Shirley Collins: The Surprising Story Of A Folk Icon Who Lost Her Voice For 30 Years

Shirley Collins: The Surprising Story Of A Folk Icon Who Lost Her Voice For 30 Years
Shirley Collins: The Surprising Story Of A Folk Icon Who Lost Her Voice For 30 Years

January 26 IN MOSCOW in the recreation center "Trekhgorka" and on January 25 in St. Petersburg in "Lendoc" will show the film "The Ballad of Shirley Collins" - the biography of the greatest English folk singer. Boris Grebenshchikov and Valery Pisigin have already talked about Shirley Collins in Russia - but before she returned to creativity more than thirty years later.

Text: Nikita Velichko


In 1978, performing on the stage of the London National Theater, performing a part in the production of "Lark Rise", Shirley Collins lost her voice. For several years, doctors tried to understand what happened, but they never made an accurate diagnosis. The main guess is dysphonia, that is, a disorder of the speech apparatus, on a nervous basis.

It all started on the seventh wedding anniversary: ​​on that day, her husband Ashley Hutchings announced that he was leaving for another actress. Yesterday Ashley and Shirley walked around the city of Battle and held hands, he gave her a collection of "Folk Songs of Herefordshire" - and the next day he said that he no longer loved her. Worse, the woman Ashley went to regularly attended Shirley's performances. She stood right in front of the stage, whether on purpose or not, by all means dressing up in the singer's ex-husband's sweaters. Shirley still loved Ashley. “It destroyed me,” she said later. "I should have been angry, but my heart was broken."

Sometimes she managed to sing something, but more often she opened her mouth - and nothing happened. A year later, Shirley Collins tried to return to the production. Before the rehearsal, she saw Ashley looking at the new member of the troupe. Here we go again, thought Shirley. She decided to perform solo with banjo and guitar. And then nothing happened - Shirley felt that she was just continuing to torture herself. She left the stage for thirty-five years.

The Shirley Collins family has always sung. They sang, gathering around the piano and harmonium; sang while hiding during the war in Morrison's hideout. Shirley has a striking memory of the war: one day she was walking with her niece in a wheelchair and heard a plane. Realizing by the sound that it was not a British Spitfire or Hurricane, Shirley grabbed her niece and managed to hide. The plane fired machine-gun fire on the road. The Shirleys' home was hit by an incendiary bomb, so they moved in with their aunt. This story is striking in the way Shirley tells it: "But in general we could walk and play in the street, we felt safe - well, not counting the bombs!" She remembers childhood as a happy time, despite all these terrible moments.

Part of a BBC documentary about The Albion Band, with which Collins sang in A Little Light to Candleford

She loved a movie about a girl who sang in New York clubs and then fell in love with the main character. At the age of fifteen, Shirley Collins decided to become a folk singer - at seventeen she went to London, where she began performing regularly. At that time, the British interest in folk music was reviving: after the war, many sought to study their origins and realize who they were. The BBC, for example, aired As I Roved Out on amateur singing, which was listened to between twelve and fifteen million people weekly.

Folk lovers were divided into two camps: some sang American protest songs, while others, like Shirley, considered English traditional music valuable, beautiful and self-sufficient. In 1959, Shirley traveled to the United States with her then lover Alan Lomax - he wanted to collect and preserve folk songs and voices. She worked as an assistant for his book "The Folk Songs of North America": together they recorded previously unknown blues, bluegrass and folk in the Appalachian mountains and in the far South. The more Shirley listened to the versions of Old English songs that had changed in America, the more she became stronger in her desire to learn as many of the original, native versions as possible. And in America, she was struck by twenty-nine flavors of ice cream - in England, as she said, you could try only three.

