Shirley Collins’ career as a singer started in the late ’50s, with an initial leaning towards American songs, rapidly followed by a deepening interest in her own native songs, including those of her family in Sussex. Her popularity steadily increased through the ’60s when she worked as a soloist, with the unique guitarist Davy Graham, with her sister Dolly, and with a group of musicians who specialised in early music on original instruments. During the early ’70s she became involved with Ashley Hutchings and hence with electric folk music, or folk/rock as it was then called. She also worked with the Albion Band in the National Theatre in The Passion and Lark Rise.

I first heard Shirley Collins on a Topic album called The Sweet Primeroses in the late ’60s. My first and abiding impression was “Oh, then it’s alright to sing in the same way that you speak.” (This in the context of a burgeoning club scene full of Joan Baez clones). Subsequently I saw and heard her sing fairly frequently until the late ’70s. I came to value her singing more and more highly. Many of the southern English songs that she sings are gems – exquiste melodies and lyrics both – and she delivers them in a way that lets the song speak for itself. The power is not in her voice in technical terms, but in her ability to sing with complete lack of affectation, a great sense of familiarity and ease with the song, and with complete honesty.

In recent years, many of her albums have been reissued or reactivated, including Sweet England from the ’50s and Anthems In Eden (with Dolly) from the late ’60s, both now on See For Miles, Love, Death & The Lady (also with Dolly, from 1970) now on BGO, the 1964 Folk Roots, New Routes (with Davy Graham) on Righteous, the 1967 Power Of The True Love Knot now on Hannibal, and 1971’s No Roses with the Albion Country Band. But I had heard to my sadness that Shirley had stopped singing – there were rumours of throat trouble – and the last I’d heard was that she was managing Brighton’s Oxfam shop. So I was pleased and intrigued when it was suggested I interview her. As it turned out, she had just given in her notice and has decided to try to make her living in music once more; writing, broadcasting and maybe even singing.

I visited her in July (1988) at her home in Brighton. We spent a very enjoyable evening talking in company with her friends Ian and Rebekah Kearey who live close by, and who both contributed to the conversation.

Shirley, mid-1950s

The first question that occurred to me was how did an innocent young Sussex girl get to go off round the southern states of the U.S.A. with Alan Lomax all those years ago?

I met Alan Lomax at a party that Ewan MacColl gave and I’d been a great admirer of Alan Lomax’s for some time, just through listening to his work on the BBC. I knew that at that time American music seemed to me much more exotic than any other music I’d ever heard. I was quite obsessed by it. I thought that the greatest thing in the world would be to go to the Library of Congress and listen to the music, and actually when I met Alan Lomax at Ewan’s party I mentioned the Library of Congress and nobody else he’d met had ever heard of the Library.

Although, yes, I was an innocent person from Sussex, I had luckily been brought up to listen to all sorts of music, and I just happened to say the right thing to Alan at the right time. I mean, I did admire him; I thought what he’d done was wonderful.

So what happened; did he just sort of say “Come with me, my dear”?

No, but he was on a collecting trip; he was collecting in Britain at the time. I think he did rather like me and I rather liked him. He came down to Hastings to record me and my mother and my sister and he brought his wife with him. I think he was still married to her at that time… or not? No, she’d always had another person she was living with, but she was in England with him.

I mean, it was a sort of romantic thing as well. Probably this is the first time I’ve admitted this in public, but yes, I did have an affair with Alan Lomax. I mean, I’ve never said it before, because it would seem not a necessary thing to say; but now that I’m grown up one doesn’t have to pretend that one wasn’t in love with Alan at the time, because I was.

So many people seem to get into things like music through some sort of romantic involvement which they don’t admit at the time.

Well, of course. Human love is the greatest thing there is and the most affecting thing there is. The effect it has on people’s lives is extraordinary, and you get into all sorts of situations because of it.

And do you find that through your life your music has been bound up with your human relationships?

Well, absolutely. Of course. I mean it’s what you sing about all the time; or a great deal of what you sing about is love.

