This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
Shirley Collins - This Time Roses
What about your driving experience in America?
Oh, yes! I was learning to drive in America in Mississippi, and Alan had this great big Buick, a really heavy, unwieldy car, and I was learning to drive it along those really straight roads.
How old were you at this time?
23 or 24. But in 1959 when you were 23 you were young. You were the equivalent of… er… 4 [much laughter]. But I was learning to drive this great big Buick and I hadn’t got a provisional licence or anything. I was driving this car and in the distance there were two highway patrol men flagging us down and I knew I had to stop. And they leaned through the window and said “Scuse me ma’am, there’s a detour, do you mind making a U-turn and going back?”. I had to do this in front of them, pretending I knew how to drive, and I’d never done a U-turn in my life!
When I’d done it (perfectly!) I drove back along the road and as soon as I was out of sight I started shaking like a leaf and I could never put my hands on a steering wheel again. I thought I was going to be shot by the Mississippi Highway Patrol. Because at one point we were turned off a road at gunpoint; we ran into a chain gang that were working by the side of the road in Georgia and we were told at gunpoint to get out, to get our wheels rolling. It was frightening there.
Did you regard youself as a traditional singer, like one of the people you were recording?
I don’t think I thought of it in those terms then. It was only later that words like ‘traditional’ and ‘revival’ came up. Looking back from this distance I know that basically I’m a revival singer because of what I’ve done with the music. I haven’t sung it directly as my Grandad or my Mum would sing it. Although of course I still sing with their accent and in the same way they would sing a song. But what I always did know about myself was that I came from the same background as these people. I was working class, I was country, and I didn’t know much about the world, in a way, but I always knew that I had an understanding of what life was like for these people.
I know that a lot of people have despised me in a way; they seem to think I’m not real somehow. I’ve always had this thing said, “Oh, Shirley Collins with her ethereal voice, she’s removed from reality; she puts people into trances…” I think it’s a load of balls really! I know that Frankie Armstrong for instance said that I’m a heart singer, not a head singer. I’m not honestly sure that I know what a head singer is, but I think, “Yes, I am a heart singer”, but I also think I’m an intelligent heart singer. It’s not just a heart singer who’s sloshing around in some sort of romance, I bloody well know what the score is.
Have you ever tried to make up a song since you were little?
Yes I’ve written several songs. I wrote several tunes, you know. Polly Vaughan was my tune; The Captain With His Whiskers, The Cherry Tree Carol. But you don’t write them – they sort of come to you. I have written some songs as well. I’m sort of keeping them dark at the moment because I think it’s a bit ghastly when people start writing songs. When you listen to the songs other people write, few of them seem to be very good. I’m thinking mostly in terms of the Albion Band at the moment, when I think how Ashley has gone off. I mean, I think that he could have made something absolutely remarkable out of his working with the Morris music and with the English music. He just let it all go and he lost it all.
Going back a few years now, the piece you wrote for the reissued Power Of The True Love Knot. Something about the traditional love song often saying a lot more than just the love between two individuals; showing up the conflict between love and society’s pressures and expectations. I think that the subtlety there is something that a lot of people writing in the traditional mode haven’t actually learnt.
Yes, absolutely. It’s something that seems lost on a lot of singers. They seem to think things have to be writ big. I like people to think for themselves; I don’t like telling people, except in a way I like telling them like it was or like it is, but I don’t like ramming it home, although some singers can do it very well, but I don’t think they should coerce everybody into being as they wish to be. I know I’ve been at loggerheads with Ewan and Peggy for years and years. They don’t like my music, I know. There was that awful thing that Ewan and (I think) Fred Dallas and Peggy concocted between them, a poem about me. It hurt awfully at the time. They likened me to a cow lumbering along…
Yes. All I can remember is the final couplet: “But nimble-fingered Davy carries her along, the Lady Baden-Powell of English song”. And I thought, “they don’t know…”
From Folk Roots 65, November 1988
This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down