Years: 1955 - 1979; 2014 - present
Styles: Folk Rock
Shirley Collins - 5 string banjo, Autoharp , Banjo, Guitar, Vocals (in band: 1955 - 1979; 2014 - present)
Shirley Elizabeth Collins is an English folk singer who was a significant contributor to the English Folk Revival of the 1960s and 1970s. She often performed and recorded with her sister Dolly, whose accompaniment on piano and portative organ created unique settings for her sister's plain, austere singing style.
Shirley Collins and her older sister, Dolly, grew up in the Hastings area of East Sussex in a family which kept alive a great love of traditional song. Songs learnt from their grandfather and from their mother's sister, Grace Winborn, were to be important in the sisters' repertoire throughout their career.
On leaving school, at the age of 17, Collins enrolled at a teachers' training college in Tooting, south London. In London she also involved herself in the early folk revival, making her first appearance on vinyl on the 1955 compilation Folk Song Today.
In 1954, at a party hosted by Ewan MacColl, she met Alan Lomax, the American folk collector, who had moved to Britain to avoid the McCarthy witch-hunt, which was then raging in America.
In 1958 Collins recorded her first two albums, Sweet England and False True Lovers. The albums featured sparse arrangements with Collins accompanying herself on the banjo. Sweet England was released in 1959 and False True Lovers in 1960. Collins also recorded a series of EPs in 1958 and 1959 with The Foggy Dew and English Songs being released in 1959.
From July to November 1959, Collins and Lomax made a folk song collecting trip in the Southern U.S. states. It resulted in many hours of recordings, featuring performers such as Almeda Riddle, Hobart Smith, and Bessie Jones, and is noted for the discovery of Mississippi Fred McDowell. Recordings from this trip were issued by Atlantic Records under the title Sounds of the South, and some were re-enacted in the Coen brothers’ film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. The experience of her life with Lomax, and the making of the recordings in religious communities, social gatherings, prisons and chain gangs was described in Collins' book America Over the Water (published 2005).
Back in Britain, Collins met Austin John Marshall, whom she later married. She also proceeded with her singing career, appearing releasing on three compilations albums (A Jug of Punch, A Pinch of Salt and Rocket Along) in 1960 and an EP, Heroes in Love, in 1963 (now included with False True Lovers on the CD release). It was after that, in a series of influential albums, that she helped to introduce many innovations into the English folk revival. In 1964, she recorded the landmark jazz-folk fusion of Folk Roots, New Routes, with guitarist Davy Graham.
1967 saw the essentially southern English song collection, The Sweet Primeroses, With Collins accompanied for the first time by her sister Dolly's portative organ. 1968's The Power of the True Love Knot also featured Dolly's accompaniment. 1969 brought another collaboration, The Holly Bears the Crown, this time with The Young Tradition — featuring, addition to Dolly Collins, Peter Bellamy, Heather Wood, and Royston Wood. This album was not released until 1995.
Anthems in Eden was released in 1969, the first album to be credited to Shirley and Dolly Collins. It featured a suite of songs centred on the changes in rural England brought about by the First World War. Dolly Collins created arrangements featuring David Munrow and various other players from his Early Music Consort. The unusual combination of ancient instruments included rebecs, sackbuts, viols and crumhorns. Anthems in Eden was followed by Love, Death and the Lady, also co-credited with Dolly, in 1970.
Collins married her second husband Ashley Hutchings in 1971. He left Steeleye Span that year and he and Collins assembled the first incarnation of the Albion Country Band to accompany her on the 1971 album No Roses, with a total of 27 musicians participating over numerous sessions. Shirley also provided guest vocals on the Hutchings project Morris On in 1972. Following the breakup of a later version of the Albion Country band in 1973 (shortly after recording the album Battle of the Field) the couple created the all acoustic Etchingham Steam Band with Terry Potter, Ian Holder and Vic Gammon, in 1974.
The couple were living in Etchingham at the time and the decision to eschew electricity was inspired by the Three-Day Week. The Etchingham's repertoire was drawn from the traditional music of Sussex. The only recording by the band available at the time appeared on the 1974 compilation album A Favourite Garland, although Terry Potter and Ian Holder (as well as Simon Nicol and Roger Swallow, formerly of the Albion Country Band) appear on some tracks on Adieu to Old England, a Collins album also released in 1974 (and produced by Ashley Hutchings). Live recordings of the Etchingham Steam Band from 1974 and 1975 were released on a self-titled CD in 1995.
A largely new group of musicians (with some participation from Etchingham Steam Band members) was assembled for two 1976 releases: the Morris On follow up Son of Morris On (with Shirley again providing vocals); and the newly recorded tracks for the Shirley and Dolly Collins album Amaranth (half of which was a reissue of the side-long suite of songs from Anthems in Eden). The involvement of Philip Pickett and John Sothcott in these recordings saw a return to the use of early music instruments.
The bulk of the musicians became The Albion Dance Band, performing traditional material on a mixture of modern (electric) and early music instruments, with Collins on vocals. They recorded the album The Prospect Before Us and a BBC session in 1976, with a single ("Hopping Down in Kent") released that year and the album following in 1977. Live recordings from this period were released on the CD Dancing Days are Here Again in 2007.
1978's For As Many As Will was the last studio album recorded by Shirley and Dolly Collins, although live recordings from 1979 have been issued since and in 1979 she released a single, "The Mariner's Farewell", with Bert Jansch. Collins does not appear on the next Albion Band album (Rise Up Like the Sun, recorded in 1977 and released in 1978, with the "Dance" dropped from the band name) and decided to focus on home life and her children from her first marriage whilst Hutchings and the Albion Band collaborated on several National Theatre productions. It was during this period that Hutchings left Collins. The painful divorce was followed by loss of her voice and "the ability to sing entirely," leading to her retirement from music.
Her music career over, Collins resorted to "a number of low-paid jobs" — including employment at the British Library and the job centre to get by. And she sold her old equipment.
She made one last appearance with the Albion Band, on the 1980 album Lark Rise to Candleford (the soundtrack of the plays). In 1993 David Tibet of the apocalyptic folk band Current 93 released a collection of her recordings, entitled Fountain of Snow on his Durtro label. Since then, she has appeared on a number of Current 93 recordings.
Collins sings on the final version of "Idumæa" on Current 93's 2006 album Black Ships Ate the Sky. In 2009 Topic Records included in their 70-year anniversary boxed set Three Score and Ten two tracks from The Sweet Primeroses: "All Things Are Quite Silent" and "The Rigs Of The Time".
With actor Pip Barnes, she tours with her three illustrated talks "America over the Water" (about her field trip in the Southern States of America with Alan Lomax), "A Most Sunshiny Day" (about the traditional music of England and Sussex in particular), and "I'm a Romany Rai" (about the Gypsy singers and songs of Southern England). She has also edited a CD entitled "I'm a Romany Rai" for issue (2012) in the series The Voice of the People.
In 2013, Collins appeared on Justin Hopper's text composition, "Fourth River: Ley Line", to be released on the Contraphonic Sound Series. On February 8, 2014 at Union Chapel in Islington, London, UK, Shirley sang for the first time for many years, performing 2 songs; "All the Pretty Little Horses" and "Death and the Lady." She was accompanied by Ian Kearey, from the band Oysterband.
She returned to recording and in November 2016, Collins released Lodestar, her first new album in 38 years. Earning two BBC Radio 2 Folk Award nominations for the work, considered her best by some, she found this late success highly improbable, saying: “I never believed it could happen. It’s a bit of a miracle, really.”
English Songs Volume 2 and Shirley Sings Irish were both released in 1964.
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