Ian Preece reviews Shirley Collins’ All in the Downs: Reflections on Life, Landscape and Song, published earlier this year by Strange Attractor Press.
I’ve always got time for Shirley Collins because, broadly speaking, she tells it like it is. Not for her any bourgeois mincing about saying one thing and meaning another. No fake embellishments to simple folk songs, no affected operatic singing, and let’s keep the music of the people for the people – not fenced off for scholars in the stuffy environs of Cecil Sharp House. But part of the problem, over the years, has been that ‘the people’ seem to prefer George Michael, Queen and whatever appalling ‘reality’ TV Simon Cowell serves up next. Morris dancing, walking out one fine morn in May, Bob Copper’s tales of farming and folk songs about sheep shearing and parsnip wine, picked up from 1950s housewives, shepherds and gypsy flower-sellers travelling the byways of Sussex have all fallen off the radar of late. No one reads Childs’ Ballads or picks up the Folk Song Journal from the local library. (There isn’t a local library.) But you can’t help but think if Shirley Collins’s new book All in the Downs were on the national curriculum . . . well, the Morris dancing revival might not kick off, but in generations to come the world should be a better place by dint of the humble old-fashioned civilising notions that thrum through its pages; things like common decency and respect – and a simple, pure love for words and music.
There’s only one moment, late on, where I’d dare pick a fight, or perhaps am misreading something – Collins gets a job in the late eighties as a kind of folk ambassador across Sussex schools, with the remit to spread awareness of traditional music and arts from the area. But early on the County Schools Music Officer tells her it’s all catered for already – ‘a gamelan orchestra and a steel drum band’. The sense is there’s a major silent harrumph. The same anecdote was recounted in Collins’ first book, America Over the Water. Sure, gong circles in rattan frames and bamboo flutes didn’t originate in Seaford, and you can’t argue with Collins’ polemic over the need for a proper understanding of the handing-on of folk songs down the years – she brilliantly forges a sense of song to the land, at one point comparing hawthorn bushes on the South Downs to centuries of folksong, bent out of shape by the prevailing south-westerly wind, ‘shaped by the many voices that have sung them’ — and she never loses sight of the origins of song in farm workers, fishermen, blacksmiths, a hundred occupations of toil with unbreakable ties to the landscape, which often gets overlooked in these days where everyone seems capable of writing their own ‘folk song’ (a particular bee in Shirley’s bonnet). But, to go back to music in schools, I remember years ago my kids entering their annual primary school talent show with their acoustic-guitar rendition of The La’s’ ‘There’s She Goes’ and a kind of improvised unplugged version of the Match of the Day theme tune. Pretty damn cool – they’ll walk it! They didn’t even make it out of the qualifying rounds – a dance troupe emulating some routine from the X Factor won. Where’s that gamelan orchestra when you need it?
Collins worries we’re too neglectful of our folk culture in this country. That’s as maybe, but surely a steelpan drum is just a generation behind the banjo – whether from the Caribbean or Africa, both are ingrained in our folk culture now. More of a problem is that people aren’t as open-minded as the young folk singer who, barely out of school herself, travelled across the American south with Alan Lomax on a field recording trip in 1959, committing field hollerin’ from Parchman state farm, shape-note singing from the Kentucky mountains, spirituals from the Georgia Sea Island singers and blues from Mississippi Fred McDowall to tape.
That journey was the subject of America Over the Water – beautifully written and very sad (in places) – published in 2005. All in the Downs fleshes out the snapshots of Collins’ childhood from the previous volume and explores her wilderness years, or the ‘sea glass years’ as she terms them – lonely afternoons collecting sea glass on Sussex beaches; an exhausting job at Oxfam in Brighton – and the personal strife behind her thirty-year absence from the stage. It’s very sad, and moving in places too: the breakdown of her relationships, the death of her sister Dolly, her dad failing to adjust after returning from the second world war and leaving the family home to live with another family, a few streets away; not to mention the trampled-down lives, lost loves, doomed affairs and downright injustice suffered by many a damsel or sailor in the folk song she unwaveringly champions.
