Shirley Collins is a legend — a humble one, but undoubtedly a transformative voice in traditional folk music. It’s truly a miracle to hear her voice at this Tiny Desk (home) concert.
At 85, Shirley Collins is seated in the living room of her cottage in Lewes, East Sussex, accompanied by guitarist Ian Kearey. Her life story took the sort of twists you hear in the songs she sings, in her case, a broken heart, a painful divorce, and the loss of her voice. For 30 years, she couldn’t sing. Now, here she is playing songs from Heart’s Ease, only the second album she’s made in the past 40 years. You hear her sing of a young sailor boy who saves his ship from robbers and is promised by his captain both gold and his daughter’s hand in marriage. The lad sinks the robber’s boat, only to be left to drown by that very same captain.
These unimaginable tales and that unadorned voice have influenced both British and American folk music since the 1960s, from Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny to The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy.
These tales of woe and whimsy are as timeless as Shirley Collins.
SET LIST “The Merry Golden Tree” “Sweet Greens and Blues” “Wondrous Love” “Tell Me True” “Old Johnny Buckle”
MUSICIANS Shirley Collins: vocals Ian Keary: guitar CREDITS Video By: Grant Gee, Karen Johnston Audio By: Alfie Gee
TINY DESK TEAM Producer: Bob Boilen Video Producer: Morgan Noelle Smith Audio Mastering: Josh Rogosin Associate Producer: Bobby Carter Tiny Production Team: Kara Frame, Maia Stern Executive Producer: Lauren Onkey Senior VP, Programming: Anya Grundmann
The legendary folk singer is celebrated by her fan and fellow songwriter.
By: Linda Thompson
Do you know anyone who is putting out great work at 85? Me neither. Shirley Collins isn’t just anyone though. She is an important part of folk music’s history. A scholar, singer, and writer — she is also a riot. We once did the can-can for a select audience at The South Bank in London, culminating in the splits. I still walk funny.
I had seen many of Shirley’s gigs, mostly with her sister Dolly, but really got to know her when she was in Lark Rise to Candleford at The National Theatre. She was the best thing in the show. We struck up an easy friendship.
Ashley Hutchings and Richard Thompson were our paramours. Earnest, clever and just like converted Catholics where traditional British music was concerned. Shirley and I listened patiently to their pronouncements, having forgotten more about that music than they knew. We didn’t say so though. It was the old days after all. We smoothed our crinolines down and kept shtum (ancient Northumbrian word). Their cottage was charmingly called Red Rose Cottage, long ago that used to be the rent. One red rose.
I got close to Shirley after our respective divorces. We were hard hit, and knew almost exactly how the other was feeling. Faithless love. Funnily enough we didn’t sit around and commiserate with each other, we just got on with it. I’m not sure that’s a good idea though. It takes longer to recover.
I had suffered from dysphonia since my first pregnancy. Shirley suffered from it, too. We both shut up shop in a manner of speaking. We sang very little, we kept in touch albeit sporadically, and life continued apace.
And now. This wonderful resurgence. Shirley’s last record Lodestar was brilliant. Recorded at home, and a startling return to form.
Heart’s Ease, the new record, is even better. Recorded in a studio, with supremely talented musicians. She is confident, and she shines. Folk singers, like blues singers, get better with age.
I know Shirley is a legend, but to me she’s still the beautiful and fun woman with whom I danced at the theatre many years ago. Those days were good. The days after, even better. I am very lucky to know her.
Here are a few questions I asked Shirley about this new work.
Linda Thompson: Some of the songs I love best on the album are new. Was there a reason that you included these particular songs?
Shirley Collins: “Sweet Greens And Blues” — words written by Austin John Marshall, my first husband. He also wrote “The Whitsun Dance,” which I set to The Copper Family’s “The Week Before Easter.” He designed several album covers too. He died in New York in 2013. I decided to record these songs as an acknowledgement to A.J. — partly for the sake of our children, Polly and Robert, a sort of legacy, and to acknowledge his part in my career. In any case, they are lovely songs. The third non-traditional song, “Locked In Ice,” was written by my late sister Dolly Collins’ son Buz Collins, who took his own life in 2002. He was a prolific songwriter and singer, lived on a narrow boat, The Maid In England, on The Grand Union Canal in Loughborough. He was a bit of a loner, yet at the same time was a lively, loyal man. Continue reading →
As recently announced, Shirley Collins will release her second album for Domino on July 24th. Entitled Heart’s Ease, it is an enthralling new LP from a woman who is widely acknowledged as England’s greatest female folk singer. Collins is pleased to share the second song from the record, “Sweet Greens and Blues”.
One of the album’s non-traditional tracks, the lyrics for “Sweet Greens and Blues” were written by Shirley’s first husband Austin John Marshall,
a graphic artist and poet who produced several of her albums and had the inspired idea of getting Shirley to work with blues/jazz/world music guitarist Davy Graham on the extraordinary album Folk Roots, New Routes in 1964. The song found its way onto Heart’s Ease after Collins “came across a tape among the hundreds I have got – and there was me singing it in the Sixties, with Davy Graham playing guitar”. This charmingly quirky song about Collins and Marshall’s life at the time had never been recorded before and Shirley wanted to record it for her children. The album version of “Sweet Greens and Blues” features Nathan Salsburg (curator of the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity in the US) on guitar.