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Shirley Collins - This Time Roses

Anyway the songs that I liked at the time, between 15 and 18, were love songs. Ewan MacColl criticised me once then, and subsequently he said to me that there were two important things; you mustn’t wear nail varnish and you mustn’t sing only love songs. Well, I thought it was terrifically important when I was 18 to wear nail varnish and sing love songs, because it was all I cared about. I mean, he wasn’t 18 of course, so he didn’t understand, and I don’t think he’d ever been a girl… I did dig my heels in because I knew very well what I wanted. I think a strong point of mine is that I’ve kept true to what I wanted all the time, and what I knew I liked.

Early influences yes; of course I was influenced by the singing of Jean Ritchie because she was American and I thought Kentucky music was just about tops, until I’d actually been to America and discovered that America was not the romantic place I had imagined it to be at all and in fact I found it quite terrifying.

Marvellous experience, but in 1959 the South was still a really terrifying place, and especially because we went into places like Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary…

Which Mose Allison wrote about didn’t he? “I’m sitting down here on Parchman Farm, ain’t never done no man no harm… I’m gonna be on this farm for the rest of my life, and all I did was shoot my wife”. Were there guys like that there?

Yes, but there were also guys there who hadn’t killed their wives. We heard a story from one prisoner who said he had never been taught to read or write of course, being a poor black, and he was arrested for walking down a railway track; there had been a sign that said no tresspassing. Of course there were murderers. There were real villains in Parchman Farm but there were also, I think, completely innocent people because, you know, they had to have a complement of prisoners to make up the work force.

And the Klan symbol was so… you would drive into a town in Georgia and the Klan symbol was up outside the town along with the Rotary Club… it would just be there straight away; you knew you were going into a Klan town.

What was the reaction to you and Lomax going in there?

Well, Lomax has got this incredible rapport with people. He’s a big, ugly, but very charming man, and people really trusted him and opened up to him. He was very warm, a marvellous person to watch working in the field. His understanding of people was just incredible; he showed sympathy towards their plight, their position in life, without being at all patronising. So that alone was a wonderful education.

The whites I found very watchful, they would always be watching. I ran up against the Mississippi Parole Board who came in while we were there and we had dinner with them one evening. I think they were probably the most frightening bunch of people I’d ever met. I mean really deadly frightening people. That was an extraordinary place. But even outside the State Penitentiary – for example the night we discovered Fred McDowell – that was really very strange.

This was in – can’t remember the name of the place – anyway it was a clearing in a wood. We’d driven for what seemed like hours through this arid countryside that the whites had left because the land wasn’t workable any more. There were crevasses, deep cracks where it was so very dry, and the clearing in the woods where there were one or two shacks was where we set up the microphones that night. They kept going off because there was a huge thunderstorm and the supply just kept fading all the time. There was Lonnie and Ed Young there that night; these were the two old guys who played what he called the ‘feist’ (which was a whistle) and drums, and they played stuff that was almost directly out of Africa, or so it sounded to me at the time. They wheeled and dipped; he played his pipe just sort of curving into the ground and coming up again, the other one was playing this very repetitive drum and the women were clapping in the background. It was just marvellous. You could scarcely hear what the words were and it was all repetitive and just so solid and so… eerie as well. All in this strange (to me) landscape. It just felt so weird.

Fred McDowell turned up, I think, on the second night, and started playing slide guitar and his blues. Although he was wonderful I thought of him as a gatecrasher coming in on these old guys and bringing the newer thing with him so that, funnily enough, the first time I heard him I resented him. Of course you sat and listened to him more and more; he had his wife with him and they were singing some religious songs and some blues and we all utterly fell in love with him. Alan couldn’t believe his luck in discovering such an amazing blues artist who’d never been recorded before. It was just a momentous night.

From Folk Roots 65, November 1988


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