America Over the Water by Shirley Collins review – a vivid tale of ballads, gunfire and rattlesnakes | Music books


In 1959, transatlantic travel was still a niche privilege, not least for a young, single, working-class woman. Shirley Collins owed her ticket to New York on the SS United States to her romance with the American folklorist Alan Lomax, whom she had met in London a couple of years previously. She was an ambitious 21-year-old folk singer from Sussex, he a celebrated song collector and musician 20 years her senior. Lomax had been in Europe for several years, effectively in exile from the anti-communist witch-hunt that had blacklisted musicians such as Pete Seeger, alongside Hollywood stars including Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin. Even when collecting Spanish folk songs, Lomax had found himself shadowed by “the black crows” of Franco’s guardia.

After returning to the US, Lomax invited Collins to join him on a song-hunting trip through the deep south, a journey memorably recounted in this memoir – reissued after 15 years out of print, albeit without the atmospheric photographs of the first edition. It offers a vivid and sometimes shocking portrait of a country yet to confront the civil rights era. The couple’s encounters ranged from pentecostal choirs (both black and white) and hellfire preachers to blind fiddlers and mountain ballad singers, some of them familiar to Lomax from a previous trip with his father. For Collins, this was a new world of epic landscapes, rattlesnakes, racism and nocturnal gunfire. St Leonards-on-Sea it wasn’t.

In Arkansas the pair recorded singer Almeda Riddle, who delivered a poignant version of The Merry Golden Tree, a British naval ballad from “the ocean she’d never seen in her life”. In search of the Memphis Jug Band, who had been a popular outfit in the 1920s and 30s, they found a scene of quarrelling musicians and whiskey-soaked squalor. In Mississippi they met (and “discovered”) 57-year-old Fred McDowell, who arrived in dungarees after a day in the cotton fields before proving himself a formidable blues guitarist, one who went on to enjoy professional glory.

Also in Mississippi was the notorious Parchman Farm penitentiary, in whose fields Lomax recorded prisoners hollering work songs as they toiled, while Collins endured the unwanted attention of a guard. Decades later, one tune, Po’ Lazarus, would appear on the bestselling soundtrack of the Coen brothers’ southern jaunt O Brother, Where Art Thou?, leading Lomax’s daughter, Anna, to track down the lead singer, James Carter, by then 76 and living in Chicago, so that she could present him with a cheque for $20,000.

Interspersed with Collins’s account of this “southern journey” (though New York, Chicago, California and the Newport festival also feature) are chapters describing her upbringing in Hastings. The Collins family were poor but resilient, and on her mother’s side arty and politically active, with uncles who were painters and writers. It was a warm, extended family whose lives were full of singing. Her father was a milkman for a local farmer until conscription took him into the army. He survived the second world war but his marriage did not.

Collins and her big sister, Dolly (who would become a composer and accompanist to Collins), had much of their childhood claimed by wartime. Twice evacuated, they returned to Hastings to watch dogfights above the Channel and shelter beneath the stairs from deadly “doodlebugs” (V1 rockets). As postwar teenagers their screen idol was Laurence Olivier (the pair learned chunks of Hamlet to imitate him), their favourite singers Frankie Laine and Johnnie Ray, listened to on the radio while their mother was at work – as a communist she thought American pop was a corrupting influence (a view extant in some folk circles).

The alternating chapters make for a jarring chronology but provide some striking contrasts. Food is a constant subtext, austerity-era Britain with its powdered eggs and watery trifles and a new world of steak, chicken, exotic produce (avocados!) and, in New York, pizza.

At 18, Collins left home for London and the nascent folk revival, which is all too briefly described here, along with a capsule account of her later career, her ascent to doyenne of the folk scene, the loss of her singing voice and its recent, happy return, episodes explored more fully in her 2018 memoir All in the Downs, which followed her return to music making with 2016’s Lodestar album and her rediscovery by a new audience.

Collins’s affair with Lomax didn’t endure (though in 1960 he came to England and proposed), but their mutual affection remained. Her American adventure receded into memory, but her experience reinforced her resolve to become “an English singer of English songs”, a description that applies to this day.

America Over the Water by Shirley Collins is published by White Rabbit (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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