And you inevitably get involved with people?

Of course; I think if you’re a… I don’t know, this is a bit difficult… If you’re a proper artist, I was going to say, or if you’re properly involved in your music (especially, I think, if it’s folk music), you’re singing about love all the time, and love is the most important part of one’s life. I think love between a man and a woman is the most powerful thing there is in the world. Although, having said that, the two people I love most are my kids!

A lot of those songs that you would have learnt in Sussex were about love, weren’t they?

Yes, of course they were; at the age of eighteen what else do you think about?

Well, what about those songs you learnt at home?

We sang at home a great deal. I grew up in a family of people who were ardent socialists and ardent lovers of the arts. My mum was a writer and a feminist before it became fashionable, and always encouraged Dolly and me in our music, even at the expense of a secure lifestyle. Two uncles were painters, one uncle was a writer…


That’s Fred Ball, yes, Robert Tressell’s biographer, and A Breath Of Fresh Air. My dad left home when I was about eleven and Uncle Fred virtually became my father after that. He had, I think the widest knowledge of English literature of anyone I’ve ever met, untutored and self-taught as he was. His range just covered the whole of the field from Chaucer through Fielding and Trollope right down to the present day, and he had a really catholic taste in music. We would listen to Monteverdi one minute then we’d be listening to Jimmy Yancey playing boogie-woogie, so that you got everything. At the same time there was Guy Mitchell and Frankie Laine, and my mother couldn’t stand us listening to this.

Then we had a piano in the front room and in the evenings Dolly would play it and we’d sing madrigals, or we would sing songs that Dolly and I made up, or we would sing songs that our Grandad sang and we’d go into Grandad who lived next door and we’d sing with Grandad. We’d sing carols every Christmas, I mean we’d start practising our carols about October, so we sang all the time anyway.

Wasn’t there an Aunt Grace?

That’s my mother’s sister, yes. Just As The Tide Was Flowing is the main song that came from Aunt Grace… er… they laugh at that because 10,000 Maniacs recorded a version of it. They put it on their album as trad. arr. them, but no. They have paid up a share of the royalties, because it certainly was my Aunt Graces’ song. I know that it was because there are only a couple of printed versions of it and it’s in an entirely different form. They were honorable about it all.

Shirley Collins 1958

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.

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…”

Bloody hell!

Piff, paff, pouff. Although, you see, I come from a socialist family and my mum was a member of the Communist party. I was right on, alright, but we’ve always done it in our own way. I cannot be coerced by these people.

You mentioned Davy Graham. Some readers may know nothing about that partnership, and how it happened; it was quite remarkable really.

I say straight away that there was absolutely no romantic involvement between Davy and myself, just in case you though that was another of those lurches in one’s life…

No, no!

This was really masterminded by my then husband, John Marshall, and I sort of went along with it because obviously Davy was a wonderfully talented guitarist and I enjoyed a great deal of it… I didn’t think it was ever quite right, but I think in a way it was a brave experiment.

Do you think it stands up now? Have you heard it recently?

Some of it’s not bad, is it? It became very difficult working with Davy because he was talented but moody, and a late train-catcher. It was a really interesting episode in my life, I must say; but when John started to want to push it a bit further, into working with a jazz orchestra, I sort of opted out, because that wasn’t what I wanted. I was trying to edge away from American music. I’d discovered more and more that English music was what I loved most.

And were you also working solo at that time or with Dolly?

I was playing my own banjo accompaniments, and singing unaccompanied in the clubs. But that wasn’t enough for me either. I wanted better music than that, I thought the music warranted it. The banjo wasn’t bad; I sometimes tend to denigrate it and say it was me just plunking away on a banjo, but it worked for a few songs. It wasn’t a bad little background, but I wanted the music to sound better; I always thought it deserved it. The tunes were too good.

Shirley & Dolly Collins 1966 Photo: Brian Shuel

So when did Dolly come into it?

