Ballad of Shirley Collins

I saw Shirley Collins play at the Green Man Festival this summer in the sylvan setting of the Welsh valleys while the sun broke through. It was very moving, very calming.

But I didn’t really know the story of that journey until now, seeing Rob Curry and Tim Plester’s beautiful film about Britains’ former first lady of folk.

Collins, now a pensioner in a little cottage in Sussex, was at the forefront of folk in the 50s, her winsome voice soaring through ancient lyrics and stories, often arranged by her sister Dolly.  Shirley went off with Alan Lomax to make the legendary field recordings around America that have become the  basis for the songbooks of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives et al, and many songs that made it into the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou.

When her second husband suddenly left her for another woman. Heartbroken, she lost her voice and never got it back, unable to sing again despite many visits to doctors and psychologists. 

She worked at English folk headquarters Cecil Sharpe house for a literary agent, and finally at a Job Centre.

But then came the revival and the new interest in folk art, folk lyric and the gentle persuading of Shirley back to performing, using her changed voice to different effect.

It’s a gorgeous film about history and the marginalised, shot through with empathy and understanding, even while hardship and sadness settle like a pall – the very heartbeats of folk lyric, in deed, seem to have seeped into Shirley herself.

It’s an ode to artisans, to the land, the sea and ritual, to love and loss, and a plea for history and preservation.  I found it terribly moving and delightfully poignant, all topped by Shirley’s stoic, get on with it attitude. Beautifully done.

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