“There are some great female voices around now, but I’m not one of them. I wish I was!” says Shirley Collins, First Lady of Folk and widely seen as the best female British folk singer of the 20th century.
Shirley lost her voice in uncertain circumstances in 1980, and though even now in her 80s she’s looking forward, her pain at what happened to her is clear.
I must admit I had never heard of Collins, and when I first heard the film’s title I managed to get so mixed up I was convinced it was some kind of career retrospective of Pauline Collins who starred in Shirley Valentine.
It is a retrospective of sorts, a very poignant one, but ultimately bold and uplifting, thanks to Shirley’s honesty and clear-sightedness about the past, and bravery in moving forward, plus of course that extraordinary voice.
The film looks back at Shirley’s work and influence, and places her in the proper context of the times; in this case, mostly 1950s England and America. But it is also about the future, as after more than three decades she starts thinking about singing once again.
What comes across is a woman who is matter of fact and very tough on herself, but not through self-deprecation. Shirley knows how good she was, not only the best at singing the songs but also understanding them.
Comedian Stewart Lee, clearly a huge fan of hers, makes the point that many singers look nervous and unconfident in early recordings, but Shirley seems to have arrived fully formed. She certainly seems to have a backbone of steel – frankly continuing on after losing her voice must have required extraordinary levels of strength that most of us can only dream of.
Folk music was often radical and politicised, played in working people’s pubs and clubs. Moving to London in the 1950s (an act which terrified her mother), Shirley quickly started moving in folk circles, and met Alan Lomax through Ewan MacColl. Lomax was a well known American folk singer and also recorder of other traditional singers in an attempt to ensure the performers and songs were properly recognised and remembered. Some of Shirley’s friends were being monitored in the UK and the US for supposed communist sympathies including Lomax.
In her personal life Shirley was pretty radical herself, moving in with Alan and his ex-wife (though for reasons of finance not as some commune-like experiment), then going to the US with him. Their road trip around the American South was primarily to make field recordings of American folk songs and singers – with many of the songs in areas such as the Appalachians having their origins in English folk, having been brought over by English settlers and even convicts.
The film is intercut with what looks like home movie footage of Shirley and Alan travelling round the US in their Buick, recording black and white singers and musicians in their homes, on their stoops, and in the fields. Shirley’s original letters home to her family are also read out and they are extraordinary. That ability to quickly understand the musical and lyrical resonance of a hundreds-of-years-old ballad also means she can quickly read a scene in real life too. Her writing is almost as accomplished as her singing, filled with beautiful descriptions and frank comments on the people and the places.
Scenes take us from streams of people holding burning torches lighting up the black sky, as English locals parade for Guy Fawkes night, to Shirley’s knick-knack filled but neat home (with some great mugs) where she tentatively starts recording. And from the pink skies of a Sussex beach to the sometimes lush, sometimes arid southern American states.
Modern footage from English folk festivals shows locals painted green or dressed in leaves and flowers, with occasional creepy pictures of people with animal heads.
And of course we are never far from a folk song, whether recordings of African American singers in the American southern states or Shirley herself. All of them telling the stories of neglected people with little or no voice themselves, and passing these stories down the generations (and where the jauntiness of the tune isn’t always an indicator of how harrowing the content might be).
Some people are absent who we want to know more about. Lomax is part of the story for as long as he is with Shirley, then drops out; Shirley is vocal about promoting the work of her talented sister Dolly, who has died, but we don’t hear about her for quite some time and then we are left wanting more.
Hints are given though. In a windswept coastal churchyard the camera highlights a plain cross bearing the heartbreaking words “washed ashore”, not just an indication of the kinds of stories folk songs and ballads keep alive but also we later find out, the name of the last song Dolly ever wrote.
There’s also a sort of twist which left me feeling I’d been slightly misled, though I can see why the filmmakers took the approach they did as it makes it a much more vibrant film.
Shirley shows an impressive stoicism about the loss of her voice, an event which seems to have been psychological, happening soon after her husband left her for another woman. Working together in London at the time, Shirley had to continue performing (or trying to perform) each night, aware that his new girlfriend was there, usually wearing his jumpers.
But her new found desire is about reconnecting with her voice. “It’s not that I lost the songs, I lost singing”.