Must have been about 1966.

I must have seen you in Guildford Civic Hall with Davy Graham about that time – and were you on the Beaulieu Festival?

Yes… no, I’m thinking of Woburn. All I can remember about that is that I wore a very short mini-skirt, I know, and fell in love with Jimi Hendrix. Well, who wouldn’t?

We missed out how you got together with John Marshall.

Oh, I met him when he did a record sleeve for one of those very early albums that Peter Kennedy put out that I was on. That was the greatest moment of my life up to then. I’d been put on a record and my track was between the Coppers and Harry Cox. I just about knew enough that to be put between Bob Copper on one side and Harry Cox on the other was the best you could get! But anyway, John was a graphic artist; he was working for Vogue at the time and he brought the proofs of this artwork; he was just from a different world. I’d come back from America and I was wary of bearded, beer-gutted folkies. I wanted something a cut above it and he was intelligent and well-read. I think it was a reaction, a change, so we got married.

Now he produced Anthems In Eden didn’t he, and of course wrote Dancing At Whitsun?

Well, I think that was probably the single best thing he ever did in his life, writing that song. I still think it’s marvellous. I still find it very moving.

Shirley Collins 1971. Photo: Keith Morris

Anthems was a big jump in terms of record production and arrangement wasn’t it? Was that his idea?

Well, I’d introduced John to early music. I love Monteverdi, and Johan Schein, and Michael Praetorius. And Purcell – I know Purcell’s not early music, but Uncle Fred had made us understand that Purcell was probably the greatest composer in the world, and certainly the most underestimated English composer! I was really keen to wed the two somehow and it just happened that at the same time, a man called Michael Morrow had a group called Musica Reservata and they were playing early music on original instruments which was quite a new venture.

David Munrow was a member of Musica Reservata; he later broke away to form his own consort. We used to go along to listen to the rehearsals of Musica Reservata and got to know the musicians. It was then suggested, and we all agreed, that it would be a good idea to wed English traditional tunes to these wonderful early instruments that were so rough and not perfectly tuned. We just took it from there. It was really a joint project between John and me and Dolly and David Munrow, all working together.

Love, Death And The Lady was also done that way?

Yes, that was a couple of years after Anthems. I think Love, Death And The Lady has some marvellous stuff on it; when I listened to it recently I was surprised at how well a lot of that stands up.

On Anthems there seems to be a lot going on on every track – lots of instruments…

It was a heady time!

… but Love, Death And The Lady was much sparser.

That’s very true. I think it’s significant that by then John and I had split up and I had entered a rather lonely period of my life. I think that album reflects it very much. I was feeling rather melancholy. Not because my marriage had broken up – I really didn’t want to stay married to John- but I did feel awfully lonely. Many of the songs on the album reflect this. Again, all the experience in the songs is real. Although I also had great fun around this time because we did a couple of concerts with the Incredible String Band and Robin and Mike are such lovely people – spaced out a lot of the time in those days, but original and brilliant, and their own songs were lovely.

At the time we were doing the Festival Hall and the Q.E.H., and it all seemed such a bright time musically; the possibilities seemed limitless. Everything was opening up and there we were sort of spearheading it. Although you didn’t quite realise it at the time because you didn’t know what people were going to pick up on.

What happened next?

I think a little while after that I must have met Ashley. Oh, that’s right because I know that someone had lent me I think Liege And Lief and I thought “I must meet Ashley Hutchings”… or maybe not – these things do blur after a while! He rang me up one day, when I was still living at Blackheath, and asked me about the Whitsun dance and I told him what I always said about it – the loss of the generation and the war memorials replacing the maypoles on the village greens. I hadn’t met him at all, and I remember when I said this to him on the telephone he just said “Wow!”

