Perfect Sound Forever

Shirley Collins

Shirley's 1964 albums

Interview, Part 2 of 5
by Johan Kugelberg of Ugly Things

JK: Did you get the impression that these activities in the cellar were sort of frowned upon by the We-Have-A-Club-types?

SC: Most likely, yes. They were always more interested in the dance side of it, because I suppose it was a more social thing as well. But luckily, Peter was there to champion the songs.

JK: I would really like for you to tell me about the music of Harry Cox. I haven't heard him.

SC: There are two great singers in my opinion. Harry Cox is one of them, and George Maynard of Sussex was the other. I'm lucky enough to have heard Harry Cox in the flesh. And the subtlety and the nuances behind his singing were almost indescribable. He inhabited the songs in a way that I think few people do. A lot of people just sort of sing them but they're not part of their lives.

JK: Well I would describe your singing that way, so obviously Harry Cox was very central to you.

SC: Well, he was because when you have an example of somebody like that, who is singing in the same voice he speaks in, and singing songs that come from his own background, his rural, Norfolk laboring background; it wasn't unconscious or subconscious. I think he loved the music. He wasn't a sophisticated man, but he had this profound understanding of what it was he was singing about because after all, he lived it every day and worked it every day. It came through as subtle and dignified and totally aware. You believed every word he sang and trusted the way he sang it. Although it was understated, it was an excellent lesson that you trusted the songs. You don't have to sell them or exploit.

JK: I'm expressing an obnoxious opinion here, but that sounds like the antithesis to Pete Seeger and Ewan MacColl who I don't think are believable in any way, shape or form.

SC: Thank you.

JK: And I know how central Ewan MacColl is to the history of British folk music but as far as him as a performer and a singer, he is an exclusivist.

SC: Absolutely. I'm so grateful to find somebody who is on the same wavelength as me here. I've always been slightly on the edge of all this. Because MacColl and Seeger and Peggy Seeger, they're such proselytizers. They've got an agenda and everything is going to fit that, and I mind that terribly. They're usurping all these songs to make their own point and that's not what these songs are about. What you're doing is representing generations back. The minds and the hearts and the work of all those people, and you haven't got the right to take it over and make it a political statement. Funny it was Bob Cochran and Pete Seeger on the radio last week. Bob had gone over to New York to meet Pete. Bob is the same age as Pete. Bob was talking about his songs and the way they reflected life on the farm he and his family lived on, and every statement of Pete's was political. And he didn't even sing a folk song. That's another thing that I mind as well; all these great folk singers never sing a bloody folk song in their life. I really do mind it, it really does make me angry.

JK: It pisses me off as well.

SC: Well, good!

JK: I think there are stunning parallels between Ewan MacColl here and Pete Seeger in the U.S. as far as co-opting and maintaining a very academic, middle class, exclusivist tendency towards this. Obviously, there are benefits thereof as well because they do document the music and these are also the kinds of people who can talk to government institutions and look good in front of boards of directors. But as far as far as art, how severe was the stranglehold that Seeger and MacColl had on the scene?

SC: There was the singers' club and they had a rule, which was a good one, that you had to sing a traditional song, and a song from your own region, if you had one. And then there was the critics' group which started to be even more narrow-minded about this stuff. They all ended up singing like [unintelligible]. But yes, it was a stranglehold that they had on quite a lot of people, because if you wanted to get into that music, you did need to be approved of by Ewan MacColl or Burt Lloyd, who's more of an academic. With a great deal of stuff that wasn't quite intrinsic.

JK: The checkered shirt and not doing your nails was very important. What's the famous quote?

SC: Ewan MacColl said to me once that I shouldn't sing love songs all the time, but I was 19, what else was I going to sing?

JK: I'm 36, I still love love songs.

SC: So do I. I'm 66 and I still love them. But the other thing he said, was that I had painted my nails pink and that folk singers didn't, according to Ewan. And this is Ewan MacColl. I think it was at that point I said, oh well.

JK: He had obviously never visited Appalachia. Because even if the most traditional of traditional singers is getting up in front of an audience, she'll do her hair up and put on some lipstick and present something to an audience.

SC: This is excellent because I remember when I was in Kentucky, we recorded [Ainja Cooms], a banjo player who lived in her great grandfathers' shack up on the mountains. She came down. She didn't come down the first night because she had been stung by a hornet and her hand had swollen up. And then Lomax went to fetch her up Rattlesnake Creek, and I wouldn't go up because of the rattlesnakes. She came down with ribbons on her banjo, she was in a purple velvet dress with rings and earrings dangling and masses lipstick, and she was 90! She came down sparkling.

