Ahead of her final (?) album Archangel Hill, the folk legend shows us around her home in East Sussex, from her paintings to presents from Stewart Lee
As I approach the terraced cottage of folk legend Shirley Collins, the front door is ajar. This is a road where children can still play in the street, she later tells me, as we look out of her front window at the valley view.
She has lived here for eight years, in the centre of Lewes, although the whole of East Sussex is Collins country, from her hometown of Hastings, where, in 1950, she wrote to the BBC to inform them that she was going to become a folk singer, to the furthest point west, Brighton, where she became the patron of Morris dancing group Brighton Morris 20 years ago. “I’m very proud of that,” she tells me soon after I arrive. “I love all things Morris-y.” She pauses and then laughs. “That’s Morris-y, not Morrissey.”
Collins is now 87; a traditional folk purist and lifelong expert who’s made it her business to unearth and share countless traditional songs through her recordings and performances. Perhaps we should expect nothing less from a key voice of the English folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s, who was awarded an MBE in 2007 for services to music, but Collins’ love and respect for her field and craft can easily feel unparalleled. Never mind her 38-year blip where, following the breakdown of her second marriage in 1978, she quite simply lost the ability to sing, for nearly four decades, her music career cruelly snubbed out at the age of 43, replaced by a burgeoning love for hiking on the Sussex Downs.
Since her return to music in 2016 (she’s not sure how or why her singing voice came back), she has released two more albums, with a third set for release this month. “It’s my final one,” she tells me, sat beneath the painting she commissioned for the record’s cover art. “Three of three with Domino [Records] – it’s been wonderful, and an honour.”
The album is called Archangel Hill, and, typical of a Shirley Collins record, is once again beautiful, warm, occasionally heart-breaking, and overflowing with history, made up of songs from traditional sources and favourite writers of Collins’ – a collection of miniature epics about soldiers, sailors, farmers’ wives and tornadoes. And there’s a highlight, too, in a live recording from 1980, of Collins performing ‘Hand and Heart’ at Sydney Opera House, featuring an arrangement written by her sister and musical partner Dolly.
“Dolly’s son was very young then, and she didn’t want to come,” she remembers, “but I had her there in spirit because I had her arrangements. It’s my favourite song in a way because the words were also written by my uncle Fred. It’s quite important to have stuff that really means something that you can leave behind.”
For the afternoon, Collins shares with me some of her most treasured possessions and the stories behind them, as welcoming, warm and modest as her music has always been, but funnier and much younger-seeming in person too.
William Blake art
I have two pieces of William Blake art, given to me by my darling Stewart Lee. Love him! He’s such a lovely chap, and I’ve met his wife now, Bridget Christie – she’s wonderful too. I first met Stewart a few years ago. My daughter went to St Edmund Hall [Oxford University] and Stewart did at the same time. They decided to have a folk club and asked me to go up and say “I open this folk club”. Polly came with me and Stewart Lee was there as well, so I met him there for the first time. He sang a song called ‘Polly On The Shore’, which came from a Sussex singer, George Maynard. On the whole I don’t like how people treat English folk song, because they don’t understand it – this is not vanity really, because I’m of that generation who can appreciate how it used to be sung – and he sung ‘Polly On The Shore’ in the interval, because he wasn’t sure if he had the nerve to do it in front of the audience. So he was backstage, and it just made me shiver. It was so intense, just in how he got the absolute essence of it. I almost fell in love with him on the spot because he’d done it so well. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.
Eventually I met Bridget, and – sorry, this all sounds so vain – she said, “When I heard the album I just had to go out in the garden and cry.” It was that bad.
Heart’s Ease cover painting
This is not the original painting from the cover of Heart’s Ease , because I think Alex Merry would have kept the original. She’s the leader of a Morris dancing group called Boss Morris, and as an artist her work is used by Gucci, so she’s doing very well. And she’s a beautiful dancer, I must say. They performed with Wet Leg at the Brit Awards this year.