Then I think a week or so later I was doing a gig at Cecil Sharp House and I trundled along with my banjo and there was this figure on the other side of the hall. I’d never even seen photos of him, but I knew that was Ashley Hutchings. I walked across to him and said “You’re Ashley Hutchings, aren’t you?” and he said “Yes, you’re Shirley Collins, aren’t you?” and it was lovely. He cradled the back of my head in his hand and gave me a kiss and I knew we were going to get married that minute…


Oh, absolutely, it was wonderful. We had a lovely courtship in many ways. We were looking for an engagement ring, because people got engaged in those days [laughter]. I wanted something that was really special and we were walking down Charing Cross Road one day and looked in the window of this jewellers and there was this beautiful little band of gold – two sorts of gold with a gold engraving of a leaf and five little seed pearls cascading down it, and I said “That’s the one I really want.” We went in and it fitted perfectly and the jeweller said “It’s a Victorian dress ring and I’ve still got the original box it came in; would you like if?” We said, “Yes, please”, and he brought it out and it had Ashley’s initials on it – A.S.H. It was extraordinary!

So we went off to live in. the country, in Etchingham, together. Of course he was diving in and out of Steeleye Span, then forming the Albion Country Band, and we were whizzing off to places like Northamptonshire to have rehearsals at Simon Nicol’s house with all sorts of musicians, some of whom I must say I thought were unreliable and unsuitable. Good music, but a bit precarious. But then one learns that Ashley’s lifestyle is a bit precarious, the way he opts in and out of various things and has a different line-up every week. I’m surprised we stayed married for as long as we did!

How did the idea for the record come about?

The band actually grew in the studio. I wanted to make another album, and by then I had come to like electric music – it was just terrific, wasn’t it? – it was so alive and energetic. It really got to the heart of things in a wonderfully gutsy way. And the power was wonderful; when you hear it and certainly when you were in the middle of making it, it was just incredible… So we went into the studio and Ashley masterminded the getting of all the musicians. We had something like 23 in the studio one by one. It was a brilliant time making that album. It was very spur-of-the-moment – a lot of it wasn’t rehearsed. And we had to have a name for this band, and we thought and thought and between us came up with the Albion Country Band.

I think I’m a little bit peeved that Ashley has sort of held on to it, in a way, specially since I got sort of ousted out of the band and then got ditched.

Shirley & Dolly Collins 1977. Photo: Keith Morris

What was the album that followed up No Roses?

Oh, Amaranth, yes. That came in…


Yes, but what was going on? That was strange. I don’t quite understand what was happening although something was obviously going on at the time because I had said on it that it was the last album I was going to make.

Why was that?

Because I think my confidence was being undermined all the time. It was being chipped away at and, like an idiot, I let it happen because… I don’t know… my domestic life has always been awfully important to me, my home life, as it is to everyone. And I’d got kids who were coming along to teenage, and I guess I wanted to get off the road and spend a bit of time at home, and Ashley needed an awful lot of support anyway.

I thought perhaps I would withdraw because being on the road with a band isn’t the greatest thing, especially if you’re the one woman in that band and you’ve got all your responsibilities at home as well. And I think in many ways I was quite happy to withdraw for a bit, but it all got a bit heavy and the decision seemed to have been made. I remember Ashley saying to me one night when we were writing the notes for that album, “If you’re going to write that, don’t come to me and say I’m changing my mind”, something like that.

I should have listened to the warning bells then but I didn’t. I know that in the studio he didn’t like me. He didn’t like my singing and my voice was mixed right down on a lot of the tracks. It amuses my friends that the bass was right up! We laugh about it now, but it’s a pity because the songs on that album are lovely songs – Fare Thee Well My Dearest Dear and so on – and some of the arrangements are really rather good. But I think that was the start of my demise with Ashley.

Shirley Collins, Brighton, 1988. Photo: Dave Peabody

What numerous readers will want me to ask is “Are you going to sing again?”

Well, yes, I hope so… we’re working on it, me and Biggles!

You would like to?

Oh, I would love to, because I’m not Shirley Collins unless I sing and I haven’t been Shirley Collins for the last six years.

You’re not being coy?

