band, performing traditional material on a mixture of electric and mediaeval instruments

Shirley retired from performing after 1978's For As Many As Will when psychological trauma associated with divorce resulted in dysphonia, a condition that stops the voice working properly. Linda Thompson, suffered the same condition. Collins may have retired from performing but continues to lecture as an authority on traditional music.


© Ian Hughes 2012