Heathen Harvest: I suppose the place to start would be with the new EMI Records reissue of your albums 'Anthems in Eden', and 'Love Death and the Lady'. How do you see the significance of these two albums in hindsight, and how do you feel when listening to the recordings today?
I feel the significance of these two albums is that it led other singers and musicians towards an English Repertoire and showed that there was another way to accompany these songs.
HH: One of the biggest influences on your life was your trip to America with Alan Lomax in 1959...how did this trip change your worldview, and do you think your musical career might otherwise have turned out differently?
I'm not sure I had a 'world view' before I went to America! Much as I loved - and still love - traditional American music, spending that year in the States made me realise how much I loved England, and wanted to stay English and sing English songs. Had I not gone to the States, I reckon the outcome would have been the same.
HH: You first met Alan Lomax at a party in London hosted by Ewan MacColl, who you also played in a band with at one point. What are your recollections of MacColl, and what was he like in person? He's kind of a legendary figure now...
I prefer not to answer questions about MacColl. Not a favourite.
HH: What were these 1950s folk parties like? Were they civilised, or were they wild and crazy affairs? What are your strongest memories of the folk scene in London at the time? This period is often known as the 'folk revival', so there must have been some exciting things going on...
You'd have to ask someone who actually went to a 1950s party!!! My interest was simply in the music. And that was where the excitement was for me - hearing genuine old traditional singers in the flesh. 80 years old they may have been - but for me it was thrilling and moving to hear them. I spent most of my time finding songs, singing in folk clubs - and that was fun.
HH: Some of your albums were notable for their unorthodox instrumentations, and this was said to have influenced 1960s folk-rock bands like Fairport Convention. Do you think it's important to keep in mind Ezra Pound's dictum 'make it new', in order to make the old traditions more accessible to current generations? Do you approve of bands like The Pogues and the Dropkick Murphys mixing folk with punk rock, or bands like Storm and Korpiklaani mixing folk and heavy metal?
I wasn't thinking to 'make it new' when I worked with Davy Graham
, or with Dolly (Collins)
and the early instruments. I just wanted the best accompaniments and instrumentation that I could find for these wonderful songs I was singing. They merited the talent and understanding of people like my sister Dolly and David Munrow
. The music certainly needs to be attractive to young people nowadays - but I/they have to remember that it is a tradition that's being passed down, and if they don't learn from the genuine singers, they are the losers. Can't say I'm bothered by the Pogues because they don't choose very good or interesting folk songs anyway. If they tackled something I loved, I might get a bit shirty about it!
HH: Many readers of Heathen Harvest will have first known of you from your work with Current 93, most recently on their stunning 'Black Ships Ate The Sky' album. What was it like working with David Tibet, and do you have any plans for future collaborations?
I'm good friends with David Tibet, very fond of him. He nagged me into singing on his two albums, trying to get me to perform again (I don't sing at all these days). No plans for anything else.....
HH: You were also friends with The Incredible String Band. What were those guys like? Were they as eccentric as some of their music would appear to suggest!?!
The Incredibles were unique, lovely, charming, funny and great song-writers - and yes, I think you could call them eccentric. Always good to work with, but we didn't socialize much, I was too settled, and with two young children to look after.
HH: Your sister Dolly accompanied you instrumentally on many of your albums, but sadly she passed away in 1995. What are your fondest memories of working with Dolly?
There are two main memories - and the first would be the laughter. We were very close sisters, had a great rapport both on and off stage, so it was always lovely being with her. And then to have those wonderful arrangements of hers to sing to is one of the things I'm most grateful for in my life. She understood the songs so well, and she enhanced every single one of them with her work. And I can always see her smiling at me across the top of the little flute organ.
HH: What was it like growing up in a musical family? Were you aware from an early age that you would be a professional singer in later life?
It was great growing up in the family that I had - singing such an everyday part of life. And all the songs I heard at home sounded so right and lovely to me, and gave me that grounding in English folk music. I knew from the age of about 15 that I wanted to sing and nothing else. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and from the right working-class background.
HH: How important was your local area of Sussex to your later musical development?
