The Ballad of Shirley Collins presents a fascinating musical journey, and shows how traditional songs and folk customs, and the people who continue these practices, survive and evolve in to the modern day. It is a story of discovery and rediscovery; of loss and recovery.
In a text introduction, Shirley Collins is described as possibly the 20th Century’s most important singer of English traditional music, and her portrayal certainly warrants this accolade: with the musical accompaniment of her sister Dolly, Collins would perform beautiful and contemporary renditions of old English songs, keeping these ancient pieces alive; and during her relationship with the renowned ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, she travelled the U.S.A. recording and preserving the disparate musical styles of that vast country.
Collins’ contribution to the repertoire of traditional music cannot be overstated; it is a cruel irony then, that she would lose her singing voice for three decades due to a traumatic and life-changing incident, only to remerge into the musical world at the age of eighty.
Perhaps the film could be viewed as a tale of two Shirleys, and the accomplishments of each. The viewer receives glimpses of the younger Shirley through recorded performances, interviews conducted by accomplished devotees (including a clearly star-struck Stewart Lee), and in her own words through letters sent to her family from America. Two things are immediately striking about the young Shirley Collins; her beautiful voice, and her eloquent expression. We hear the former in archived footage, and Stewart Lee observes that Collins’ talent seemed to emerge fully-formed in to the world; it is a beautiful voice, high and clear, lending life and vibrancy to old lyrics.
Yet Collins is just as engaging in her own words. In her letters home, she claims that her romantic preconceptions of Kentucky fled from her like “pigeons from a cat”; she describes racism in Mississippi and gender discrimination in Arkansas, weighing these injustices against the beautiful music she heard and generosity she received, remarking “Oh! the South; cruel and kind-hearted… witty and illiterate”. These are not the postcard scribblings of a naïve tourist, but astute observations on the hypocrisies of the American South.
Collins would separate from Lomax and return to England, continuing her career at the centre of the English folk revivalist scene. This career was cut cruelly short in 1980, when her then husband left her for an actress in a stage show in which the three were performing together. Collins says that this betrayal “undid” her, and she was so affected that she could no longer sing: should she try, her throat would close. In one poignant scene Collins reflects on this loss, remarking that, “There are some great female voices around now, but I’m not one of them”.
There is a deep vein of loss running through the elderly Shirley’s story: the loss of her husband, and the subsequent silent years without her singing voice; the loss she suffered as a child when her father left her; and the loss of her sister and musical companion, Dolly. But it is to Collins’ credit that this is not the end of her story, that she is not defined by resignation or stoic acceptance: instead, it is the renewal of Collins’ singing abilities and her re-emergence as a musical force which resonates after the film’s close.
The latter half of the documentary features multiple scenes of Collins recording songs for her a new album; her first in thirty-eight years. In candid detail, we see Collins taking uncertain steps down a once well-trodden path. Sometimes, her voice will break; she explains that her decision to conduct home recordings to avoid the scrutiny of a professional studio engineer; she is modest about her talents, and self-effacing when confronted with her legacy. Indeed, when the idea of a documentary film was proposed to her, Collins was incredulous, remarking that “When they first asked me… I thought, ‘is it a wind-up?’”
Collins once breathed new life in to old songs, carrying them in to the British folk scene of the 1960s and 70s, and preserved the old songs of the American south. This forms a charming parallel to Collins’ late career; for now that she has rediscovered her voice she has not only continued to revive old songs, but herself as well. Fittingly, she has even recorded the last composition to be written by her sister Dolly, and in a touching moment we hear this song being played on Dolly’s freshly restored keyboard.
Collins’ unassuming modesty and passion for music is a refreshing change from the tiresomely boastful and self-endorsing nature of vacuous celebrity culture, and completely unwarranted. Collins’ new album Lodestar is a critical success, with multiple award nominations and regarded by some to be her best work. The film’s closing shot is of Collins riding in to the distance, seated comfortably in the back of a car much like the one in which she travelled the American south. Her journey isn’t done yet- she has many songs left to sing.
Shirley Collins performs in Belfast at The Blackbox on Friday the 26th of January. The album Lodestar is available now (Amazon).