There is so much to say and discover about Shirley Collins that it is hard to see where to start. This is a problem that the documentary The Ballad of Shirley Collins needs to battle with, the mountains of material, but it is a problem easily solved by the presence of Shirley herself: warm, funny, and full of love the folk songs she has dedicated her entire life to. This night is a collaboration between CPH Dox and Alice, a double presentation of the film, followed by a concert. It is a strange experience to watch her on a big screen being fawned over by Stewart Lee and David Tibet, and before you know it the film is over and you are running to pee before the show starts and there is Shirley herself by the theatre entrance, beaming.
Accompanied by guitars, fiddle, banjo and shruti box, Shirley and her band work through a selection of material from Lodestar, as well as several of the songs featured in the film, which means that they are all imbued with a familiarity that allows the audience to focus on the details of the arrangements and the lyrics. During “Washed Ashore”, for example, I notice for the first time the detail that when the song’s protagonist finds her dead husband washed up on the sand, she recognises him by “the mark on his hand”. Implying that the rest of him is so bloated and disfigured as to be unrecognisable, which adds a certain dash of gruesome horror to the tenderness of her kissing him.
Shirley delights in these bloody details, particularly in songs like “Cruel Lincoln”, but can just as easily talk about the harsh realities she encountered in the pre-civil rights South. Several of her songs are American folk tunes that manage to surreally remember aspects of British culture long forgotten on the East side of the Atlantic. One of these she asks us to pay careful attention to, as one particular line is hilariously drawn out and requires a certain amount of temporal elasticity to perform. The odd misremembered line adds to the charm, as Shirley still recalls the content of the sections if not the full lyrics, and so amiably blusters a summary of them.
As the evening draws to a close the room is positively humming with goodwill. The complete lack of affectation in the performers, their dedication to music which they lay no claim towards, is incredibly refreshing, and must surely bring about our own private revival.