Perfect Sound Forever

Shirley Collins

Shirley in 1968

Interview, Part 3 of 5
by Johan Kugelberg of Ugly Things

JK: So in August, you guys leave for the South and it was just the two of you.

SC: Just the two of us.

JK: Were you taking the train or were you driving?

SC: No, Alan had a different car than what he had when I landed in New York. That was a Buick that was so old the doors would fly open when you went too fast around a corner. Anyway, he had to get a different car to go South with and he bought one with a Virginia license plate so that we wouldn't be too conspicuous. He also shaved his beard when we left Virginia, because a beard in the South wouldn't have gone down well in places like Mississippi.

JK: I guess a trimmed beard and a seersucker suit would have worked with a drawl and the mint julep.

SC:Well, he was a Texan so he had the drawl all right.

JK: Were you shell shocked? It's so many experiences in such a short amount of time; Chicago, San Francisco, New York.

SC: No, I was mightily impressed with it. I was so astounded by the size of the continent. I hadn't gone any further than Sussex or London.

JK: I have to use my Swedish experiences, because a three hour journey in Sweden when I was growing up was a journey, where now, you go three hours to get to a restaurant if you live in LA..

JK: Of course, yes. In the fifties as well, I've said this before and it's a point that people don't appreciate who weren't born by then but people didn't travel to that extent. When you said "Did you fly to New York?" -- Lawrence Olivier flew to New York, other people took a boat.

JK: I wonder when air travel became inexpensive, when it became something that wasn't only for the privileged. That probably wasn't until the 1960's or 1970's even.

SC: Going on a liner is a privilege now. It was back then, too. It was so gorgeous. The food in England, still even up to the fifties there was some rationing right up until then. And you step on this boat and the food was just amazing. The steaks, the turkey. We had chicken once a year when I was growing up.

JK: Your entire U.S. experience must have been an extraordinary food experience as well.

SC: Yes! It was the ice cream! During the war, we had no ice cream here at all. You got ice lollies at the end of the war, but all the taste went out of them in the first suck. Howard Johnson ice cream, all those varieties I couldn't stop eating it, I thought it was wonderful. I had never had a pizza in my life before either, and Alan's flat was on the fifth floor above a pizza parlor.

JK: His apartment was in New York?

SC: Yes, 121 West 23rd Street, I think. There was a pizza parlor on the ground floor and four flats above it.

JK: I think that pizza spot might still be there if this was on the corner of 6th Avenue. Do you remember if it was on the south or north side of the street?

SC: I don't remember. It was on the left hand side if you were looking up.

JK: I'm going to look when I get home, but I think there's still a pizza place there. It's a good one. (ED NOTE: there's a church at the address now though there are other pizza places scattered up and down 23rd Street)

SC: There may be, although it did catch fire. That's one of the reasons I was sent home towards the end of '59. We had done an all night broadcast in New York and came back in the early hours of the morning to find the street full of fire engines and the whole building was smoking and they wouldn't let Alan through. I think there had been a blaze in the pizza parlor and it went up through the building. All of his stuff was up there, his life's work was up there. All water-logged and smoke-filled and we had to go and live somewhere else for a bit. We couldn't live there. Nothing was lost. The fire didn't reach up to the archives, but everything was wet and damaged. All of his tapes were up there too, I mean everything.

JK: I'm confused about the chronology here. Were False True Lovers and Sweet England already recorded by the time you came to the U.S.?

SC: Yes. I recorded those in '58. Lomax and Kennedy recorded those.

JK: And it was a very brief session, right? Only a couple of days?

SC: Only two days. And we did what, 38 songs.

JK: When you decided on what songs to record, was there a concept that there was going to be two albums?

SC: I don't think so. I truly don't remember. I think we just got down as much as we could in the time we had.

JK: This was an opportunity to record, and it needed to be maximized?

SC: Well, that's how people did things in those days. They didn't spend three weeks doing one song.

JK: Who were Argo?

SC: A subsidiary of Decca.

JK: What kind of subsidiary was it? As far as those labels at that point in time, some of the subsidiaries were price related so it could be a budget subsidiary, some of them were finer subsidiaries, so it would be more of an art subsidiary.

SC: I think it was an art subsidiary because I think they did classical recordings as well. They certainly had a different director from Decca.

JK: Who did the song selection for the respective albums? Did you decide what went on False True Lovers and what went on Sweet England?

