“I was all right until this week, but now I’ve started swearing at inanimate objects.” Stewart Lee – comedian on lockdown and heavily bearded columnist of this parish – is in his record-filled north London study, on Zoom, with one of his musical heroes. It’s not him who’s ranting, though. It’s Shirley Collins, the first lady of English folk music.
Collins has been home alone since early March, which is “a bit rubbish”, she says; after all, she had a busy summer ahead. Her new album, Heart’s Ease, comes out next week – she had a few festival dates planned – and it’s also her 85th birthday two days after we speak. Some morris dancers will be dancing down her road, though, she says. “Proper muscular stuff!”
Collins and Lee have known each other since 2003, when he interviewed her about her first box set, Within Sound (which covered an extraordinary career that began in 1959 with her debut album, Sweet England, made when she was running folk nights at west London’s Troubadour, before the early 1960s revival). His love of folk began when he was 14, after hearing some played by an “awkward bloke in Birmingham’s Virgin Megastore” – which didn’t really fit in with the post-punk, 2 Tone and synth-pop of 1982. He first heard Collins in the mid-1990s. “It was fantastic.”
Collins stopped singing live the same year as Lee’s first folk epiphany, suffering from a vocal cord condition – dysphonia – after a traumatic divorce from her second husband, folk musician Ashley Hutchings. She didn’t sing live again until 2014; an acclaimed comeback album, Lodestar, followed in 2016. Lee wrote the sleeve notes. He also released a single to help the crowdfunding campaign for the 2017 film The Ballad of Shirley Collins, and wrote the introduction to Collins’s 2018 memoir, All in the Downs, which beat the Beastie Boys to win the Penderyn music book prize. “He’s a dear friend,” Collins says.
Lee’s lockdown hasn’t been problem-free either, although fewer morris dancers have been involved. He’s had to postpone the final 50 dates of his Snowflake/Tornado tour (Collins managed to catch it in Brighton), and proposed screenings of the film he wrote about Birmingham post-punk musician Robert Lloyd, King Rocker, are being rescheduled.
A few on-screen hours with Collins is a welcome break from the new abnormal. On an unusually chilly July morning, the pair debate music, creativity under lockdown, civil rights, the government’s support of the arts, and the importance of having the right spoons.
You share a love of folk music – and that includes you being a fan of Stewart’s singing, doesn’t it, Shirley?
Shirley Collins: Yes! I was at St Edmund Hall in Oxford University, years ago, to help launch their folk club. Stewart [a former student] was there, singing one of my favourite Sussex songs, Polly on the Shore, at the side of the stage [the song eventually released as the crowdfunding single]. I was on my feet! I’ve got goosebumps now just talking about it. He made me feel right there in the song, on board a ship in the Napoleonic wars!
Stewart Lee [looking embarrassed]: Well, Shirley, it’s very kind of you to say that, but it was the only song I knew the chords to. I hadn’t prepared anything and knew nothing about music. I said to the concertina player: “Is your concertina in D?”, not really knowing what that meant [they both laugh]. Perhaps you liked it so much because I hadn’t had any time to think about it, and I was able to do it in a very unplanned and unconscious way, which characterises the music you like. Your music always feels it’s coming straight from the heart, but that’s a very difficult thing to keep replicating. I speak as someone who has to do the same joke 250 times in a row and try to make it look as if I’ve just thought of it.
SC: Thank you! I suppose I wouldn’t want to be one of those singers wafting their hands around with their mouths wide open anyway. Every time I see that, I think: “For God’s sake, stop it!” You know, one thing I really can’t stand these days, sadly, is gospel singing. When I first heard it in the States, it was wonderful – gentle, rocky, all about harmony. Now it’s about showing off what you can do with your voice. I’m so unimpressed by it.
The first single from Heart’s Ease, Wondrous Love, came from your trip to America in 1959, at the time of segregation in the south, when you travelled alone to record black musicians and others with renowned folklorist Alan Lomax. So does the album opener, The Merry Golden Tree. What is it like to remember that trip from the point of 2020, with Black Lives Matter protests happening around the world?
SC: They certainly feel like a long time coming. When we were there, America was on the cusp of the civil rights movement. I was very young – 24, which was like being a teenager then – and felt very ashamed that there were segregated restaurants. It was just appalling. But we had to do what we had to do. I’ve joked before – if we had been more overt about where our sympathies lay to some of the white people we met, I might be a pile of bones under the Mississippi mud now.
