Last weekend marked the release of The Ballad of Shirley Collins. A documentary chronicling the life of the English folk legend. Shirley Collins served as the epicentre of the folk music scene during the 1960's and 70's, widely regarded as the 20th century's most important singer of English traditional song. Reaching cult figure status, in 1980 she sadly and mysteriously lost her voice. Forcing herself to retire from music and the lifestyle she held so dear to her heart. Documentarians Rob Curry and Tim Plester set out to explore the story of the icon at the age of 80, to rediscover the voice she lost so many years ago.

 

Through ‘a lyrical response’ to the life-and-times of the iconic figure, the documentary explores Shirley's personal and musical journey through a retelling of her road-trip around America's Deep South alongside her then-lover Alan Lomax. Through direct conversations with Shirley and access to her authentic 1959 audio-archive, the film offers access to the enigmatic figure.

To mark the release of the film we had a chat with on of the directors, Rob Curry. Through ten tracks, Rob tells of the importance these songs had in the making of the film, and the influence they have had throughout Shirley's life.

 

All songs are linked in their titles.

 

The Rich Irish Lady

This is a song Shirley doesn't even recall collecting on the 1959 trip. We discovered it while going through all the original master tapes from that trip. The singer, Horton Barker, forgets the words half way through and simply tells/talks the rest of the story instead. In many ways, this is the heart of our film, as it's a song Shirley completes for Horton by singing it on her new album, Lodestar.

 

Pretty Polly

One of the highlights of Lodestar, this is again a song that Shirley heard on her 1959 trip. It's a well-known folk song, but Shirley's version is derived from one Ollie Gilbert – a one-eyed singer from the Ozarks that they met right at the end of their road-trip. Shirley did the recording session with Ollie without Lomax in the room, partly because it was a segregated household.

 

All Things Are Quite Silent

Classic Shirley and Dolly Collins, with Dolly playing the distinctive pipe organ that helped define their sound. They used to pick it up from Noel Mander of Bow in East London. It's a family business that makes organs that still exists, and is featured in the film. They would put the organ in the back of a mini-van and then drive it all around the country, the hire often exceeding the fee they were paid for playing the gig.

 

Sulphur

During the period where Shirley lost her voice, she developed an unlikely fan base among the avant-garde, experimental music scene. So much so that when she came to record her new album, two chief collaborators were people who had previously been members of Coil, a leading light in that world. This song, which features in the film, is by Cyclobe, the current band of the two people in question – who we then commissioned to do the soundtrack for the film.

 

Those Flowers Grew

Chief among Shirley's avant garde fan base is David Tibet of Current 93. He championed Shirley during her enforced absence, and eventually encouraged her to sing again. His house contains a treasure trove of Shirley memorabilia, and he was kind enough to let us film there.

 

Sweet England

The title track of Shirley’s first album, this is an American song about an emigrant from the UK who things go badly wrong for, and who yearns to return home. It was on some level prophetic, as Shirley herself was to choose to return to the UK rather than stay in America, despite the incredible experiences she had on the 1959 trip.

 

Cruel Lincoln

Another song from the Lodestar album. This song highlights for me what is unique about Shirley's singing, as there is no moral judgement whatsoever about who is in the wrong and who is in the right in her singing, which opens up all the social and gender inequalities that lie dormant in the song itself, and invite you to make your own mind up about who is the real villain of the piece. Compare it to “Matty Groves”, a great song by Fairport Convention, but in which you are left in no doubt whatsoever as to where the singer's sympathies lie.

 

Pharaoh

An extraordinary unaccompanied gospel song by Sidney Hemphill Carter, daughter of a fife and drum player that Lomax had held a long association with. After singing this song, Sidney uttered the lines “I used to could sing”, which later in life echoed Shirley's own loss of her voice. The American folk-singer Sam Amidon, who also features in our film, recorded a version of this song for his 2013 album Bright Sunny South.

 

Calvary

Alabama Sacred Harp music is one of Shirley's favourite forms of music, and is something she first encountered on the 1959 trip. A choir sits on four sides of the room, singing inwards towards each other. The prototype stereo-recorder Shirley and Alan had on their trip could record all four consecutively, and these recordings highlight the extraordinary clarity of that enormous piece of equipment they lugged around the rural Deep South with them.

 

Gentleman Solider

This is a song not in the film, but one that Lomax recorded from a young Shirley Collins in the 1950s. It's a song I first heard on a Poguesalbum as a teenager, and was as close to folk as I got back then. Fittingly enough, it was first collected from a Mr. Thomas Coomber in Sussex! Shirley's later work revolved so inexorably around the county of her birth, it's perhaps fitting that one of her earliest, never released recordings, has its roots back in her native soil as well.