Friday, September 09, 2016


Photo credit: Eva Vermandel

“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

It is a great pleasure to be amongst the first journalists to be given the announcement that a new record by Shirley Collins is to be released on Domino Records on November 4th - her first album for 38 years. It was recorded in Shirley's cottage and I live just a few doors down but was completely unaware it was happening.

I first met Shirley in January 1969 when I was 18, long-haired and running, with other friends and freaks, the Worthing Workshop, what used to be called an Arts Lab. We did gigs, concerts, poetry readings, protests and sold underground newspapers in the street and smoked dope in the parks. For one reason or another we decided also to start a folk club (a venture that didn't last as it turned out) in one of the local pubs near the station. Somehow we got to book Shirley Collins. Not sure at all how that happened.

Anyway on the night, I was running the show and also playing. I remember the timing because it was some time  after 'Wee Tam and the Big Huge', the amazing double album by the Incredible String Band which had been released a couple of months before and I had learnt one of the most complicated songs on the album 'Ducks On A Pond' as a kind of party piece I played that night

I had the privilege of going to meet Shirley at the station and guide her to the venue. I was completely gobsmacked as Shirley was (and is) beautiful and magical. I wish I could say I remember more of the evening. Obviously Shirley sang and I may have led her back to the station but my strongest memory
is that first sight on the station platform. I was young.

Many years later, I met up with Shirley in Lewes in 2004 around the occasion of the release of her wonderful book 'America: Over The Water' about her trip to the Southern states when she was 19, as assistant the folk song hunter Alan Lomax. As id discovered, she'd been living down the road from me for some time and I hadn't even noticed. Full details and links in a Previous Post (3rd July 2005)


The press release, which calls 'Lodestar', with some justice, 'the unlikeliest release of the century so far' provides an informative summary of the album itself and Shirley's life and times to date.
'Lodestar' is a collection of English, American and Cajun songs dating from the 16th Century to the1950s, recorded at Shirley’s home in Lewes by Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown of Cyclobe and produced and musically directed by Ian Kearey.
The first track to be shared from Lodestar is ‘Cruel Lincoln’. Shirley explains the history of the song: “This is an ancient ballad, found only rarely in England. The theory is that Cruel Lincoln was a masonwho was not paid for the work he did for ‘the Lord of the Manor’ and so extracted a terrible revenge”.It also features bird song recorded at the back of Shirley’s cottage.

Born in Hastings in 1935, Shirley was fascinated by folk songs as she was growing up, 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, after coaxing from David Tibet (Current 93), that Shirley sang in public for the first time since 1982. 
Though Shirley Collins (MBE) has been absent from the music scene for many years, her impact has not diminished, the likes of Graham Coxon, Jonny Greenwood, Stewart Lee and Angel Olsen laud her and a documentary The Ballad of Shirley Collins is currently in progress. Additionally, 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 in the same year and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Music from Sussex University this year. Shirley is currently working on her second book. 
Now Shirley Collins has sung once more (with a mischievous delight in defeating expectation), the accepted canon of her great recordings will have to be comprehensively recalibrated, yet again.

Lodestar will be available on limited edition deluxe vinyl with a 24 page 12” booklet featuring song notes by Shirley Collins and sleeve notes by Stewart Lee and a signed print (signed print is available exclusively via Dom Mart), limited edition deluxe CD with 28 page booklet and standard vinyl. For more details visit Dom Mart.

I have had the privilege of reading Stewart Lee's extensive sleeve notes. He is enchanted and besotted by Shirley and writes lyrically and perceptively explaining the depths and magic that he perceives in her and her singing.  Here's a taste:
'I first met Shirley in 2003, in the Hove flat where she lived alone, just as the reissue efforts of fans like David Tibet, the shape-shifting polymath of the English experimental underground, and Fledg’ling Records’ folk archivist David Suff, began to nudge knowledge of her work beyond the realm of record-collector adepts. Blissfully disconnected from the on-line information ocean, Shirley herself had been utterly unaware of how interest in her had been growing since she had finally forsworn singing in 1982.  
“All I did was perform the songs in a straightforward way,” she explained. “It’s the only way I can sing them, because when people start dramatising or enacting a song, I just become embarrassed. I think the best way is to draw people in, not to stand there and declaim it.”
To me, her egoless recordings resist stylistic flourishes, remove the obstacle of the performer’s personality, and directly channel the listener to the words and music, reconnecting traditional tunes with the strange worlds they emerged from. I put it to her that she didn’t inhabit a song so much as surrender to it. ' 

Photo credit: Eva Vermandel

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