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First Lady Of English Folk Music Shirley Collins Releases New Album



The songs that Shirley Collins sings have been handed down over centuries and traveled across oceans. And now at age 85, the woman who has been called the first lady of English folk music has a new album. It's called "Heart's Ease." Some of the tracks have been with Shirley Collins since she was a young woman, like this one, "The Merry Golden Tree."


SHIRLEY COLLINS: (Singing) They hadn't been out scarce days two or three before they sighted the British robbery.

Well, I first heard this version of the ballad in Mountain View, Ark., back in 1959 when I was on a field recording trip with Alan Lomax. It's a ballad, obviously, that traveled across from the British Isles with the early settlers. And what I do love about the ballads like this is that they've traveled, you know, thousands of miles to get to Arkansas. It's just remarkable, I think, that they survive and survive in such fabulous forms as well.

SHAPIRO: That trip that you made with Alan Lomax in 1959 clearly made such an impression on you. Several of the tracks on this album are influenced by it. What was it about that journey through the segregated South 60-plus years ago that made such an impression on you?

COLLINS: Well, it was totally different from England. I lived on the south coast in England in a very quiet little seaside town. So it was just totally different from home. And I'm, you know, ashamed to say that we swam in segregated pools. We ate in segregated restaurants. And that was something I hadn't ever sort of thought about in England because it just didn't exist here, that dreadful divide. So it was a real eye-opener.


COLLINS: (Singing) Drowning in the lonely lowland sea.

SHAPIRO: It must have been quite an experience to be in a place so different from the home that you knew and to hear music that had its roots in the England that you grew up in.

COLLINS: It was utterly fascinating to me. I loved that aspect of it. And yet it was different. I mean, what happens strangely to an English tune or a Scottish or an Irish tune in the Appalachians or the Ozarks, it changes form. You can always recognize an Appalachian tune I think.

SHAPIRO: Can you specify what you mean by that? Is it the musical instruments? Is it the approach to rhythm and melody? What is it?

COLLINS: Oh, it's a tricky one, isn't it? I mean, the thing is in England, of course, all the ballads are sung unaccompanied whereas in America, a lot of the ballots are sung with banjo accompaniment. So that drives the ballad in a different way from the way we'd sing it at home. And the tunes just sound a bit more modal.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean by modal?

COLLINS: Well, I don't know what I mean by modal, actually, Ari.


COLLINS: Because I'm not a musician. I don't read music. But I know that it's where notes are flattened or sharpened where you don't expect them to be. The smoothness of an English tune, for instance, is gone. It's just sharper, and it's more vivid in many ways.


SHAPIRO: So many of the great folk songs do have these long histories, which includes many of the songs on this album. When you record a tune, how important is it to you to understand that context and that history? Or are you trying to approach it from a fresh perspective?

COLLINS: No. The history of it is crucial to me. The history of who sang it before me is crucial as well. I always want to acknowledge where the songs came from. The songs that I sing mostly come from the rural people of England, the country laborers and farm workers and their lives.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example from this album?

COLLINS: Well, "Canadee-i-o" was sung by a shepherd, for instance, in Sussex not too far down the road from here.


COLLINS: (Singing) She had not been in Canada scarcely but half a year. She married this brave captain who called her his dear.

The one I learned from - it was a field recording made by Peter Kennedy in the 1960s. And he recorded it from an old shepherd, Harry Upton, who sang it at the end of sheep shearing. And then the whole group of men who'd come in to do the sheep shearing, you know, were treated to a sort of knees up in the barn at the end - lots of beer around, lots of singing. But, of course, Harry didn't write this song. The song had come to Harry through, you know, other voices. I don't know how many generations back that would have gone - probably a couple of hundred years.

SHAPIRO: You are obviously a musician and a singer, but do you also think of yourself then as a historian, a preservationist, a folklorist?

COLLINS: I suppose. I don't actually give myself any labels. All I know is that I love this music. I want to not protect it necessarily, but I just want it to be passed on in a proper way. I just want to pass it on as honestly as I can, as honestly as those people who sang the songs before me. You know, they were straightforward, ordinary people and yet extraordinary because they remembered this music and kept singing it.

SHAPIRO: There is a track on this album that you first recorded 60 years ago called "Barbara Allen." And I'd love to listen to the two versions side by side, if you'll indulge us.

COLLINS: Oh, right.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to the version that you recorded as a young person.


COLLINS: (Singing) It was round and about last Martinmas tide when the green leaves were swelling.

SHAPIRO: And let's play the one from this album.


COLLINS: (Singing) All in the merry month of May, when green buds, they were swelling young Jimmy Grove on his death bed lay for love of Barbara Allen.

SHAPIRO: What's it like for you to listen to your own old recordings in your younger voice?

COLLINS: Well, the very first ones embarrass me dreadfully.

SHAPIRO: Really?

COLLINS: Yeah, really, and partly because I went to a grammar school in Hastings, and my working-class vowels didn't go down very well with the headmistress. And so I was trying to speak a little bit more in a middle-class way when I made those early albums. And they just sound - obviously, they sound naive because they were naive at the time. And yet there's - I suppose there's something in there that's sort of pre echo, if that's possible, of, you know, what came later.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that your own age now being 85 has allowed you to find a depth and meaning in some of these songs that you might not have had when you were younger?

COLLINS: This might sound a bit conceited, but I think (laughter) I always had it partly because of my own background and my own family. Gran and granddad used to sing to my sister and me during the war when we were sheltering in the air raid shelter. And so these songs always sounded familiar to me. I mean, I know this sounds like nonsense as well, Ari, but I think there such a thing as inherited memory, and I think that's what I've got.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean by that?

COLLINS: (Laughter) I can't explain, Ari. I just empathize so much with the rural people of England that can go back two or three hundred years. And I just feel I understand them, and I feel I can represent them and I feel I can sing their songs for them (laughter). That's how I feel. I just feel I'm their spokesperson.


SHAPIRO: Well, Shirley Collins, it has been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

COLLINS: Ari, thank you. It's been very interesting conversation (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Her new album is called "Heart's Ease."


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