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Shirley Collins: Heartbreak stole my voice. Singing again is extraordinary

Marriage breakdown led to Shirley Collins losing her singing voice, but the folk icon survived. She tells the story of a remarkable comeback

Shirley Collins

Image: Grant Gee

Shirley Collins was born in Hastings in 1935. Alongside sister and future collaborator Dolly, she helped spearhead the English folk revival, having fallen in love with traditional song when they were growing up.

After recording her first albums in 1958, following a spell at teacher training college, Collins became a key player in the folk movement, working with the likes of the archivist Alan Lomax, Bert Jansch and her future husband Ashley Hutchings.

Personal troubles led to Collins losing her voice and retiring from the music industry and focus on raising her children. But she gradually returned to performing and recording, and in 2016 released Lodestar, her first album in 38 years. Since then their have been two further albums of new material.

Speaking to The Big Issue for the iconic Letter to my Younger Self feature, Collins reflects on an incredible career, the sexism she’s had to encounter and the heartbreak that led to a long career hiatus.

One of the things I remember about being 16 is that we never washed our hair more than once a week. There was one shampoo called Amami and the ad said, “Friday night is Amami night.” I also remember craving open toed sling-back sandals, but I didn’t ever get them because I couldn’t afford them. In those days there was no credit. If you didn’t have money, you didn’t have it. My mum was a bus conductor. She earned four pounds a week, and that was to look after two kids and herself. Some things were hard on us, but I do remember the freedom of it as well. My sister and I were able to go up the road and over the stile into the fields for days and days, totally unworried about anything at all, just enjoying the lovely countryside. So we were poor but we had a lovely freedom and lived enjoyable lives.

I had such a fortunate background in many ways. I was five when the Second World War broke out, living in Hastings, and because of the air raids we slept in an Anderson shelter. My grandparents used to sing to my sister and me. Granny sang over-sentimental Edwardian ballads, mostly about people dying. But grandad sang English folk songs and I loved them and learned them by heart. It was this I think that started my love of English folk music – the feeling of security, from my grandad who I really, really loved. 

Shirley and Dolly Collins
1966: Rehearsing with sister Dolly Collins (seated) for their album The Sweet Primrose. Image: Brian Shuel/Redferns

When I was 18, I went to teacher training college, but after a year I knew it wasn’t for me. I thought the only other thing I want to do is sing. So I moved to London, and attended everything I could where I could hear songs. I tried to get into the Cecil Sharp House library to find out more about folk music, but it was such a middle-class place I had a real struggle getting in. I would get as far as a desk and ask if I could go to the library, and they would just say no. I thought, hang on, this is supposed to be a place for the ordinary English people. Let me in, don’t keep me out. 

But then I got to know Peter Kennedy, the son of Douglas Kennedy, the director of the society. Once a week he’d open up the cellar of Cecil Sharp House for people to go in and just sit in a circle and sing songs. Then I realised that Peter had made field recordings of songs from all over the British Isles. I listened to those and it was then I knew my heart was in singing these songs of ordinary working people. Everything you could say about humanity and everyday life was in these British spirituality songs – love songs, songs about death, songs about people being snatched away to the war, vindictive songs. Everything. I should add that 15 years ago I became the president of Cecil Sharp House, which is quite amusing.

Another big turning point was meeting Alan Lomax [famous collector of American field recordings – Shirley’s role in his work has been enormously downplayed] and going to America with him to make field recordings. I loved the American music I heard, both from white mountain people and the Black singers of Mississippi. It was all wonderful and I loved the people I met. It was scary from time to time, challenging American cops and things but we had lovely times and made such good friends. I think what they particularly liked was knowing they were being recorded by somebody who loved their music, it gave them such a great sense of worth. Their music was often despised because it wasn’t pop music, or very successful. But it was the backbone of American music. 

We discovered Mississippi Fred McDowell, the greatest blues man I’ve ever heard. He was just picking cotton the day we met him. After he finished work, he came along to a clearing between these little houses, sat down and started playing blues. And it was the best thing I’ve ever heard. The Rolling Stones took him up and bought him a silver lamé suit. It’s said that he was buried in it.

I was 25 when I got married for the first time [to producer and songwriter Austin John Marshall]. I had an anxious time when I went to get my divorce. I actually had to go to court and make up a story about how John had been unfaithful, saying I found contraceptives in his jacket. It cost money, you had to have a counsel, and then you had to go to court and talk about your private life in front of these people. It was appalling. Then I got married again to Ashley Hutchings [founder of major folk bands Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention and The Albion Band]. I was anxious then too, especially when we went to visit his parents and they clearly didn’t approve of me because I was older than him.

I would tell my younger self to stand up for herself better. I should have spoken out and been tougher. I’m so ashamed of it now. But in those days, it was normal for women to be treated in a certain way. You didn’t really have any business dealings with the men in record companies. I sat with Ashley on the No Roses [her 1971 album] contract and he did all the talking. I can remember the frustration of it. But sometimes if you spoke up you were shut up anyway. Blokes just talked over you.

I would like to go back to myself when I was getting divorced from Ashley and put my arm around myself and say, “It’s going to be OK.” I wish actually that Ashley had put his arm around me, but he didn’t, because he was in love with several other people at the time. It led to the loss of my singing voice completely, I just couldn’t do it. The same thing happened to Linda Thompson, and that was such a wretched thing, to steal her beautiful voice. She’s still not terribly confident. And all because some bloke has decided to break your heart, you lose not only your husband and your social life, but your voice as well. I’m sure some men get brokenhearted as well, but all I know is that the men who cause it just trot off into the future and seem to get away scot free really.

Shirley Collins with other British folk musicians 2015 on stage at Cecil Sharp House
2015: With other British folk musicians 2015 on stage at Cecil Sharp House in London to mark the centenary of the birth of folk legend Bob Copper. Image: Judith Burrows/Getty Images

After I had problems with my voice, I still tried to do one or two things in public and it was so humiliating I thought, I can’t put myself through this. So I completely withdrew. I couldn’t even sing to myself indoors. I couldn’t get a note out. So I tried to find other ways to make a living. It would be lovely if I could go back to that wretched person who was in such sorrow and console her, but at least I’ve lived it. I’ve made it through, looked out for my children, watched them grow up, kept things going. And then, in my old age, discovered I could sing again [in February 2014 Shirley sang in public for the first time in many years. Two years later she released the highly acclaimed Lodestar, her first album in 38 years, and has released two more albums since]. It’s been extraordinary.

If I could have one last conversation, it would have to be with my grandad. He served in India for five years in the war. And when he returned he resumed his gardening life. I can remember sitting on his lap, combing his silver moustache with a big metal comb. He was a very patient man. I never felt as secure with anybody in my life as I did with him. And he loved the countryside. One of my uncles told me that when his babies were newborns, he’d take them outside the cottage and hold them up to show them the sky and the trees. Because he just loved country life. I was at college when he died and I couldn’t get back, partly because we couldn’t afford the fare, and partly because it was winter and it was snowing hard. It was just his own children and his wife at the service. I really felt upset about not being there, I loved him so much. 

Shirley Collins’ new album Archangel Hill is out now on Domino. shirleycollins.com

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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