All in the Downs by Shirley Collins review – the English Folk Revivalist’s revival

A memoir from the singer who lost her voice that celebrates her roots and is unsparing about the London scene’s leading lights

It took almost 40 years for Shirley Collins to recover her voice, and with it her identity. After realising that her second husband, fellow musician Ashley Hutchings, was cheating on her – an actress wore his jumper to one of their concerts – the folk singer was struck by dysphonia, and could no longer sing. Collins had always thought herself a conduit rather than a performer: in her 20s, she heard two elderly folk singers and was struck by their “gentle dignity”. It cemented her own philosophy: “No dramatising a song, no selling it to an audience, no overdecorating in a way that was alien to English songs, and most of all, singing to people, not at them.” If her work is self-effacing, then Collins’s memoir reveals the strength of character required to overcome the insidious disempowerment she faced within the postwar British folk scene.

Now 82, she is experiencing a revival – this book and a documentary follow Lodestar (2016), her first album in 38 years – returning her to the vocation she felt so fiercely as a young working class woman in Sussex. As teenagers, she and her sister Dolly sang for BBC folk archivist Bob Copper, and Collins quit teacher training to move to London and become a singer. She worked in a bookshop, and starved to afford a copy of Olive Dame Campbell and Cecil Sharp’s 1917 English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians: “It’s called ‘suffering for your art’, but I maintain to this day that it was the best money I ever spent.”

Collins penetrated London’s folk scene, but quickly encountered men who were threatened by her strong ideas about preserving the music’s integrity. A promoter confronted her with a knife after she defaced a poster for his lacklustre folk night with lipstick. After Hutchings humiliated her, most of their band turned on Collins: “I felt that I’d been totally abandoned, uncared for, unprotected. It was the bleakest of times.” She is pleasingly unsparing about the scene’s leading lights. Ewan MacColl was “a vain, conceited man and, to my ears, not a convincing singer” who, despite his hostility towards her, invites her over with slimy intentions: “He was already undressing the minute I walked through the door. I fled, furious that I’d wasted money on the bus fare.”

Petty machismo aside, Collins admires virility, writing hungrily about her home town of Hastings’s “full-blooded, vibrant and sexy” May Day celebrations, and her attraction to ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who “reminded me of an American bison”. She values earthy directness in song, too, praising the “terrifying tenderness in the brutality” of murder ballad “The Oxford Girl”, and “Six Dukes Went A-Fishing”, which “surges like an inexorable tide on a wide sandy beach”.

She isn’t a possessive folk custodian, but insists on this music belonging to the working class communities that created and preserved it: “bearing our musical, literary and social history; you might call it the archaeology of music”. She understands her background as an advantage to her craft, but has trouble convincing folk’s gatekeepers of the same: “Just imagine the presumption of a girl from the same class of people the songs had been taken down from over many years!”

This is typical of Collins’s spirited writing. Unsurprisingly, she has a strong sense of the details that spark storytelling: her mother is horrified at her first boyfriend emptying spit from his trombone on to the hearth, where it sizzles; when collecting her MBE, she wore a special hook “so that Prince Charles didn’t have to fumble at our bosoms”.

Her easy charm smooths some frustrating omissions. Collins skips her experiences collecting music with Lomax in America’s deep south because she’s already written an excellent book about them (America Over the Water, 2005). She mentions discussing her dysphonia with a psychologist – “I was impressed by how revealing it was” – then moves on. Her sense of wonder during a century of rapid change is magnetic, but she might have omitted a boss’s coffee preferences during her years away from singing. The ending feels fragmented, and valedictory, as she credits those who restored her identity.

The other identity she rigorously investigates is nationality: “why ‘Englishness’ should be so important”. She questions her predecessors’ affinity for a country that made their lives difficult, and writes about Lomax being investigated by the Un-American Activities Committee, who asked the British police to surveil him. Preserving working people’s culture was considered seditious in the 1950s; today rightwing politicians appropriate so-called populism. Such politics has long made a celebration of English national identity problematic, but Collins’s descriptions of her beloved Sussex, along with the richness of her culture, make an elegant case for reclaiming a variant of English history. At least with this highly enjoyable book her own past is rightly back in her hands.

• All in the Downs is published by Strange Attractor. To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £16.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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