No, I’m not being coy; I’ve had a real block about my singing and I’m just working it out now.

When did that happen? Was it after Ashley left?

Yes. It’s very difficult to talk about personal things without them sounding bitter, but the truth of it, as I see it, was I hadn’t realised that I think Ashley was trying to get me out of the Albion Band. I was working with it at that time and singing songs that I think were not suitable for me, but I was just sort of complying with what Ashley wanted for the success of the band and all the people that were trying to earn livings, so I went along with it. I realised with hindsight that he was trying to get me out of the band. I had agreed to leave and take on all the business aspect of it and continue singing on my own, and a few days after that happened Ashley walked out.

You see, he had started working in the theatre, in Corruna with Steeleye Span, so we got invited to do The Passion at the National. It was then that I think Ashley really started to fall in love with the theatre, and of course it followed that he would fall in love with actresses as well, as indeed happened.

Did you find the theatre itself attractive in that way?

No. I was very glad to be at the National Theatre and I thought it was my right place. I thought that I had had a sufficient career and that I was a sufficiently unique singer to be in that position. I thought I’d earned it after all those years of what I’d put in, but I wasn’t seduced by the theatre. It didn’t turn my head. But I think it turned Ashley’s, and it turned his heart as well.

We soldiered on through that but it was during that time I think when he fell in love with the first one – he left me for her. But then of course he started to fall in love with other actresses at the National Theatre as well – there was a little… urm… flurry. Some years later Ashley did say to me that it was like a sickness – well, he certainly had to go to bed with it! I was fine up to that point; I was still singing fairly well through The Passion although I was heartbroken when he left home – I was truly devastated.

But I got invited back to do Lark Rise and I thought I was sufficiently over my heartbreak to get back and do it. Ashley had been left some months then. And there I watched him fall in love with the second one and it was at this point that… I mean it’s just dreadful… because they were promenade performances the first one would come to the rehearsals and the performances and stand as close to the band as she could get and she would be wearing Ashley’s jumpers… and, you know, I was trying not to cry as I was singing and every night my throat would absolutely lock up and some nights I couldn’t lift my voice a register and it was terrifying.

Some nights I was fine. Some nights I sang really well and the songs I had were marvellous. I had The Bonny Labouring Boy at the end and that was one of my Grandad’s songs and I sang it wonderfully when I was singing well, but there were some nights when singing that song really hurt me so much that I couldn’t do it, and then it hurt me more that I couldn’t sing it. It just got worse and worse and worse. Some nights I didn’t know if I could sing and Ashley was criticising and saying “What’s the matter with you?” and people would come and say, “This isn’t a hard show for you, is it, so why are you letting us down?” and I just… crumbled.

Finally everything just crumbled away and I had nothing left to stand on, to sing. The whole thing was so profound and feel very ashamed of it now, that I let it get to me so badly… What’s so bloody maddening about it is that I wish I’d had a bit of technique to have over-ridden it, because I’m the one that suffered.

You went back to doing folk clubs, didn’t you?

I was trying to do folk clubs, but it wasn’t very good. I wasn’t very reliable.

Since you stopped singing, are there new songs that you’ve heard that you’d like to do, and to convey?

Yes, of course there are.

And have you learnt them, even to hum in the bath?

No. Do you know, the awful thing is that this singing block is so bad that I can’t even sing indoors, not even over the washing up. Just recently it’s started to come back, but for years I couldn’t even sing indoors. What I couldn’t do was put myself through singing badly in public, so I just withdrew. Stopped. It was the only thing that seemed sensible to do. So I started doing one or two programmes for the BBC of music from the archives and I really enjoyed doing that, but you can’t survive on that, so I had to find other things to do to earn a living.

Shirley Collins 1988. Photo: Dave Peabody

So, what are you doing now?

Well, I had a chequered career after that. I got a job in a literary agent’s in London and then I worked in the British Museum in the bookshop, which was great fun, except that one had to commute.

Wasn’t there something about sleeping on people’s floors?

