Shirley Collins - Biography

BY J Poet

Shirley Collins only made nine albums between her debut Sweet England (1959 Topic) and her decision to stop performing, but they left an indelible mark on the British folk revival, inspiring a generation of singers, most notably Sandy Denny and Jacqui McShee. Her bare bones singing style and devotion to folk tradition made her early recordings seminal documents and as she continued exploring the history of British traditional music she also recorded albums of Renaissance music and folk rock. She accompanied Alan Lomax on one of his epic song collecting trips through the American south, returning to England more dedicated than ever to traditional music. In the 70s she met and married Ashley Hutchings, who had moved from Fairport Convention, to Steeleye Span, to the Albion Country Band and became his wife and collaborator. She retired from recording and performing in 1978, although she continues to be involved in the British folk music scene. She currently gives three lecture/demonstrations – America Over the Water, an account of her travels with Alan Lomax, A Most Sunshiney Day, an appreciation of British traditional music with emphasis on the music of her native Sussex and I’m a Romany Rai, a show about Gypsy music and song in England.


Shirley Elizabeth Collins was born in 1935 in Hastings, Sussex. With her older sister and collaborator Dolly Collins, she grew up a family with a love of traditional song. Songs learned from their grandfather and their mother’s sister, Grace Winborn, became the cornerstone of their repertoire.


Collins left school at 17, and shortly thereafter was introduced to Alan Lomax by Ewan MacColl. She was already interested in folk music, so when Lomax asked her to join him on a trip through the American south she went along. From July to November 1959 she helped Lomax record artists like Almeda Riddle, Hobart Smith, Bessie Jones and Mississippi Fred McDowell. She wrote a book about that trip, America Over the Water (SAF 2005), the basis for the talks she still gives about American folklore.


Back in England, she began recording traditional songs waxing several groundbreaking albums. Sweet England (1959 Argo, 1999 Topic) is a raw, primal recording of traditional songs, most a cappella, some with sparse banjo accompaniment. False True Lovers (1959 Folkways 2001 Fledg’ling) was produced by Alan Lomax, 19 a cappella songs of stunning beauty that included some of the folk revival’s greatest hits – “The Foggy Dew,’ “Scarborough Fair,” “The Cruel Mother” and “Just as the Tide Was Flowing.” In 1964 she joined with jazz guitarist Davy Graham (a big influence on Paul Simon) for Folk Roots, New Routes (1964 Topic). Graham’s use of Traditional British music, blues, jazz, and Middle Eastern tonalities rocked the folk world making a big impression on future stars like Bert Jansch, John Renbourne and Jimmy Page. When Graham stopped touring with Collins, Renbourne stepped in, perhaps planting the seeds for Pentangle’s similar jazz/folk fusion.


Collins began collaborating with her sister Dolly on The Sweet Primroses (1967 Topic) and The Power of the True Love Knot (1968 Polydor). Dolly played a miniature replica of a 1643 pipe organ and wrote Renaissance influenced arrangements. Anthems in Eden (1969 Harvest) continued the Renaissance feel with Dolly’s arrangements played by David Munrow and his Early Music Consort. The songs traced the history of England from ancient times to World War I and won raves for Dolly’s arranging and Shirley’s luminous singing. Love, Death and the Lady (1970 Harvest) continued the collaboration of the Collins sisters, then Shirley shocked the folk world by going electric and recording No Roses (1971 Pegasis) with the Albion Country Band and 71 sidemen from the Renaissance music world. It’s a seminal album; one of the most influential British folk rock records this side of Fairport’s Liege & Lief (1969 A&M). They made a follow up years later called The Prospect Before Us (1977 Harvest).


After marrying Ashley Hutchings the couple created the Etchingham Steam Band, an all-acoustic outfit. They never made a proper album but Etchingham Steam Band (1995 Fledg’ling) collects various live performances from their 1974-75 concerts. Collins’ last recorded work before retiring from the stage was For As Many As Will (1978 Topic), credited to Shirley and Dolly Collins. Dolly’s arrangements are once again an innovative blend of Renaissance romance and punchy folk rock. She even plays synthesizer on some tracks, proving again that traditional music can adapt to contemporary styles without loosing its soul.


Dolly Collins never made another album and died in 1999. Shirley retired, but continues to be active in folk music circles. In recent years her contributions to folk music have been acknowledged with numerous honors. She was awarded a Gold Badge by the English Folk Dance and Song Society in 2004, an MBE for services to music in the Queen's New Year's Honors List in 2006 and given an Honorary Degree by the Open University, for her Notable contribution to education and culture in 2007. In 2008 she was given the Good Tradition award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Billy Bragg calls her “one of England's greatest cultural treasures.”


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