The rise, fall and return of Shirley Collins, heroine of English folk music

Shirley Collins on the South Downs, East Sussex

In the beery, beardy world of folk music, Collins – a young, working class woman – had few people on her side.

In the late 1950s, Ewan MacColl, one of the driving forces behind the postwar folk revival in Britain, decreed that, henceforth, folk singers should only sing material from their own national culture. Given his stance, you’d think that MacColl would be supportive of Shirley Collins. A young, working-class woman, she was born and bred in Sussex and many of the songs in her repertoire were learned from the county’s traditional singers. Alas no. MacColl, hiding behind the pseudonym “Speedwell”, penned unflattering rhymes about Shirley, printed in the pages of his own magazine, Folk Music, likening her to a lumbering Jersey cow.

What was it that so offended MacColl’s sensibilities? He had a Marxist perspective on folk music, his material evoking a macho world of hewers and haulers. Shirley’s songs gave voice to women, often in rural settings, yet were no less concerned with issues of class and gender. Propositioned by the local squire, “Lovely Joan” accepts his golden ring in return for her maidenhead. As soon as it is placed in her hand, Joan leaps on his horse and rides off to her lover’s house. In the Dorset ballad “A Blacksmith Courted Me”, the singer complains that her man should not have to go overseas “fighting for strangers”.

The pastoral folk music of England may not have crossed over into popular culture in the way that Irish folk has, yet its echoes are all around us. “Lovely Joan” provides the tune that sweeps like a dark cloud across the landscape in the mid-section of “Fantasia on Greensleeves”, consistently a Classic FM favourite, while that Songs of Praise stalwart “He Who Would Valiant Be” borrows its melody from “A Blacksmith …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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