SC: I think what went on False True Lovers was what was left from Sweet England.

JK: There is a cohesiveness to False True Lovers, I think. I thought it was premeditated.

SC:(laughing) Well of course it was, it was very carefully planned.

JK: The connection with Folk Ways didn't occur until you came to the U.S?

SC: No, it didn't. Alan must have swung that.

JK: Did you meet Moe Ash?

SC: No, I didn't.

JK: What exactly is the difference between revivalist singers and traditionalist singers and when did this term first appear, when did the terminology show up?

SC: I guess that was in the 1950's and the '60's as well, the use of the word revivalist. It was used for people who were learning traditional songs but were not traditional singers. They were not people who had learned the songs orally. They were people that had learned the songs from traditional singers or from books.

JK: You were both.

SC: Well, I'm sort of both, yes.

JK: Was there a lot of debate or friction surrounding these concepts? Or were they usable concepts?

SC: I guess they were usable concepts, but there was a lot of friction in as much as there were a lot of revivalist singers I didn't have much respect for. They were not picking up the aspects of traditional things that they should have. They were just grabbing songs, these gorgeous songs and singing them. Not necessarily singing them with any understanding of what they were singing.

JK: It was almost like it was the politically correct thing to do. Any particular memories of Mississippi Fred McDowell that didn't end up in the book?

SC: No, I think I pretty much put down everything that I remembered about Fred because it was the most remarkable meeting of my life.

JK: So, how did you sort through all this music in your head when you were in America? You must have experienced drum and fife one day, country blues another day, shape-note singing another.

SC: It was all grist to my mill actually, I just lapped it all up. It was all wonderful to me. Obviously there was some I liked better than others. I was young, I was open, I just relished it all. It was all such a revelation in many ways, although I was familiar with a lot of the stuff, familiar with the sound of the early recordings. It was just like a cornucopia of music. It didn't phase me at all. I must have been bewildered, but bewildered is not quite the right word. I think the music that most scared me was the Kentucky religious music. Because of the sort of strangled voices, the pain behind it all. I think in my book I used the phrase "it sounds like people in torment". It does and perhaps they were.

JK: How did you meet John Marshall?

SC: Well, I got back from the states. A couple of the recordings I had made before I left were going to be used on the HMV compilation albums A Pinch of Salt and A Jug Of Punch. John, who was working at Vogue magazine at the time as an art assistant designed the covers.

JK: The covers on those records are fantastic.

SC: They're a bit funny now, but they were so of their time. He had designed the record sleeves and he was at Peter Kennedy's house one day when I was there. There he was.

JK: There was the three: A Jug of Punch; A Pinch of Salt and Rocket Along. Were those recordings made before you went to America?

SC:I cant remember (laughing). Do you remember what you were doing when you were 20? Well, you are half my age (more laughter).

JK: When did you come back from America?

SC: January of 1960.

JK: Then it is more likely that the recordings were not made before you went to America. In the chronology of things, we are up to the Heroes In Love EP. You met John.

SC: We got married within a couple of years. Let's see, when was Heroes In Love?

JK: 1963. The first record for Topic. John introduced you to Davy Graham. Was he a friend of Davy's?

SC: No, not necessarily. I knew Davy from the folk clubs because he was playing at places like the Troubador in London. But it hadn't occurred to me to work with Davy because was on this very exciting love affair with Middle Eastern and Indian music. John was very keen on jazz, which as I've said before I don't like. I think it was after we heard Davy's sort of raga version of "She Moved Through The Fair," the Irish song, that John had a brainwave and thought that it might be intriguing for Davy and I to work together.

JK: One of the great musical brainstorms if you ask me. Now Davy mentions it very fondly at the end of Midnight Man, what he thought in hindsight was a brilliant insight on Johns behalf to put this together.

SC: I think it was. It didn't detract from the English or American songs, it just added a further dimension to the tunes.

JK: How was the rehearsal process?

SC: I think Davy just came out to our house at Black Heath and played in the front room and we sang and then we gigged.

JK: What are your thoughts about this Milestone record now?

SC: Some of it is very good. I'm a tad embarrassed by one or two tracks, but I think when it worked, it worked very well.

JK: I think its magical. I listen to it all the time. After 9/11, it was one of the records I used for comfort.

