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Read an extract from All In The Downs: Reflections On Life, Landscape And Song

April 2018

An excerpt from chapter six of Shirley Collins's memoir, published by Strange Attractor Press

Not only was Austin John [Marshall] a great supporter of my singing, he was always aware of what was going on elsewhere musically and, apart from jazz, he had a fine ear for what was good and interesting. It was his suggestion that I should collaborate with Davy Graham, a young guitarist that he’d heard play in one of the jazz clubs he frequented. Davy was making a name for himself with a revolutionary style that combined folk, blues and jazz, with Middle Eastern, North African and Indian overtones. The word ‘jazz’ rang alarm bells, but I agreed to listen to Davy. He came out to Blackheath one day; a handsome, gentle and charming young man. He sat down, tuned up his guitar and said that he’d like to play his arrangement of “She Moves Through The Fair” – a song I knew well from the singing of Margaret Barry. What, I wondered, would Davy do with this classic song? Well, he played it like an Indian raga – it worked, and somehow he enhanced its Irish quality at the same time. I was both impressed and captivated, and decided there and then that it could be a worthwhile and workable experiment.

John proposed a collaborative album to Decca Records, and in 1964 Folk Roots, New Routes was recorded and released. Davy played three of his own compositions, “Rif Mountain”, “Grooveyard” and “Blue Monk”. His most famous piece, “Angi” had already been recorded on his first EP 3/4 AD with Alexis Korner in 1962. Every guitarist worth his salt played “Angi”; it was even covered by Simon & Garfunkel on their 1966 album Sounds Of Silence.

I chose three English songs, two Scottish, two Irish and seven American songs, two of which, “Dearest Dear” and “Pretty Saro” (for which I wrote the tune), came from [Cecil] Sharp’s Appalachian book. “Saro” was one of Davy’s most radical arrangements, pushing and whining the notes, taking off between verses with Indian and North African riffs, then settling back down to a long deep chord to open the next verse. It was powerful stuff, and it strengthened my singing. Two of the songs I’d learned on my American field trip with Alan Lomax, “The Bad Girl” from the noted Virginia singer Texas Gladden, and “The Boll Weevil”, from Vera Hall, a black washerwoman of Alabama, who was one of the most simply beautiful singers I’d heard – she sang so lightly, and so gracefully. I tried to capture her spirit, and I hope I didn’t do too badly. Davy enhanced all the songs with his distinctive arrangements, while never losing their original identities, understanding how essential that was. He played with such strength, allure and depth, the like of which none of us had heard before. Everything, everyone paled beside him.

The recording process was quite straightforward; neither of us being temperamental. We were, however, quite widely separated from each other across the studio floor, perched on stools, my least favourite position for singing. There’s a photo of us from that session looking quite forlorn! It was here that I learned the importance of a great recording engineer – and ours was Gus Dudgeon, one of the very best. And a very fine producer, too, Ray Horricks.

I was pleased with the album – and still am; I sang well, and there was a certain poise about it. There’s only one song I wish I hadn’t included – “Jane, Jane”, which I’d learned from Peggy Seeger and was totally unsuitable. I think I felt that I needed one lighter song, but why I chose that one, I don’t know, agreeing with one reviewer who wrote “What on earth made her sing that?” Was the album well received? In some quarters yes, in others not. Hackles rose; the knives were out from the [Ewan] MacColl gang.

In one of the folk magazines this verse was printed, the writer hiding behind the pseudonym of Speedwell... but we all knew who it was.

“The words form in her mouth like jellied eels, Sloppy, slithering half-formed words
 that fall to earth like wing-less birds, 
like half-chewed ju-jubes, consonants congeal, But nimble fingered Davy carries her along, The Lady Baden-Powell of English song...”

There was also something about me being bucolic, lumbering like a Jersey cow...

But apart from that, it was generally agreed that it was a defining moment in the world of folk song; that could hardly be denied. Karl Dallas later wrote in his book The Electric Muse: “It was there at that instant that electric folk was born; folk rock, call it what you will”. Even though it was an entirely acoustic album!

I never liked the original album sleeve, and was happy when it was reissued in 1980 by John on his and Gill Cook’s label, Righteous Records, with a new cover, a lovely, sensitive drawing that he did of Davy and me, our two heads together. John was delighted that he was able to release it in stereo; the original, although recorded in stereo, was released in mono.

The whole experience made me aware that there were ways to accompany songs that, while still respecting their source, breathed new life into them; the songs deserved that. At the same time, I was still Shirley Collins, from Sussex, singing in her own natural voice; I wouldn’t, couldn’t, change that – ever.

But back to Davy. Our musical partnership wasn’t to last. I was often nervous in his company; he was occasionally unreliable, or behaved strangely, due to the drugs he took, I suppose. One evening we had a concert together just north of London and had arranged to link up at King’s Cross station, but when we met he said we couldn’t travel on the same train, and wouldn’t give a reason. So, baffled and a little humiliated, I caught one train, he another, a very unsettling start to a concert. He was highly intelligent, intellectual, and with wide-ranging interests. He always carried a book and would read passages to me, mostly about Eastern religions. I didn’t understand it, and anyway it simply didn’t hold any appeal for me; but the outcome was that I felt somehow superficial and trivial. Davy was exquisitely courteous, but often stern and aloof; a man you couldn’t always feel at ease with, but one that you were bound to admire.

All In The Downs: Reflections On Life, Landscape And Song by Shirley Collins is published by Strange Attractor Press. The book's introduction is by Stewart Lee. It's available to buy at The Wire's online bookshop.

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