JK: Getting all dolled up, that's respect and love for an audience. That's presenting the best you have for an audience. Look at photos from the '20's and '30's, look at the Skillet Lickers or Milton Brown and the Brownies or anyone. When a photo was taken they were all dressed in their Sunday best, they've combed their hair, they've shined their instruments.

SC: Well, it's self-respect as well isn't it?

JK: Self-respect and a love for the actual audience, the people that are there to experience your art. That kind of academic middle-class fascism has always hurt art and will always hurt art. One of the perennial problems of the way that the learned middle class consumes art is that we have such authenticity issues as well. I guess Ewan MacColl had seen a photograph of somebody in rugged dungarees and a checkered shirt and no nail polish and sort of set that in his mind. Your first appearance on record which was the Lomax and the Ramblers EP where you sang backup vocals. Which year was that?

SC: I'd imagine if it's '56 or '57.

JK: Let me take a look. 1955 you appeared on the Folk Song Today LP with the song "Dabbling in the Dew." Then in '57, the Alan Lomax and the Ramblers EP appeared on Decca and you sang backing vocals.

SC: Yes, on "Dirty Old Town."

JK: "Latin Railroad Man."

SC: That was Ewan and Alan. There was Alan trying to sing like an inmate from Parchment Farm and Ewan singing like a hard man from Manchester. So yes, I was doing backup vocals for that but I did sing "The Water Is Wide" with that group, which was nice but it was a little too jazzy for me because I don't like jazz, basically.

JK: And you performed with them?

SC: Oh yes, we did one or two television things for Grenada television over in Manchester.

JK: And that was a proper group? You used to play shows with them?

SC: Well, we did one or two TV things, but we must have done one or two things in London, I truly can't remember.

JK: When were your first solo live performances?

SC: Well about 1957, '58.

JK: So when you appeared on the Folk Song Today record, you had not performed in front of a live audience really.

SC: Well I had entered the folk song competition at the Cecil Sharp house. I didn't win it, but I got put through to the evening concert as sort of a best-of-the-rest I think. One of the reasons that they criticized me was I sang "The Cruel Mother" with a banjo accompaniment and I was so nervous was not only were my knees shaking, but on the last line of every chorus, my voice was shaking and the judges didn't approve of the tremolo I think. [laughter]

JK: When did you get your first banjo?

SC: Around the same time because I used a banjo for that.

JK: What kind of banjo was it?

SC: A five string banjo, probably made in England,

JK: Do you remember why you chose the banjo?

SC: I think it had fewer strings than a guitar.

JK: That's the classic bassist line as well. Only four instead of those obnoxious six. You must have also loved the sound of it, hearing it on these radio programs.

SC: Well, I couldn't emulate it, I couldn't play like that. I sort of devised my own style. I'll tell you one of the reasons why I picked up the banjo was John Hested, who was a physics professor at London university, was coming to the Cecil Sharp house to talk to young people about music, and he played a five string banjo and guitar so I could have got lessons from him, so I think that's why I picked up the banjo. Then I started sort of chiming it, but not in the fast American way. Quite an English banjo.

JK: One of the interesting things about Dock Boggs is that his banjo techniques are considered quite primitive by some, but it's also impossible to copy. His styling is so original and he does it in such an idiosyncratic way. Quite reminiscent of your playing on those early recordings. So, it's quite easy to fill in the blanks about how the first trip to America came about. You met Lomax, you guys hit it off big time, you went to the States.

SC: We did! Although he was 20 years older than me, I was ready to fall in love with him from the radio anyway.

JK: A pretty charismatic man, too.

SC: Yes. And he's got all that music in his head. All that knowledge, God! And he was gorgeous, he looked like a buffalo. Like a bison. Big head, big shaggy hair.

JK: During those years, he was collecting in Europe, right? With the Italian records, and the French and Scottish and that whole series.

SC: Yes, he had just come back from Spain when I met him. That was a good party that Ewan threw, so I did go back to Ewan's house, but it was to meet Lomax.

JK: Which probably pissed him off even more since you were quite the babe.

SC: Well, had he not met Peggy I think it might have.

JK: It probably did anyway. So he asked you if you wanted to come with him to the U.S. and assist him.

SC: Eventually, yes. I lived with him for a couple of years in England first, and we worked on various things there.

JK: So you collected with him in England?