SC: Really? Interestingly enough, the MacColl camp didn't like it. They wrote a poem about it, although it appeared anonymously in one of the folk magazines. They likened me to a Jersey cow and used the word bucolic, and I didn't know what bucolic meant at the time, and I had to look it up. And it meant 'shepards,' or 'of the country,' so that was OK. But the last two lines of this poem were: "and Davys nimble fingers carried her along, the lady Baden Powell of the English song."

JK: That seems to me a very obnoxious, upper middle-class view of art that probably contaminated the entire lives of those people. If you have that view of art, then you're limiting so much of your art experience anyway. Also, to be a real asshole about it, a mint copy of that album goes for about nine hundred dollars, and you can go and get any of the MacColl albums for a dollar out of the sale bins, so go figure. Do you have any memory of [Crispin Woodgate], the photographer who did the record sleeve?

SC: No, not really. I remember sort of feeling rather held. The pictures have sort of this (looking at her watch) "please lets get this over and done with" sort of look.

JK: Well, you're pregnant. A woman is never as vulnerable as during her pregnancy either. The image on the cover is a very fabricated situation. I think the photos are beautiful. Had Dolly been doing a lot of music on her own before you guys collaborated on Sweet Primroses?

SC: No, she had been studying composition with Alan Bush, an English composer. That was through the Workers Music Association. Uncle Fred had met Alan Bush at John Ruskin College in Oxford where he was doing some sort of course. He talked about Dolly to Alan Bush and he said, well, send her along and lets see if I can give her some lessons. She had quite a lot of lessons with him, but there was no outlet for her music. You can't start composing and the world takes notice. She was doing other jobs, just working. She lived for a while on this famous double-decker bus that had a piano on the bottom deck. She spent a lot of time just writing music. When you think about it later, it seems silly that we didn't sort of think to work together before. She was only playing keys, I'm not sure what happened to the Czechoslovakian guitar. I was just following my solo career with my five string banjo and my guitar and a mountain dulcimer that I brought back from the states as well which I played occasionally. She was only playing piano at the time, so there was no way that we would have thought that Dolly would play the piano and accompany me in folk clubs.

JK: There's no guarantee that any folk club would have a piano.

SC: You're right, and if they did have one it would be a bashed out one. It wasn't until we discovered the flute organ. But John had had another brain wave; he asked Dolly to write me an arrangement for a folk song. At one point we did a demo and this track is on the box set. It was one of the written arrangements by Mathias Siber from the Folk Songs of North America and Dolly came up to play it and we recorded it. It was a bit plunky like it was a bit drawing room-like, as most of the early folk songs for keyboards were. John said, 'well Dolly, why don't you try using another instrument and arrange something?' And Dolly wrote her first one for three French horns. I can't remember what the song was, but I couldn't sing against three French horns.

JK: They would also ply out some qualities of your voice.

SC: That's right. But Dolly was sort of forward thinking with her own compositions and she stepped back from that somewhat with the arrangements she did for folk songs.

JK: You're also talking about a learning curve and how she is maturing as an artist in her own right.

SC: That's right, but then when we found the flute organ, we knew it was it.

JK: How did the relationship with Collector Records come about?

SC: There were two or three people around who were really interested in folk music. Not really interested in singers but more interested in collecting and promoting. It was all just starting up and getting going, so people had these odd ideas that you could do something private and small.

JK: Do it yourself.

SC: That's right, do it yourself, which was almost unheard of in those days. If you didn't record for a big proper label, it wasn't just a proper recording.

JK: It seems like all the Collector EP's, they all came out pretty much together, yours and the other ones. It seems like they found somebody with a bank account, and got credit with a printer and just printed the whole slew. A noble independent record label tradition. So we're up to Sweet Primroses. How did you and Dolly collaborate on that? What was the process leading up to that record?

SC: Well, I always found the songs and just gave them to Dolly. It was really as simple as that. I would just hand over the latest batch of songs that I had fallen in love with, and she would come back with an arrangement that was absolutely spot on. She just played an introduction and you could just launch yourself into it.

JK: It is an absolutely wonderful record.

SC: Not so wonderful. I had my tonsils taken out five or six weeks before and when I hear it nowadays I can still feel the pain in my throat, and I couldn't quite breathe properly. For some reason I hadn't got enough breath for that album, I think it was because I was afraid something was happening in my throat. When I hear that today I can hear the sort of out-of-breathness of it.

See Part 4 of 5 of the Shirley Collins interview

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER