Shirley Collins, English folk luminary, has been amassing a repertoire of traditional songs since her childhood in 1940s Sussex, England, a period she associates with being sung to by her grandparents during frequent stints in air raid shelters. As she matured, her interest in folk eventually led her to the American Deep South, a trip which resulted in the much celebrated collection Sounds of the South. As moving and inspiring as that trip proved to be, Collins’s heart was in her motherland, England, where she returned, continuing to collect songs in the English tradition, and creating such seminal works as 1959's Sweet England and 1969's Anthems in Eden, a collaborative record with her sister Dolly. Shirley’s career took a decidedly negative turn, however, in 1978, when she began developing dysphonia. She lost her ability to sing, and retreated from both the stage and the studio. That is, until one David Michael Bunting, known to many as Current 93’s David Tibet, phoned her up, asking to meet for what, in hindsight, was a surely fortuitous exchange.
Fast-forward through the '90s and early 2000s: after a few contributions to Current 93 records and a number of foregone invitations to perform, Collins appeared on stage for the first time in 2014 at Union Chapel, opening for Current 93. But why stop at one performance? Following the concert, and bolstered by the positive reactions, Shirley “wanted to give it one more go” and record a new album. She picked an assortment of personally important songs that would eventually become that album, Lodestar, out last week on Domino. Across the record’s ten evocative tracks, Collins reveals herself as enraptured by traditional music as ever, showing off a resplendent selection of penitent songs, murder ballads, may carols, and more, a nod to her excellent power of curation. It’s a powerful, profound release—a much-needed reminder of the power of personal contact and lineage in the digital age, and a much-needed reminder of how the oldest and most authentic songs are sung out of pride and necessity, in addition to enjoyment. We spoke to Collins about collecting and interpolating folk songs, and getting back into the studio.
AdHoc: You’ve been hearing or collecting folk songs since you were very young. How did you decide which songs to sing on Lodestar? Were they new songs for you?
Shirley Collins: Oh! They just presented themselves, really. I’ve got so many songs in my head, but there are some that really stick with you, ones I’ve regretted not recording before. There were a couple of new ones that came in as well that wanted to be sung, so I sang them. The most likable one for me was the Cajun song “Sur le Borde de l’Eau.” I love Cajun music’s rhythms and its independence—it stayed itself. Once I heard this early 1920s recording of Blind Uncle Gaspard, a Louisiana singer, I fell in love with the song. We went ahead and did it, but that’s very unusual for me, because I mostly sing songs from the English tradition. It’s been my life’s work listening to as much as I can. Working with Alan Lomax in America was incredible, but back in England there were collectors too who were working throughout the country, noting down songs. That tradition had gone back as far as the mid nineteenth century when collectors just wrote down songs. Once the tape machine was created, the BBC sent out people in the 1950s to record and collect what were left in the countryside. Things changed so much with the proliferation of record players, radio, television, and pop music. It swamped a lot of the tradition. I understand why, but I never quite saw why you’d give up your beautiful tradition for something with built-in obsolescence, if you judge pop music that way [laughs].