A pivotal figure in Britain's early-'60s folk revival and subsequent folk-rock heyday, Shirley Collins' influence on these movements, and folk music at large, cannot be understated. With her pure, unaffected vocal tone and Sussex accent, she first launched her recording career in the late '50s, adapting the pastoral folk songs of her rural upbringing for simple banjo accompaniment before partnering with famed musicologist Alan Lomax on his song-collecting journey through the American South, a trip that produced a now-legendary collection of blues and folk field recordings. Collins' bold spirit and eclecticism truly began to flourish with the pioneering jazz-folk fusion of her 1964 album with guitarist Davy Graham, Folk Roots, New Routes, followed a few years later with a sequence of albums recorded with her sister, keyboardist and arranger Dolly Collins, which explored medieval fare and helped launch British folk-rock's golden age. During her marriage to Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span founder Ashley Hutchings, she was backed by many of the scene's brightest stars on one of folk-rock's truly seminal works, the 1971 album No Roses. After struggling with the loss of her voice, she stepped away from music for several decades, though over time her legacy was embraced by succeeding generations of musicians including Billy Bragg, Alasdair Roberts, and David Tibet, the latter of whom was instrumental in helping Collins' music find an audience in the 21st century. Near the end of 2016, Collins' 38-year hiatus was finally broken with the release of her critically acclaimed album Lodestar.
Shirley Collins' upbringing in the tightly knit working-class community of Hastings, East Sussex ingrained in her a deep affection for those traditional folk and work songs set among the bucolic English countryside. She recognized at a young age her preference for songs delivered in a humble, unpretentious manner and naturally developed her own unaffected vocal tone similar to what she'd grown up hearing. After a brief time studying at a teachers' training college in South London, she involved herself in the budding '50s folk scene, researching songs at the Cecil Sharp House and establishing herself among the city's major players. At a party hosted by Ewan MacColl, with whom she briefly played in the Ramblers, she met and became romantically involved with American folklorist Alan Lomax, who was living in London at the time. Her first recordings arrived in quick succession in the late '50s and included a series of EPs and the albums Sweet England (1958) and False True Lovers (1960), all of which were performed solo accompanied only by her banjo. During this period she also traveled with Lomax to the American South, where together they spent a year capturing the blues, gospel, and folk field recordings that would later become known as the highly influential Southern Journey series.
After she and Lomax parted ways, Collins returned to England and resumed her career, marrying Austin John Marshall, a producer, songwriter, and graphic artist who was a key player in London's folk and jazz scenes at the time. Through Marshall she was introduced to British guitarist Davy Graham, and the two joined forces on the groundbreaking 1964 album Folk Roots, New Routes. For purists, the album's unusual jazz-folk fusion was a polarizing concept, but it ultimately served as a pioneering work and precursor to the coming British folk-rock movement. Although she and her older sister Dolly had grown up singing and playing together, they had gone their separate ways as adults, with Dolly studying piano and composition under Alan Bush and immersing herself in the classical world. In 1967, the two sisters joined forces on the first of several influential recordings together. Although credited solely to Shirley, The Sweet Primroses was a true collaboration, with Dolly's ethereal accompaniment on portative organ adding a strange new dimension to Shirley's traditional repertoire. The Power of the True Lovers Knot followed in 1968, again with help from Dolly, as well as members of the Incredible String Band. In 1969, the same year that folk-rock began to crest in the U.K. mainstream, Shirley & Dolly Collins made their official debut as a duo with Anthems in Eden on Harvest Records. While Pentangle had made the jump to electric guitars and the already-electric Fairport Convention had finally ditched their American influences for traditional British ones, the Collins Sisters headed somewhere else entirely, working with the Early Music Consort of London on an elegant and ornate medieval folk suite heavy on harpsichords, crumhorns, and recorders. A favorite of BBC DJ John Peel's, Anthems in Eden was followed a year later by a sparser companion album, Love, Death and the Lady, which employed many of the same musicians.
Her marriage to Marshall having ended, Shirley became involved with Ashley Hutchings, Fairport Convention's bassist who had recently left the group to start Steeleye Span which he also then left. They soon married and Hutchings organized a folk-rock supergroup called the Albion Country Band to back Collins on a new project. Released in 1971, No Roses was certainly the biggest production of Collins' career to date, boasting a total of 27 musicians that included names like Mike and Lal Waterson, Richard Thompson, Maddy Prior, Nic Jones, and most of Fairport Convention's lineup. It marked the first time Collins' music had gone electric and stands as a truly seminal work within the British folk-rock canon. The scene now in full bloom, Collins and Hutchings collaborated on a variety of projects during the first half of the '70s, including Hutchings' folk-rock take on Morris dancing, Morris On, and an acoustic project called the Etchingham Steam Band. A pair of solo albums, 1974's Adieu to Old England and 1976's Amaranth, were followed by what would end up being her last recorded collaboration with Dolly, 1978's winsome and minimalist For as Many as Will. Meanwhile, the Albion Country Band continued to perform and record occasionally with Shirley acting as part-time vocalist, issuing a second Morris offering in 1976's Son of Morris On, as well as 1977's The Prospect Before Us. At the end of the decade, with folk music's popularity on the wane and her marriage to Hutchings over, Collins quietly left the music scene, a decision hastened by her increasing struggles with dysphonia, a vocal condition that frequently left her unable to sing.
Throughout the '80s and much of the '90s, Collins remained out of the public eye, raising the children from her first marriage and working various non-musical jobs. Over time, her musical legacy was uncovered by another generation and she found a particularly enthusiastic champion in British musician David Tibet of the experimental folk band Current 93. Through his label, Durto, Tibet released a 1992 compilation of Collins' solo work called Fountain of Snow and a 1998 album that collected two 1978 live performances from Shirley & Dolly Collins. Shirley also provided guest vocals to several Current 93 songs throughout the '90s, which constituted her first recorded appearances since the '70s. Heading into the 21st century, Collins' music once again began attracting new fans with U.K. label Fledg'ling Records reissuing most of her back catalog and curating the 2002 box set Within Sound. Two years later, Collins published a memoir of her late-'50s journey with Lomax through the American South titled America Over the Water. Over the coming years she continued to re-engage with the public, touring a trio of illustrated talks with actor Pip Barnes based on different eras of her career. Although her dysphonia remained a going concern, she had spent decades working to overcome it with the hope of being able to sing consistently again. Quietly recording at her cottage with a small group of hand-chosen musicians led by Oysterband's Ian Kearney, Collins finally emerged with her first new album in 38 years. Released in 2016 by Domino Records, Lodestar was a critical success and marked the improbable return of an artist who at 81 years old remained as vital and exploratory as she was in her prime. The accolades continued the following year with the release of the documentary film The Ballad of Shirley Collins. ~ Timothy Monger~ Rovi