SC: No, not collecting, just helping him as an editor because I'm a very good proofreader.

JK: Yes, I've seen your name on a bunch of his records.

SC: Yes, and because I was interested in the stuff and I could learn fast, and I just had an instinct for understanding what this music was about, and because I was free (laughing). I didn't get paid for all the work I did. It was just a huge learning experience.

JK: An internship.

SC: Yeah, and nobody else had it. It was a unique experience.

JK: During these two years, he didn't do collecting trips?

SC: No, he was working on the Columbia World Music Series, the Folk Songs of North America book and it was just a question of assembling all that stuff and typing it.

JK: When you guys went to the U.S., that was the next major work trip that he did?

SC: Yes.

JK: How did you prepare research-wise before you went over?

SC: None as such.

JK: It must have come as a shock.

SC: Well, he had gone back, and I thought everything was over, although he did write occasionally and kept in touch. Then the letter came asking me if I'd join him on his trip and I think it was sort of imminent. There was no time to prepare and what would I have done anyway? All I could take with me was my enthusiasm and my understanding, my instinct for it.

JK: That's the most important thing anyway. So you flew into New York?

SC: No! I caught the SS America, it took me five days. People didn't fly in those days that much.

JK: But you arrived into New York.

SC: I arrived in New York at dawn and it was magical. Seeing the Statue of Liberty. I was also very afraid as well because of my left-wing connections. You had to sign documents.

JK: Asking if you've ever been a member of the Communist party kind of thing?

SC: Yeah. Well I hadn't, I was able to say that truthfully. Because I was visiting, Alan couldn't be my sponsor because he was a single man. And also he'd left America because of the un-American activities with people. So, I had to be sponsored by his agent and his agent's wife and I had never met them. I was dreading coming in through immigration in case they questioned me closely about this and I was so scared that they weren't going to let me through. I was really frightened, actually. All that stuff did seem frightening at the time and I'm sure it still is for people who are trying to get into a country illegally.

JK: It's an extreme amount of mixed emotions, too, with the glamour of the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop.

SC: It's going past the Statue of Liberty coming from Europe. It's a pretty potent symbol.

JK: Lomax met you?

SC: He was on the dockside with Anne, his daughter.

JK: Did you spend a few days in New York?

SC: Oh yeah, I think I arrived in April and I don't think we went south until August. It took quite a long time to get the money together; it kept falling through. I think Columbia was going to pay for it at one point, but they insisted he have a union engineer with him and someone extra like that in situations we were going to be in would have been hopeless. So he refused and they withdrew their funding. It was very last minute that the Ertegun brothers at Atlantic gave us the cash and we were gone within days of getting that money. Alan had wanted to do it earlier, but there was just no money to do it with. He had no money, ever. He was always living hand to mouth.

JK: That's the nature of somebody who is making the path as he's going along. Also as a sidebar, considering who the Ertegun brothers were at that point in time, it's surprising to me that they greenlighted that project at that point in time. I love that series, I think it's one of the great series of albums ever. It's surprising that Atlantic Records made that leap of faith because the series is sort of outside of their paradigm. So, those months were spent in New York?

SC: We went to another place actually, we went to California, to the California Folk festival in Berkeley, this was sometime in the summer. And we stopped off in Chicago and stayed with [Studs Terkel] who was a hospitable man and his wonderful hospitable wife. Caught the train out to San Francisco from Chicago, which was an incredible experience. Sang at the Berkeley festival and met Jimmy Driftwood there for the first time. We all hit it off wonderfully.

JK: Your friends in England were dying of envy.

SC: No, they didn't know.

JK: You didn't send the occasional postcard?

SC: No I wrote letters. I wrote huge letters home which is partly the basis of the book. So, we were doing things like that. We went up to Boston and sang with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and we were doing various broadcasts and Alan was still working on various projects.

JK: Those are the people that got me started in my interest in folk music.

SC: Who, Sonny and Brownie?

JK: Yeah, because my parents were really into them.

SC: Did you ever meet them?

JK: No.

SC: They were so lovely. Brownie was the loveliest man I ever met. The sexiest man I ever met was Muddy Waters, god. Talk about Tom Jones, psshh, it's ridiculous!

JK: When did you meet Muddy Waters?

SC: Somewhere with Alan. I might have met him in England.

JK: He played England in the late fifties, I think.

SC: I think he came to stay with us at Highgate. And it was Sonny and Brownie came to the house as well.

See Part 3 of 5 of the Shirley Collins interview

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER