The best Shirley Collins songs, chosen by her | Interview

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The best Shirley Collins songs, chosen by her | Interview

SHIRLEY COLLINS: This is another song that travels. There was a lord of the Scottish Borders, the Earl of Derwentwater, and there are several songs about him. It’s a true story about how he was part of the Jacobite rebellion in the early 18th century and therefore a traitor to the king, but he denies it. The story in this song is that he was arrested in London and beheaded and the ax holder says “Now there lies a traitor’s head” but the head says “No”. He denies it again, even after death.

This song reached Sussex again. In fact, as we eventually found out, it was sung by Ian Anderson’s great-aunt, who founded and ran the magazine Folk Roots, or fRoots until very recently. He was so excited to find out he had an aunt who sang one of the rarest folk songs in Sussex. I think there was only one version in Sussex and the rest were from much further north.

I love storytelling. At the beginning of the song, Lord Allenwater receives a letter from the King saying that he is to be looked after in London, and he knows almost from the beginning that he is not coming back. Then all sorts of things happen to him on his journey south, such as his horse tripping over a rock—signs that make him realize he’s headed for his death.

Again, the melody is so noble and great to sing. There is also that interesting grammar from the beginning, “The king has written a long letter.” The moment I see stuff like that in a song, it makes me want to sing it.

BEST FIT: It’s interesting that you chose these two traditional favorites from For as many as they want, because actually this album had a few modern touches. For example, Dolly plays synthesizer on a few songs, and you also covered a Richard Thompson song, which you’ve never done before.

Yes, we recorded his song “Never Again” because it expressed some of what I was feeling at the time. Ashley, my then-husband, had somehow wandered into theater land, fallen in love with at least two actors, and left me. So the song felt very personal to me and I connected with it so strongly. Richard has always written such amazing songs. I think this is very tender, and Dolly’s piano was so beautiful to sing.

So much happened after that album that you lost your voice and Dolly gave up on the music side of recording and performing, preferring to compose instead.

Although Dolly was always very happy to write the arrangements of the songs we had chosen, she always said to me, “I’m a composer, I want to write my own work,” and eventually she did. She’s always been more of a homebody than me. She had this beautiful garden and a little child she couldn’t bear to be away from, and I was losing my voice anyway. It just so happened that we never did another album together again. We didn’t drift apart as sisters, just as a singer and an arranger, and then there was a long, long period of silence.

I think it’s a really lovely touch that you’ve included a live version of “Hand and Heart” on your new album, which has Dolly’s original arrangement and also lyrics by your great uncle Fred.

I’ve loved this song for so long and I’m really happy it’s on this album. It was recorded in Australia in 1980. I had asked Dolly if she would come with me but she didn’t want to leave her child so I went alone. I took her arrangements with me in the hope that they might be played at the concert at the Sydney Opera House, where I had a wonderful harpsichordist, Winsome Evans, joining me.

For the other bookings, I had to sing unaccompanied. I didn’t have my five-string banjo or any other instrument to take with me. I had to sell them all because I was very heavy then. But as luck would have it, Ian Keary bought The Tool [a unique five-string banjo/dulcimer hybrid] which John Bailey had done for me in 1961 and he still plays it. It’s on all three Domino albums.

As you say, the words to “Hand and Heart” were written by my great uncle Fred, a wonderful, wonderful man. He was a gas meter reader by day and wrote books under the name FC Ball by night. He was also the biographer of the great working class writer Richard Tressel and was the one who found the complete original manuscript of The Ragged-Trouser Philanthropists.

Uncle Fred wrote mostly novels set in Sussex, and it was he who played things like Monteverdi and Purcell to Me and Dolly on the gramophone in his house. In this way, he introduced us to a wider range of music than usual, because at home we only had the radio, or wireless as we called it back then, and there wasn’t much we wanted to hear.

He wrote the lyrics of this song as a very young man. He was engaged to a young woman but had fallen in love with an art student. In those days, if you broke an engagement, it was called “breach of promise” and you had to pay compensation to the woman you weren’t going to marry. His family had no money at all, so he had to let go of his lover and marry the woman he was engaged to and no longer loved.

It’s on the album as a little nod to who I was. From this live recording, my voice dropped a whole octave, but I think it fits well with the new songs on the album. I also have my father on the album, in the final track “Archangel Hill”. It’s a poem he wrote during World War II when he was away with the Royal Artillery, and I think it’s beautiful the way Ian brings it to life with the music he wrote for it.

It’s a real family affair.

Yeah, sort of! Ian is family too, really. I’ve known him for so long. He and Uncle Fred got on so well as they knew each other back in the 60’s so I’m really glad they’re both on the album as well as my dad.

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