by Nadia Bee
Bonfire night in Lewes, East Sussex. Sparks of fire crackle against the night-time sky. A woman steps out of her house, her face blurred for a few moments, before the camera focuses and we see her clearly. Shirley Collins, legendary artist – English folk singer, and guardian of a deeply rooted musical tradition.
The Ballad of Shirley Collins; Directors: Rob Curry, Tim Plester; UK 2017, 94 mins; Our rating: ★★★★/5
The Ballad of Shirley Collins opens in a confidently cinematic way, promising a visually rich story. The extent to which it achieves this is a treat. Directors Rob Curry and Tim Plester offer a thoughtfully crafted tale, intriguing, and moving. It is refreshing to see a documentary where filmmakers play with form, and at times confound expectations – not just with narrative, but also in terms of the footage they have created.
Shirley Collins had been a leading performing artist in English folk music from the 1950s through to the late 1970s, and is now, finally, enjoying a well-deserved revival. Collins has also been instrumental, throughout her life, in documenting and preserving folk song not only in the UK but in the United States. She has – and must always have had – extraordinary force of character: her American journey in 1959 was highly untypical for a young English woman at the time, especially an unmarried working class English woman.
In the late 1950s, at a time of deep social and racial division in the US Deep South, she had joined ethno-musicologist Alan Lomax on a trip, lasting several months, in the US Deep South. They were ‘song hunters’, collecting folk songs and histories, recording these on reel to reel audio. Some of these songs, many years later, found their way into the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou.
Later, she wrote a book about her journey with Lomax, America over the Water, published in 2004. Some of her insights about that journey through states like Kentucky, Alabama, and Arkansas, come vividly to life in The Ballad of Shirley Collins, and sometimes even shock.
A strong, witty, resolute woman, Collins is much-loved by peers as well as fans. The film shows her in conversation with Stewart Lee, and some time later, with David Tibet. Their immense regard and affection for Collins bear testimony to the significance of her legacy.
In one sequence shot at the iconic Troubadour café in Earl’s Court, Collins reminisces about the reputation coffee houses had in the 1950s – dens of iniquity, according to her alarmed mother, at the time. The Troubadour remains an institution to this day. Way back when, this was the place where Bob Dylan first performed in London, and also where Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon and Elvis Costello had played; and also, of course, Shirley Collins.
Time and again, the camera returns to the landscapes of Sussex – the county where Collins was born, and lives to this day. This is thoughtful filmmaking, and the visibly careful, beautiful shots tightly anchor the music to the land. There is a strong sense of place, and belonging.
Sussex is impressively rich in folk traditions – and ancient folk songs, many of which have been given a continued presence in the country’s cultural life. This is thanks in good part to Collins’s dedicated work. It is deeply moving to hear these songs, still now, and remember that they are also a kind of time travel, taking singer and listener back to the reality of previous generations of singers and listeners. The sound of the unadorned human voice, singing in such a truthful, and almost deadpan way, is profoundly affecting.
Collins might be understood as a purist, on the folk music scene. No unnecessary embellishments, quirks, deviations; her view is that a folk singer must simply deliver the song and not impose his or her identity, self on the song. The task is then more a matter of transmitting, conveying, than interpreting. Authenticity has its own power to affect. That approach shines through in this film. She is conscientious about the music, precise, with an expertise about the music so deep it is impossible to fully appreciate. Filmmakers Curry and Plester follow her as she embarks on a new phase of her life, a new artistic challenge.
Folk music is still going strong. One of the marvels of this film is that it shows how much the local, the regional, the specific, is at the same time so universal. A film so deeply rooted in the landscape and social history of Sussex is at the same time a celebration of something inclusive, bigger – it sings to everyone.
This is a deeply moving and joyful film, as we see an artist reflecting on the past, somehow making good old sorrows, and creating something new and wonderful.
Shirley Collins’s latest album, Lodestar, is out now.
Nadia Bee is a writer and filmmaker. She tweets @NadjaBee.