First published in the Guardian on 5 February, 2017
For decades Shirley Collins was the lost icon, the secret treasure of English folk whose own story was as tragic as the ballads she used to sing. In the 1970s she lost her voice through heartbreak and dysphonia and eventually stopped performing altogether. Those in the know rehearsed the details like a legend. Her early recordings were coveted for their ultra-direct pathos — in an age of divas, here was a totally unadorned and unflinching way of singing that bypassed ego and mainlined the authenticity of words and music no matter how disturbing the tales they told. She was revered as an archivist, too, who had travelled the US with Alan Lomax and unearthed the dark, scary ballads of her native Sussex. She inspired acid folk and psych folk and folk punk-rock and pure folk, all the while living a quiet life in Lewes without much inkling of her impact.
Until a few years ago nobody imagined she would sing again, let alone headline her own Saturday night Celtic Connections gig with band and visuals and dancer and indie-label hype. Then last year, aged 81, she released the resplendently melancholy album Lodestar. This was its first full public performance and there was a furtive buzz about the place; the audience was full of musicians. A rambling first half was evidence of her young-guard devotees — “Shirley’s toy boys” joked singer Sam Lee, though his rendition of The Moss House swerved from her dictum that the singer should never get in the way of the song. Alasdair Roberts gave a wrenchingly beautiful account of Lord Gregory; Jayme Stone sang Lomax material with banjo and stripped-down grace.
And although her reverential band seemed to take on the enormity of the occasion, Collins herself looked utterly relaxed when she arrived for the second half — more-or-less a complete reading of Lodestar. Her singing was intimate, unforced, unwavering, absolutely the old Collins of calm articulation but now weathered and weightier. She told vignettes of travelling Arkansas and Virginia with Lomax in 1959 and learning songs from sassy old women while sitting on the loo in double-seater outhouses. She sang Sur Le Bord De l’Eau, an old Cajun song, with galling simplicity and her ‘best Sussex French’. Her band sounded splendid, from the warm and expansive imagination of Alex Neilson’s percussion to Ossian Brown’s stark hurry gurdy lines. Ian Kearey’s instrumental arrangements were strange and loose, abrasive and austere, and they glowed.
What is wonderful about Lodestar — and this was accentuated in performance — was how absolutely willing it is to embrace the difficult and sinister sides of English folk. Collins opened with Awake Awake, a penitential song from the 1580s about the Great Earthquake of London, with menacing scenes of ritual burning (Lewes bonfire night) projected onto a large screen behind her. Without hysteria or overstatement, she reminds us that folksong taps a collective history that we ignore at our peril.