Well, yes. Then I got a bedsitter in Hampstead, but I also had a flat in Bexhill where my kids lived that I was trying to run, and I was trying to keep them going in Bexhill, and keep myself going in London. Then I got to be Public Relations Officer for Cecil Sharp House! But it turned out really to be secretary to the Company Secretary and I lasted there six months. When I left the British Museum I still had six months of my season ticket left to run so I worked it off. Then I just escaped to Brighton. Then I got a job in Oxfam, and I’ve been condemned to hard labour for the last two years. So all I can see now is a bright, rosy future!

Doing what?

There are certain things I’d love to do. I’d love to record another album because there are several songs that I really wish I had recorded and haven’t yet. I might have to fund it myself but there are certain musicians who have volunteered to play on it with me, notably one Ian Kearey! I’d really love to make another album before I attempt to sing in public just to see if I’ve got the confidence to do it. I think if I had that behind me then I would like to go out again. I think I have to do it that way round. I’ve written some songs that I’d quite like to give an airing to.

Oh, would they be included?

Yes, I think they would – why not? Then all this experience I had in America, I really feel as if I should write it up. I love talking about the music and I love talking about the old singers and the songs so I’d like to do some more of that.

I think I’m going to be able to do some programmes for the BBC. One of my objectives is to get a proper critical ear from the BBC, try to do some programmes for Radio 3. I think it’s absolutely criminal that the musicologists in this country haven’t given folk music any proper attention. We don’t get critical attention and we should. It’s a marvellous art form, an art form that is our heritage; this is said so frequently, but it’s ignored. You can’t ignore the music of generations of this country’s people and I think it’s high time that somebody put it in front of the intelligentsia, or even the people!

If you got folk music on Radio 3 that would help it to be taken seriously but it wouldn’t put it in front of the people!

No, of course, that was for the intelligentsia. You have to put it on Folk On Two I suppose.

The people who ought to know better think… when you talk about folk music, they’ve heard Peter Pears singing The Foggy Dew and it’s dreadful. Or they’ve heard Peter Sellers doing a send-up of an Irish song and it may be mildly amusing but it’s not the real thing. The people in control have this weird view. I don’t really understand why. But, I’m going to try and put it right. That really is my main objective, from now on, because I think I’ve got the clout. If anyone remembers me!

Would you be interested in doing any more collecting?

Not in America – Europe! I sure would. In fact Alan Lomax came over not too many weeks ago and got in touch again. We went out to see Bob Copper together and we had a wonderful day with Bob. It’s sort of what triggered me into giving up my Oxfam job, because it’s really a sweat. Anyway, he’s got a series coming up on Channel 4 that’s going to be launched this autumn and he’s also doing something in Italy and Bulgaria. He even said he wanted to settle in Bulgaria because he loved it so much. But he needs an assistant to go to Italy with him and do some field recording and yes, I’d love to go to Italy and do some recording because there’s still a lot to do there. Alan did a lot in the ’50s there as well. I just want to get into Europe, and sort of explore…

I like Britain and I like Europe. I feel a bit fancy free at the moment, now that I’ve given up my job. Whatever offers come up, I’m jolly well going to accept them! But my main objectives are that I want to get myself singing again and I want to get the music in front of people and get them to actually listen to it, give it some prestige.

Yes, the world music end of things is doing very well in getting people in this country to give proper attention to, say, fine African or Indian music, but I don’t think it’s entered the collective consciousness that our own music is of an equivalent quality and class. British songs have such an amazing lyrical content, for one thing.

Yes, one of my favourite songs is the one that gave me the title for No Roses: “The week before Easter, the day bright and clear / The sun it shone brightly and keen blew the air. / I went down to the forest to gather fine flowers / But the forest could yield me no roses.” In those four lines it’s almost a Thomas Hardy novel! And what I really hope is that this time around the forest is going to yield me some roses. I want a bunch full of them this time!

Hmm – loadsa roses.

Yeah, loadsa roses!