In the 1960s, Shirley Collins was at the epicenter of the English folk scene.Her main work is an album with guitarist Davey Graham "Folk Roots, New Routes", which influenced the formation of folk-rock, as well as recordings with her sister Dolly. London clubs were replaced by the Sydney Opera House. Here is one of the funniest cases with fans - one of them wrote a poem in which he compared Shirley's voice to a potato ("Your potato voice …"). “He thought it was a compliment because he loved potatoes. Maybe for him it was earthly or something like that. " With all this, Shirley behaved quite modestly, did not drink alcohol until the age of thirty and never tried drugs.

After their first divorce, Shirley married ex-Fairport Convention bassist Ashley Hutchings. In 1971 Ashley and Shirley formed The Albion Band, focusing on combining the English folk tradition with electric guitars. She performed, raised children, recorded albums. And then she suddenly lost her voice.

Shirley & Dolly Collins "Death & The Lady"

What was Shirley Collins doing when she was left without the main thing in her life? She worked at the British Museum bookstore, Oxfam, and a job center in Brighton. She couldn't even sing in the shower. "The more I tried, the worse it turned out." This went on for more than ten years. Until David Tibet showed up.

The great English underground leader, leader of the group Current 93, in an essay about Shirley Collins entitled "The Secret Queen of England", he will later recall how he first got in touch with her in 1991. She was sure that everyone had forgotten about her long ago, but for Tibet, Collins was "the spiritual genius of folk." He said that she acts at the highest level of emotional tension more than any other musician, and not just folk musicians. Something so beautiful, pure and deep that it pierces the very heart."

Tibet especially appreciated the fact that Shirley created music unselfishly, selflessly - there was not a hint of pretentiousness in her voice. This is indeed Collins' most important quality: her main motive is to remain true to the song itself, the original music is most important here, not the performer herself. That is why Collins' vocals sound timeless - and perfectly suited to the performance of folk music, eternal.

Collins told Tibet that she had lost confidence in herself, and her voice was no longer the same. He convinced her that confidence can be restored, and her voice remained precisely her voice - the very one that everyone loved so much. In the early 90s she even recorded the lyrics for the intro to Current 93's "Thunder Perfect Mind", and in 1999 she will sing on "All the Pretty Little Horses".

Sometimes Tibet will ask Shirley to sing at the concerts of Current 93. She will refuse, sometimes changing her mind at the very last moment. He will only say, "Shirley, I love you, and what's best for you is best for me." (Later she will call him “the most uncritical fan.”) Ten years later, Shirley writes the book America over the Water about traveling with Lomax, a lot will change, but not the main thing. In 2010, Shirley Collins will refuse to perform at David Tibet's fiftieth birthday (along with Current 93's twenty-fifth). She will ask: "Can I please next time?"

Current 93 feat. Shirley collins

"All the Pretty Little Horses"

“I don’t think I would have done this for anyone other than David Tibet,” she will say on February 10, 2014 in London's Union Chapel when she finally sings a few songs at the presentation of the album Current 93 “I Am the Last of All the Field That Fell: A Channel. " With the first concert after the break for seventy-eight-year-old Shirley Collins, everything will only begin.

In 2016, she recorded her first album, Lodestar, after a long hiatus in her living room in Lewis, East Sussex. Soon she got on the cover of The Wire magazine, started performing rarely, but regularly, and became the heroine of a documentary film, which will be shown in St. Petersburg and Moscow this week. Shirley herself cannot believe that she is in the center of such attention. The release of the album seemed to her a miracle, no less. When asked about the possibility of filming a film, she said: "I was confused and thought - is this a prank?"

In the same film, Collins says: "There are great female voices now, but mine is not one of them."Even though her vocals are no longer ideal for pastoral, as in the 1960s, this did not stop her fans, from Graham Coxon from Blur to Angel Olsen, from preparing a collection of cover versions "Shirley Inspired" back in 2015. For performing songs from "Lodestar", invented decades and hundreds of years ago, surrounded by instruments like a wheel lyre and a mandolin, her voice is perfect. The voice that guides through time, the voice that once disappeared, the voice that continues to live in the music of Shirley Collins.

Photos: Getty Images


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