Archangel Hill painting
And this is the cover of the new album, which is called Archangel Hill. It’s not really Archangel Hill, it’s Mount Caburn, which is a few miles outside Lewes. This is the view from the back. But my stepfather, Bill Williams, back in the ’20s was a horse groom on a farm just along the coast from here and he’d ride the horses to the races over the hill. As he got older, and a bit loopy, like most of us do, he started to call it Mount Gabriel, instead of Mount Caburn, and then as the years passed it morphed into Archangel Hill. Which is a better name. I loved the sound of it, so that’s what I named the album. It means a lot to me. I commissioned a local painter called Peter Messer to paint this for me. It was a bit more expensive that I thought it would be, but I gritted my teeth and paid up.
Lambs in soft sunlight
Next to it is the only other painting I’ve ever bought – my first piece of art. I bought it in nineteen-seventy-something, to commit myself back to myself. Because my marriage had broken up, and I knew it wasn’t going to get back together again, and it was an act of defiance, in a way, to say, ‘Yeah, I can manage without you… if I get some sheep in soft light.’ I felt so proud bringing it home. I felt like a proper person who loved the arts.
I have two of these awards, but this one was before I managed to start singing again, when Topic Records asked me if I’d like to do a compilation of the field recordings of the gypsy singers of England of the 1950s. Wonderful singers with wonderful songs. It was three CDs and won an award [from fROOTS magazine]. The other one I won the Album of the Year, for Lodestar, which was my first album back in 2016. They’re very heavy awards, so if you’re going to do the same don’t give them out to weaklings.
Let’s boast for a bit. I won the Penderyn Prize for the book of the year [for her second book, 2018’s All in the Downs]. I couldn’t keep the whiskey because it was, like, 49% proof, and I don’t drink whiskey. Everyone else was quite thrilled to help me empty that, but I kept the box because it’s so handsome. They also give you a cheque for a thousand quid – lovely. I didn’t share that amongst my friends. It probably paid off my overdraft.
It was lovely to get that, except in the audience the night it was presented, there was one very popular pop group who were up for the prize as well. They had a lot of support in the audience, and when my name came up it didn’t go down too well – it went a bit vociferous. But John Cooper Clarke was there and he said he liked me. It was lovely, and it’s surprising sometimes who likes your work.
American folk art
I swapped this picture for a day’s work in an antique shop. I fell in love with it when I say it. It’s American folk art, and she suggested I take that as my day’s earnings. I was thrilled to bits. And there’s a Staffordshire greyhound over there, and I got that for another half day’s work in an antique shop. And all this stuff is really precious. I find it impossible to throw things out, but I know I’ve got to start. You should see my study upstairs – there are files that go back to nineteen-sixty-something; my contract with PRS is 1961, I think. I’m sure I don’t need it anymore.
Venice key ring
This is one of my absolute treasures. If I lost this I’d be bereft. It’s from St Mark’s Campanile, the clock tower of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. I bought it in the shop at the top, with the Venetian lion, and that’s Saint Mark I guess, and I just LOVE it. I’d be heartbroken if I ever lost it. Venice is just a magical place.
I had a show called America Over the Water , where I talked about the experience of being in America in 1959 recording in the Deep South, with music to illustrate it as well. It was a two-hander with my friend Pip [Barnes], who’s also in the Lodestar band [Collins’ backing band], and we played in Serrano in Italy. I hesitated about going, saying, “No, it’s just two of us talking with music in between. And it’s an Italian audience, so they won’t be able to understand us anyway.” And he said, “No, no, we want you anyway.” So we went and we played in a theatre that was played in by Mozart, and queues around the block were extraordinary; they had to open up balcony after balcony. They had a moving print-out of what we were saying, so the audience could read what we were saying. We were an absolute sensation. I can boast about some gigs, and that was one of them. And then you have an ice cream at midnight.
My sister was married to a Morris dancer. I’ve always loved Morris dancing. It’s the manliness of it, which is silly to say because a lot of people think of Morris dancing as just old men who can hardly get their feet off the ground, but with a great side it’s such a wonderful sight and experience. To have a team of twenty raise sticks with bells on their legs I’ve always found quite thrilling. It’s so English, and so despised by so many people, understandably in some cases, because it can be danced so feebly. But when you see the real thing, it’s just fabulous.
Now have a look and see what you can see on there. You’ll see when you see it. Can you see a tiny, tiny starfish fossil? I was just laying on the beach letting stones run through my hand and there it was when I looked down. Isn’t it incredible?! It’s miraculous – a.) that it was there, and b.) that I would actually find it. I can’t part with it. I keep it in a pewter teapot… for some reason.