There’s a great chapter detailing the lives of three unsung women of folk: Victorian song collectors Lucy Broadwood and Ella Mary Leather, and proselytiser for the actual enjoyment and teaching of folk dance, Mary Neal, a lesser known contemporary of Cecil Sharp’s but an inspirational hero of Shirley’s. Of the folk world in her heyday, Collins coolly takes aim at a few luminaries. Ewen MacColl: ‘pretentious, pompous, vain, conceited . . . and to my ears not a convincing singer’ – and that’s before we reach a 1950s #MeToo moment. She’s not particularly always comfortable around the patrician Peggy Seeger either. And Bob Dylan gets short shrift: memorable for spending an evening in the toilet getting stoned at the Earl’s Court coffee bar-cum-folk club where a young Shirley served coffees and scrambled eggs, rather than for his performance. I could be putting words into her mouth, but I’m guessing the inference is she prefers the real thing: tales of bleak Appalachian lives sung by coalminers and moonshiners with banjos, bluesmen like Fred McDowell, who wandered miles over the hollow from the next mountain through an electrical storm after a hard day’s cotton picking, just him and his guitar to put down a session – not middle-class boys who change their names and are elusive about their past.
Collins writes brilliantly and movingly about her war-time childhood. She’s very good on 1940s confectionary – and the sounds and smells of the shops of her youth: all bacon-slicing machines, butter-patting techniques, wax paper, Gentlemen’s Relish and wooden mushrooms to darn socks. Hastings and the Sussex downs are infused with the light and colours of super-8 film stock: early morning shifts as a tram and trolley-bus conductor (like her mum), hard-boiled egg sandwiches for picnics in fields of buttercups, taking a neighbour’s dog for a walk, scorching bits of paper with a magnifying glass in the sun – all the freedom of a childhood spent out in the unspoiled countryside, a million miles away from the dawn of television, computer games and social media. F.C. Ball, her Uncle Fred, was the author of One of the Damned, a biography of Robert Tressell. He became something of a leading scholar on the local writer of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, researching and writing about his life in great depth during his evenings and weekends – while working for the gas board reading meters in Hastings by day. ‘He knew more about English literature than anyone I ever met, and loved discussing it,’ writes Shirley – and later you laugh as it sinks in that she worked in a literary agency in London for quite a few years in the seventies. She also worked in Collett’s bookshop on Haverstock Hill in the early fifties, living off buns from the baker’s opposite and dried chicken noodle soup after she blew her first two weeks’ wages on Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles’s English Folksongs from the Southern Appalachians. She’d locked onto her guiding star.
She writes in a lovely open-handed way about music itself, which is especially great for those of us in the slow lane, and which I suspect springs from the natural modesty of someone who was still wrestling with her place in the folk world as late as the 1980s – when offered an admin role at Cecil Sharp House she writes, ‘Was I still clinging onto the rather forlorn hope that I was really Shirley Collins, the folk-singer, and not a shop assistant?’ (I haven’t read it, but my guess is you won’t get that in Eric Clapton’s autobiography.) As such, she’s always keen to stress the collaborative process of her records, especially anything with Dolly, and on Lodestar. She’s grippingly matter-of-fact about the making of the tremendous 1964 LP Folk Roots, New Routes with Davy Graham – her songs on there passed on by Texas Gladden and Vera Hall are as strikingly beautiful today as those by the old mountain singer and black Alabama washerwoman caught on Wave the Ocean, Wave the Sea – and its critical reception (MacColl again – the reader just left shaking their head). She also has to confess during the making of Anthems in Eden that she can’t read music. There’s no suffering of the tortured artist here; she’s too busy bringing up two kids while trying to find the rent. The account of a couple of solo folk tours in the sixties – grim nights in Birmingham and Liverpool and, hilariously, at the Nottingham University May ball – is as unvarnished as it comes. And it’s this kind of detail, gritty realism and down-to-earth take that makes All in the Downs such a top-shelf read.
Attending a ‘singaround’ at Cecil Sharp House one night in the early fifties are George ‘Pop’ Maynard and Harry Cox, two old gents shipped in from the countryside, sitting in the basement café in their knitted waistcoats and flat caps having a cup of tea before heading upstairs to perform. ‘There was a gentle dignity about them both that felt heroic,’ writes Shirley of their set. ‘It was authentic, honest and with a direct beauty that simply wasn’t there in the younger singers . . . I had my first real inkling then of how a song should be best sung, simply and directly. That became a touchstone for the rest of my life – no dramatising a song, no selling it to an audience, no over-decorating in a way that was alien to English songs, and, most of all, singing to people, not at them.’ You can apply all this to All in the Downs.