SL: Presumably, your softly softly approach enabled you to get access to people that you wouldn’t have done otherwise?
SC: Yes. We didn’t want to endanger anyone. We were there to record the music of the people that the movement was representing and whose lives they were trying to improve. I remember Alan saying that the best way he could honour these talented people was to let the outside world hear the music that they were still playing.
You were meant to be promoting Heart’s Ease with festival appearances, Shirley. And Stewart, your latest tour was cut short. What’s it like not being able to be on the road?
SL: I haven’t stopped performing for this long for 15, 16 years. The idea of hitting it cold in March next year, or whenever I start again, feels like jumping out of a plane.
SC: I can understand that. My next gig’s in August – August 2021!
SL: But when you do perform again live, Shirley, people will be so delighted to see you. I was in Canterbury the night the theatres shut, knowing this was going to be the last show for a long time. The audience knew it, too. The theatre was only half-full, because half the people had stayed away with worry, and the atmosphere in the room was of hysteria, which had nothing to do with me. But I’ve been thinking, Shirley, about how so many of your songs are stories that go back hundreds of years, and that suggests there’s a continuity to existence, which means we don’t have to worry. I mean, I looked up Barbara Allen, which you sing on the new album, and Samuel Pepys wrote about it in 1666! A “Mrs Knipp” sang it! He liked the singing of Mrs Knipp.
SC: It’s difficult not to be able to do gigs to promote the album, but the people I feel most anxious about are the young, like my grandson. He’s just got his degree, and was hoping to set himself up as a sound engineer – now he has very little chance to do that. It’s beyond disappointment. I don’t know how young people will cope. They haven’t even got the experience of life behind them.
Has music been helping you in lockdown?
SC: I’ve gone back to Italian Renaissance music, which comforts me. I find it really sexy. Modern music for somebody my age has nothing sexy about it at all!
SL: I’ll remember this period as the time I’ve been listening to so many things. Between 11pm and 2am every night, when everyone’s gone to bed, I’ve been going through outtakes of Bob Dylan from 1965-67, hearing him building songs, and the same with Miles Davis’s electric stuff. I’ve listened to music I loved when I was younger, that they used to call the Paisley Underground – the Dream Syndicate, the Rain Parade, Green On Red – and every single thing that I could find that had anyone from the Byrds on it. I’ve returned to the sort of relationship with music that I had when I was a teenager, when you just had to stay in and no one would talk to you. Shirley’s album fitted into all that, just like the new Dylan record did. It arrived at this time of crisis with this wonderful sense of calm about it.
How do you find folk music in 2020?
SC: I just hate the misuse of the word “folk”. Somebody says on Facebook: “Oh, I sat up in my bedroom and wrote a folk song last night.” Oh no, you didn’t! That’s not how it works! A folk song has to go on a passage through time, generations and individual people singing it to earn its title of a folk song.
Still, I do think that I’m fortunate, being my age, that I grew up in a time when old voices were very familiar, which they’re not now. My grandad sang to my sister and me in the shelter during bombing raids – plain, ordinary singing that really sank in. So-called folk singers should go and listen to the field recordings of where the songs came from, so they’re not getting in the way of the songs. It’s performance first, song second with so many people these days. There are some really great singers out there, though, like Radie Peat [of Lankum] and Alasdair Roberts.
SL: I don’t know enough about folk music now, to be honest. I have four shelves of old stuff, but Shirley’s music’s sort of beyond genre for me. I mean, there’s some stuff on your new record, Shirley, like the last track, that doesn’t sound like folk at all…
You mean Crowlink, a track about a lone ship at sea, accompanied by field recordings of storms and seagulls [recorded by Shirley’s son].
SL: Yeah, it sounds like a Norwegian heavy metal record or something! It’s got an intensity about it that reminds me of this group Wolves in the Throne Room from America – it’s like a big steamroller going over me!
SC: I think it’s possibly my son trying to haul me into whatever century it is now.
SL: When I finally get my little hut in the Forest of Dean and I boil down all my unnecessary possessions, I’m only taking 10 artists’ whole works, which will include Miles Davis and John Coltrane and the Fall and you, Shirley. People who have the same sort of truthfulness in their approach.
What do your children – and grandchildren, Shirley – think of the music you gravitate towards?
SL: They hate it. My daughter says I listen to the sort of music that old men who do farts in public listen to [they both laugh].