Of utmost importance. The more I heard of the collections of English folk music - and there are several thousand songs from all over the country - the more I realised that the best singers related to their own locality. Cast your net too wide and you get such a mixed catch. I was lucky to be Sussex born because of course there was the Copper family here, too, with their centuries-old connection to Sussex, and generations of that family sang those songs. And because I had first met Bob Copper when he came to our home in Hastings in the early 1950s, I had his friendship for life - and learned so much from him. He was a truly great man.
HH: You were awarded an MBE, but to me you seem much more 'English' than 'British'. Do you feel that the term 'Britain' has any validity in the present era? Do you think regionalism will be a more important current of opposition to globalism in future, as the sovereignty of the old nation states gradually withers away?
You're right - I'm English! I'm even southern English!!! Great Britain feels out-dated - a war-mongering past, and sadly and shamefully, a war-mongering present. That's a huge question - difficult to answer. I just hope that we don't get overwhelmed by globalism and mass-produced music.
HH: A guy called Stefan in a local music shop here told me that you visited my homeland of Tasmania sometime in the 1980s and played at the Longford Folk Festival (and naturally 'Van Dieman's Land' featured prominently on the set list). What memories do you have of your visits to Tasmania and Australia?
The minute I stepped off the Qantas jet at Sydney airport, I felt great! (and that wasn't because the long journey was over!). It felt so relaxed and so welcoming, what with the Sydney Morris Men dancing at the airport to welcome Peter Bellamy
and me, and the policemen in shorts! I loved it! And when we went to Tasmania, one of the festival organisers drove us from one end of the island to the other - I was overwhelmed by its beauty. I loved Australia - and was secretly hoping some nice bloke might fall in love with me and persuade me to stay!
HH: Many people think of folk as a 'gentle' form of music, but in fact many of its themes are dark and gruesome...yet you have also stated that 'like love, folk music is invincible'. Do you think that folk is destined to keep on capturing the intertwining of light and dark that is existence, for ever and ever and ever?
Well, the answer to that has to be yes, because folk music deals with what is real and ever-present in life. It never shies away form the dark, but it also shows us the light in a most beautiful form. Just keep it away from big business and it should be OK.
HH: When it comes to modern society, are you pessimistic about the way it is headed?
I'm afraid I am. I have two grand children and I fear for their future. But I'm aware that this pessimism is possibly because of my age. In many ways the world seems cruder, uglier, less well-educated, more violent than it was..... And yet there is also great concern shown, kindness and willingness to make things better, too.
HH: Your vocals have a truly unique sound...do you have a particular singing 'technique', or a certain state of mind that you put yourself into before singing? Do you consciously focus on the meaning of the lyrics while you're singing them?
No technique at all. I sing (or rather sang) in the same voice that I speak with, as all the traditional singers do. It's simple and straightforward. I don't think I ever 'consciously focussed' on the lyrics. The songs were from the heart, and I felt I was conduit between those old traditional singers and the audience.
HH: Do you believe in C.G. Jung's concept of a collective unconscious, and that consequently many people will instinctively 'recognise' music or art of their own traditions, even if they have never heard it before?
Yes, I think I do, and I also think that folk memory exists. And Alan Lomax said 'the first function of music, especially of folk music, is to produce a feeling of security for the listener by voicing the particular quality of a land and the life of its people...... For music is a magical summing-up of the patterns of family, of love, of conflict, and of work which give a community its special feel.'
And perhaps we are suffering the loss of our traditional music nowadays. I wonder if people aren't too rootless nowadays.
HH: My favourite song out of the ones I've heard you sing is 'The Blacksmith Courted Me' (though due to a typo on the album cover it's incorrectly ascribed as 'The Beggar's Opera Medley'). This is one of those rare songs that has actually moved me to tears, it's so beautiful...but the liner notes say little about it. Could you tell me something about the origins of that song?
It's one of my two favourite songs, too. It's a mixture of 'The Blacksmith' from an English gypsy singer, Phoebe Smith, and a song called 'Our Captain Calls All Hands' from a Sussex singer, Harriett Verrall, collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams
in 1904. It still breaks my heart.
HH: Thank you very much for the interview, Shirley, it's a real honour. The final words are yours...
Thank you, Andreas. Please send my love to Australia...and say - 'don't let the old traditional songs go down.'