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SHIRLEY COLLINS’ 80TH BIRTHDAY BASH - Cecil Sharp House, London - 31 October 2015

I bought my first Shirley Collins’ record, The Banks Of The Sweet Primroses, in 1968, and was instantly entranced by her voice and her songs. I went to see the The Albion Dance Band in 1976 and to the National Theatre production of Larkrise in 1979, in the hope and expectation of hearing Shirley singing. On neither occasion was she part of the band. It was soon after this that Shirley stopped singing for reasons she explains in her book, America Over The Water. It was only at Cecil Sharp House on this Saturday afternoon that I realised that I had, in fact, never seen Shirley sing live.

What an unbelievably joyous occasion this was: a celebration of the life and songs, at the home of English folk music, of Shirley Collins, whose 80 years span a time when some of the old rural source singers were still living and able to pass on their songs, through the folk revival of the fifties and sixties, to the modern era when more young people than ever are singing the songs and playing the tunes. Shirley was described in the publicity as the “veteran” folk singer and the “grande dame” of English folk. For me, neither of these epithets really describes Shirley, who is resolutely young at heart, thoroughly grounded in the music of the people, and above all modest.

The day started at 4pm with a talk to a capacity audience in the Trefusis Hall. The initial ‘cast’ consisted of Malcolm Taylor, ex-librarian at Cecil Sharp House, who introduced the afternoon and acted as an interviewer, and Pip Barnes, actor and co-narrator, who read extracts from Shirley’s books. For the first hour, Shirley talked about her early life in Hastings, about the musical background of her early years, about her decision to become a folk singer, her meeting with Bob Copper, and her affair and song-collecting experiences with the American musicologist, Alan Lomax. Shirley read extracts from her forthcoming book and some of her early recordings, some with sister Dolly, were played. From the very beginning, it was apparent that a majority of the audience held Shirley in great affection. Descriptions of her life as a young girl were fascinating, funny and often moving. I’m sure many of the audience identified with stories from her past. The description of her grandfather drinking tea from his saucer could have been me talking. She talked about first becoming aware of the term ‘folk’ to describe the songs she loved when BBC radio programmes played songs collected from country singers. This was clearly a defining moment for Shirley.

A short interval was followed by the most thrilling part of the day. This was the first time Shirley had sung solo in public for over 30 years and she was clearly nervous but resolute. She explained that she was still in love with the music and determined to sing. When Shirley finished her first song, Cruel Lincoln, the applause, whooping and whistling was deafening. It was a highly emotional moment. With Ian Kearey accompanying her on guitar, she went on to sing the sinister Death And The Lady; after the applause for this song had died down, she sang the first two verses again in the style of bluesman Muddy Waters, a musician she had met in her youth. The afternoon session ended with a recording of Shirley, accompanied by sister Dolly, singing Gilderoy, a song collected by Lucy Broadwood from the Horsham shoemaker and atheist bell-ringer, Henry Burstow. Shirley had found Lucy Broadwood’s collection in the Cecil Sharp House library, which she described as a forbidding, inaccessible place with a rather upper-middle class atmosphere at that time.

The evening concert, in Kennedy Hall, was attended by a much larger audience, attracted presumably by the stellar line-up. The diversity of the audience was a testament to Shirley’s legacy: faces young and old and many who command larger audiences in their own right - we might call them ‘celebrities’ - I won’t mention them by name as this was Shirley’s day. On this occasion, Shirley took on the role of MC, introducing the guest singers, all of whom sang two or three numbers. In many cases at least one song from each set was from Shirley’s repertoire.

Before any live performance, we were treated to a clip from a new film currently being made: Shirley Collins: A Life In Song. Similar clips were interspersed throughout the evening and showed scenes from Shirley’s everyday life.

