FAI Keynote Interview -Shirley Collins and Will Hodgkinson Talk “America Over The Water”
Shirley Collins, one of the mavens of folk rock in England was interviewed documentary-style by Will Hodgkinson of The Times via video and they were both introduced by Crispin Perry of the British Underground contingent of FAI on Saturday, May 21st, 2022. For those unfamiliar, the British Underground is an entity that brings British jazz, folk, UK grime, heavy metal and more to the FAI in the USA.
Will Hodgkinson introduced Shirley Collins as “Britain’s greatest living Folk singer,” and explained that one of the reasons for this conversation was the recent publication of Collins’ memoir, America Over the Water, which documents her time spent visiting the United States in the 1950s with the American Ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and making field recordings in the segregation-era South. The conversation was not only very entertaining, but confirmed that this journey cemented Collins’ own approach to Folk music thereafter, prioritizing direct sources over later documentation.
Collins explained just how unusual it was that she ever undertook such an impactful journey by outlining her working-class upbringing in Sussex, but one which piqued her interest in Folk music. Her grandparents would sing local songs to her while in a World War II air raid shelter and she began to understand that these songs “weren’t written down” and existed in variations she often never encountered again. That led her listen to field recordings and folk songs broadcast by the BBC on the radio. She developed an impression that with folk songs, it was “the simpler, the better” but was aware that this was not really “simplicity,” but rather a lack of extra embellishment.
Collins made a major move to London at the age of 19 in order to research folk music at an important library, Cecil Sharp House, which was essentially a Folk song society, but due to her working class background, she was not particularly welcomed. Nevertheless, she used to hand copy lyrics and music from the library, and her sister would then read the music for her, and play the song so she could learn the vocals.
Meeting Bob Copper of the Copper family of folk musicians was a big thrill for Collins as a teen, when he came to her grandparents’ home and recorded she and her sister, as well as gleaning Folk traditions from her grandparents. However, more life-changing was meeting Alan Lomax at a party in London where she sought him out. He was in the UK because he had been doing field recordings in fascist Spain and she didn’t miss her chance to greet a particular “hero” of hers.
Hodgkinson asked Shirley Collins about her first impressions of Lomax as a man. She described him as a “big Texan,” an “American bison” of a man, and “ebullient, full of life.” She added, “You can’t help loving someone who loved music.” Despite all of this, she reminded audiences, it was almost “unheard of” for someone like her to visit the United States at this time. Britain was still quite “poor” in the post-war period, with food rationing in place, and a trip like this would have been beyond her wildest dreams.
Nevertheless, when Lomax returned to the United States, she followed him after a few months, and thus began an incredible, eye-opening experience for her. From her first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty by boat to her arrival at the Newport Folk Festival shortly after, she was struck by the reality of the place and events she’d heard so much about.
Collins is an excellent storyteller, and during the interview, she recounted a number of experiences and encounters during this time in the USA, but the most dramatic episode involved a time she visited Kentucky with Lomax and a team to attend an open-air prayer meeting far into the mountains. As someone who had never encountered this extreme of “religious fervor” before, she found it “terrifying,” but for several reasons, as it turned out. Firstly, though the meeting looked peaceful, the intensity of the “hellfire and brimstone” being preached added to her uneasiness and it got to the point where she “didn’t feel safe,” she recounted.
In contrast to this, she found the singing “absolutely thrilling” and beyond her imagination, hearing the “mountain voices singing hymns.” But things took a major turn when the preacher fixated on her and began, specifically, preaching against her short hair and multi-colored clothing which were against the tenets of the remote community where muted tones of clothing and long hair for women were required. He then began talking about “serpents,” “dragons,” and other creatures of the apocalypse and forbade all recordings of his sermon. The team had to stop and visibly dismantle their recording devices before the meeting would continue.
Lomax, however, asked Collins to take a small handheld recorder and hide under a nearby bank to keep recording. She reluctantly agreed, but was so nervous that she hit “play” instead of “record” on the device and it boomed forth into the gathering. She took off down the mountain alone in terror and didn’t stop until she reached their vehicles. Despite all this, she confirmed that the experience was “worth it” to hear the singing she encountered.
Other community singing experiences in the South were far less alarming for Collins, but she was overcome by the beauty and variety of American home cooked food, coming out of rationing in Britain. Just seeing the spreads laid out for “big sing” events with hams, jellies, and pies remain seared in her memory forever.
Just as significant for Collins were her experiences at Parchman Farm, a notorious work farm for prisoners. Lomax had already recorded there in the 1940s, Collins explained, and he wanted to go back in 1959 to see how things might have changed. Though she wasn’t allowed in the fields to hear the prisoners singing, Lomax said that he did see a change in their music, that it had become somehow “softer” and “less heartbreaking.”
This was a location where prisoners had basically been incarcerated for being Black. Collins’ black female room attendant didn’t speak to her while she was staying there until the last day, when she shared her story of being arrested and taken into custody for walking along a train track that was marked “No Trespassing” even though she hadn’t been able to read the sign in question. An interesting side note is that the song “Poor Lazarus” recorded at the farm featuring prisoner James Carter was later included in the film and soundtrack, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? The resulting substantial royalties were given to Carter as a free man in Chicago.
Though Collins also encountered the blues in the south quite some time before many UK musicians followed the same road, she found it strange to see bands like The Rolling Stones taking up the blues tradition once she returned to the UK. When she saw how much Mick Jagger genuinely revered artists like Fred McDowell, though, she came around.
In closing, Hodgkinson asked Collins what about this American odyssey made her want to connect even more firmly with British folk traditions. She said that she had been “incredibly inspired” by her American experience to learn much more about where British Folk music came from. That pushed her to discover that field recordings did exist in instances where she thought they were lacking and to always try to learn directly from sources in future. She encouraged others to continue to do the same.