tue 23/10/2018

Reissue CDs Weekly: Shirley Collins | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Shirley Collins

Reissue CDs Weekly: Shirley Collins

‘The Ballad of Shirley Collins’ is a selective tribute to the British folk great

Shirley Collins: enviably level headed

 “When I was singing at my best, I was the essence of English song. And that was all I ever really wanted.” It’s said without pride and in a matter-of-fact manner. The speaker is Shirley Collins in the documentary The Ballad of Shirley Collins. Issued on DVD in a package with a CD collecting music which defines parts of her world, the film tracks a person balancing certainty about who she is and was with an enviable level-headedness.

The Ballad of Shirley Collins is also issued as an album – a quasi-soundtrack of the film. But the version to get is the book-bound CD/DVD configuration where each disc complements the each other. The purely audio, 21-track side of the package includes dialogue extracted from the film, segments of archive speech, field recordings she and Alan Lomax made in America in 1959, some recent music from others and a frustratingly slim smattering of old and new tracks by Collins herself. Curiously, there is no annotation detailing when and where any of the tracks were recorded. Rather than a best-of, the CD is instead an aural scrapbook scanning across some of the wavebands of her life.

The Ballad Of Shirley Collins CD DVDA more conventional compilation may make more of a case for Collins. However, potential purchasers are going to know who she is and require no convincing. Born in 1935, she was integral to the ground floor of the English folk revival but went on a diversion into the music of America after she met Alan Lomax in 1954. They journeyed through the American south in 1959, recording as they went while tracking down musicians who were then barely known yet later – thanks to the expedition – widely lauded. She knew that seemingly American music she encountered could often have roots in British folk, a heritage fascinatingly discussed in her 2004 book America Over The Water. As far as English music as such was concerned, her first recordings in 1958 had defined her place on this side of the Atlantic.

The albums Collins made in the late Sixties and early Seventies, with and without her sister Dolly, are great, important and indispensible. She lost her singing voice in 1980 and abandoned music. In the last ten years, following the return of her voice, some tentative live appearances and intermittent returns to recording, she made a full-blown comeback with thematic live presentations, 2016’s Lodestar album and conventional concerts.

Selected aspects of the arc described above are detectable on the CD and, to varying degrees, more apparent on the DVD which covers her life in full yet takes just nine minutes to get to Alan Lomax. Their visit to America swiftly becomes a prime focus of the documentary and is recreated with newly made black-and-white footage depicting their time there. The other main emphasis is on life after recovering her singing voice and the making of Lodestar. Throughout, she is wonderfully engaging and straightforward, and evidently capable of speaking for herself. The presence of too many interviewers and supporters is as distracting as the overuse of the faux-Fifties footage, and it is disappointing that Stewart Lee talking across her made it to the final cut.

Despite what jars, it is terrific to see and hear Collins. Whatever its peculiarities, The Ballad of Shirley Collins is essential listening and viewing.

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