On the eve of her London Barbican concert on 18 February, with more UK dates to follow, singer and folk custodian Shirley Collins selects songs of the soil that speak direct to the heart
Most of the music that has inspired me comes from before the days of mass popular music. It’s not flash in the pan, it doesn’t have the built in obsolescence of pop music, nor is it driven by a desire to make money; it’s the music that ordinary people learned by heart, down through the generations of singers and musicians from one another, continuing a long, long tradition of songs and tunes that were once part of everyday life. They sing of past times from the honest point of view of the people who lived it, giving us fascinating glimpses of social history, insights into the way things were, and, with the deep feelings of the love songs and ballads, the way things still are in human hearts. My choices are mostly field recordings sung unaccompanied by older people.
George Maynard “Polly On The Shore” from Ye Subjects Of England (Topic, 1975)
Dating from the Napoleonic Wars this song takes you to the heart of a furious sea battle, while at the same time is a tender love song with a magnificent tune. George Maynard was a Sussex singer, and a woodsman by trade, with a fine repertoire of songs which he sang with a rare grace.
Mississippi Fred McDowell “61 HIghway” from Fred McDowell, The First Recordings (Rounder, 1997)
A great blues, sung by a great bluesman. I was there working with Alan Lomax, the American folklorist, in Como, Mississippi, in 1959, when the first recordings were made of Fred, a poor cotton farmer who played locally for picnics and dances. At the end of this recording Alan wrote one word in his notebook: perfect. As indeed it was.
Almeda Riddle “Rainbow Mid Life’s Willows” from I’ll Meet You On That Other Shore: Field Recordings From Alan Lomax's "Southern Journey" 1959–1960 (Mississippi, 2010)
Another song from the 1959 field trip – this to me is one of the great recordings. Almeda, in her sixties, lived in Arkansas; she lived alone, having lost her husband in a tornado when their house was blown away. She is one of the great Ozark Mountain singers – that ‘lonesome’ style that, in this song, is quite heart-breaking.
Jimpson And Group “The Murderer's Home” from Prison Songs: Historical Recordings From Parchman Farm 1947–48: Volume One: Murderous Home (Rounder, 1997)
This recording, made in 1947 by Alan Lomax in the Mississippi State Penitentiary Parchman Farm, is, to me, one of the great noble black anthems. It leaps out at you with such power and beauty. Sung by six convicts, it also reflects the fact that the Pen was run as a commercial enterprise, the black convicts the work force… and often imprisoned because they were required as labour… “It ain’t but the one thing I done wrong – stayed in Mississippi just a day too long…”.
Nic Jones “Master Kilby” from Game Set Match (Topic, 2006)
A masterclass in how to sing a traditional song. Nic’s strength and passion is always present, but never overdone. It’s to me one of the greatest of the English songs, collected by Cecil Sharp in 1904 from Harry Richards of Curry Rivel in Somerset. Nic’s singing enhances the passion and sensuality of the words.
Charlie Scamp “Young Leonard” from I'm A Romany Rai. Songs By Southern English Gypsy Traditional Singers (Topic, 2012)
You’ll either love or hate this field recording made in Kent in 1954 by Peter Kennedy. It’s a ballad that tells of the accidental drowning of a young soldier. It’s sung by Charlie Scamp, an English gypsy, in true gypsy style, swooping and crooning in his wonderfully exaggerated way. Great tune, too; first three lines virtually identical, then resolving on the fourth into a thing of beauty.
Phoebe Smith “I’m A Romany Rai” from I’m A Romany Rai (Topic, 2012)
Phoebe was also a member of the Scamp family of gypsies, and a noble singer. Recorded in 1956, this song makes its statement about the love of the gypsy way of life. It probably isn’t a traditional song – but’s it is certainly part of their pride in their culture.
Bob & Ron Copper “Birds In The Spring” and “Babes In The Wood” from Traditional Songs From Rottingdean (Fledg'ling, 2015)
Two longtime favourite songs from The Copper Family of Sussex, and in many ways the singer who inspired me most, Bob Copper, whose family has lived in the same village in Sussex (or thereabouts for over 400 years – Bob often joking that the Coppers moved four miles in that time. These songs are typically Sussex, beautiful, simple melodies and words, sweet but robust harmonies.
They sing songs in a way that I’ve always believed should be sung – straightforwardly, no dramatics, singing to you, and not at you.
Shirley & Dolly Collins “Gilderoy” from For As Many As Will (Fledg'ling, 1978)
And vanity compels me to choose one of my own recordings, and my all-time favourite song “Gilderoy” (FLED3019), and the last song I recorded on the last album I made in 1978 with my sister Dolly. Well, it’s not only vanity, because, of course, Dolly was such a great inspiration to me with the beautiful arrangements she wrote for the songs. And a wonderful sister both on and off stage…