The three-piece Rattle On A Stovepipe (Pete Cooper, fiddle; Dave Arthur, banjo; Dan Stewart, guitar) kicked off the evening. Their second contribution was the unusual but beguiling tune Coleman’s March, a favourite Shirley had requested. They were followed by Jackie Oates’ beautiful singing of Shirley’s The Captain & His Whiskers, accompanied by Chris Sergeant on guitar. Martyn Wyndham-Read, accompanied by Iris Bishop (concertina) and John Wigg (fiddle), otherwise known as No Man’s Band, chose to sing I Drew My Ship from Shirley’s repertoire. Next were Hazel and Emily, The Askew Sisters, who chose two tracks from Shirley’s 1976 LP Amaranth: Staines Morris from the Anthems In Eden suite, followed by C'est La Fin / Pour Mon Coeur. They were joined on this occasion by percussionist Louise Duggan. In introducing the Askews, Shirley remarked poignantly how lovely it was for sisters to perform together.

After a short break, Shirley welcomed Eliza Carthy who launched into a powerful version of A Grand Conversation On Napoleon Arose. Accompanying herself riotously on her fiddle, Eliza brandished her bow like a weapon of war. She followed this with a surprisingly slow version of Just As The Tide Was Flowing before being applauded enthusiastically as she left the stage. However, Shirley called her back and asked if she would sing The Bay Of Biscay. Despite not having sung the song for ages (as it was from her mother’s repertoire not her own) she worked her way through it valiantly, wishing to oblige as requested. It is a true artist who will put themselves in such a vulnerable position in front of a live audience and, needless to say, she did a fantastic job. In other situations, this might have been regarded as a put-up-job, but on this occasion it was obvious that Eliza really was working from memory. This was a genuine triumph, much appreciated by the audience - an all-round great performance.

Next were Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, who were voted Best Duo at the 2015 BBC Folk Awards. Although Shirley did not attend the awards this year, she had been impressed by the duo’s rendition of The Banks Of The Sweet Primroses and this was the second song they sang. The combination of Josienne’s pure voice and Ben’s intricate guitar playing was enchanting.

Top of the bill was the ever-popular Billy Bragg, whose regard for Shirley Collins was self-evident and whose choice of material was, characteristically, more overtly political than any of the other evening’s singers. He started with what sounded like a rough John Barleycorn but this soon morphed into his own song, Half English. Next he chose Shirley Collins’ Adieu To Old England and finished with Anaïs Mitchell’s mesmerising song, Why We Build The Wall. Was Billy Bragg a surprising choice? Not really. During her afternoon talk, Shirley had made it quite clear where her political sympathies lay.

The evening ended with Martyn Wyndham-Read leading that most wonderful of chorus songs made popular by the Copper Family, Thousands Or More. Shirley herself, most of the evening’s performers and a large proportion of the audience joined in the glorious chorus.

It is worth repeating that Shirley Collins’ 80th Birthday bash was a joyous, relaxed and good-humoured occasion on which a charmingly casual atmosphere reigned. Shirley didn’t always stick to her script, on one occasion telling technical staff to stop her own music playing. The audience was reminded of the breadth of Shirley’s 60-plus years’ involvement in the folk scene and of the variety of the people who have been important to her during that time. Unlike her unfortunate earlier experiences, Shirley will have found Cecil Sharp House a warmly welcoming place on this occasion. I, for one, will always have fond memories of the day. It had a magical feel to it and sharing the occasion was an absolute privilege for everyone present.

During the interval, we left the hallowed ground of Cecil Sharp House to find somewhere to eat. In a nearby Indian restaurant we got talking to a young-ish couple at the next table. They asked us what we were doing in London and when we tried to explain, they looked amazed and said, “We know about Irish music, but we know nothing about English folk music. Is there any? Where can we find out about it?” We told them about Cecil Sharp House, just round the corner, and gave them a few names to look up. Clearly, even after Shirley’s efforts, there’s still work to be done!

Simon Haines

Thanks to Jo Freya and Val Woollard who were also there for Shirley’s Birthday bash and who have contributed ideas and opinions to this review.