SC: Oh, Stewart! My grandkids have got copies of my albums but I don’t think they’ve ever listened to them and nor do I expect them to. At the moment, we talk about other things, like hamburgers and which ones we’re going to have. Saying that, I’ve got a slightly younger following at the moment at live shows, which is nice. Girls in their early 20s who stand in the audience, shouting: “Shirley! Shirley!”
What do you think about the government’s lack of support of the arts this far into the pandemic? [We speak just hours before the news of the £1.57bn rescue package.]
SL: Given that most of this government’s decisions appear to be economic, I’m surprised they’ve left it so late. The arts generate countless times more money for this country than fishing, for example. I know we’re attached to fishing for reasons of people’s lives and traditions, but wouldn’t it make more sense to have a bailout for the Nuffield theatre in Southampton? The paranoid part of you wonders if it’s ideological. Lots of people involved in the arts tend to be liberal or left-of-centre, although not exclusively.
SC: I always wonder if anyone in the cabinet has any sort of cultural life themselves.
SL: It doesn’t look like it, does it? I mean, when Sajid Javid was culture secretary, he specifically blocked attempts to prevent ticket touts from operating because he said they were entrepreneurs! Loads of people will have to give up because they work on a week-to-week basis, in rooms above pubs. This whole situation makes me think of what you do, Shirley: giving life to old songs because they preserve different viewpoints, and emotions of people, from the past. Right now, on some level, the building blocks of the collective imaginative identity of our country are being allowed to die away.
Is that the same situation with folk music?
SC: Folk music never had much support from institutions anyway. This includes the BBC. They are quite used to getting on with it themselves, and probably will after all this horror ends.
Has the internet helped you during lockdown? Shirley, you were ranting on Facebook about how the delay to Dominic Cummings’s now notorious press conference led to the cancellation of Paddington 2 on Bank Holiday Monday…
SC: I was incensed! As if he hadn’t done enough!
SL: I think that Shirley’s popularity began to snowball again because of online interest in the 1990s. One of the good things about the internet is that interests are able to gain their own momentum in a positive way, without having press.
SC: It’s also handy to have those connections easily available. The downside, of course, is people are then able to get in touch with you and say things like “She sounds like Tom Waits” or “She can’t sing!” [laughs].
SL: This is why I’ve never had a Twitter or Facebook or Instagram account. Actually, I sort of tried to have an Instagram for about a month. I was trying to lose weight, and I thought I would photograph everything I ate and put it online, which was quite funny, because I just ate the same thing. Then people started looking in the reflection of jars, trying to work out where I was, and I thought: ‘This is so strange’, so I just closed it down. It might still be up there somewhere, though…
SC: The trouble with social media is that it takes up too much time. It’s nice to be able to be in touch with people, but every like and love or tick is a bit superficial. I tend not to try to make derogatory remarks about stuff on Facebook either, although I’d love to [laughs]. The only site I follow regularly is Wildflowers of Great Britain because you can’t get into trouble with that. Unless you misname a flower.
Have you been able to do other creative things in lockdown?
SL [leans out of shot and returns with a folder]: A design of a kimono. A page from the Domesday book. An autobiography of my daughter’s grandad. A comic strip about some invertebrates. I haven’t done anything in here myself. This is all home-schooling I’ve loosely supervised.
SC: I’ve been enjoying living in a cul-de-sac, putting tables outside in the road on warm evenings, where we sit distantly from one another and drink wine.
SL: Oh God, that sounds brilliant. We can’t do that here.
SC: We enjoy being supercilious if a car comes down, moving the table a bit so they can drive by, and then glare at them as they go back [laughs]. Other than that, I’ve been singing in my head, but not out loud for some reason. I daren’t sing out loud again in case I get scared and stop again.
SL: Don’t worry about it. This is going to be so well received. It’s going to be great!
Any final questions?
SL: Yes, actually. What kind of spoons is Dave Arthur playing on Rolling in the Dew, Shirley?
SC: I think they’re Viners stainless steel.
SL: They’re not a spoon sample from a computer? They are actual spoons?
SC: Played on his knee. Yes, real, genuine spoons!
SL: Then there will be more teenagers shouting at your gigs in the future!
Heart’s Ease by Shirley Collins is out on Domino on 24 July. For news of Stewart Lee’s rescheduled dates and King Rocker, visit stewartlee.co.uk