The British Masters, Series 3 Chapter 2: Shirley Collins
After David Rodigan kicked off the new series last week, folk legend Collins talks to us about reclaiming her voice from decades of silence.
A silence can say a lot. It can be the sort that quivers between two people whose relationship is about to crumble; it can swell and fill the comforting familiarity between you and your loved ones. The adage – that it can speak volumes – was rooted in reality before it became a cliche.
And in its own way, absence is imbued with the power of silence. Where you aren't, your voice coming directly out of your body won't be either. That brings us to British folk legend Shirley Collins MBE, who went from performing in London clubs in the 1950s with her sister Dolly, to putting out massively influential albums throughout the 60s folk revival, to disappearing completely after releasing 1978 album For As Many As Will. She just … she just couldn't sing any longer. After Ashley Hutchins – her husband, some 20 years older than her, and a fellow musician – left her for a younger woman in the late 70s, Collins developed a condition known as dysphonia.
"My voice just – my throat locked," she told NPR last year. "I was trying not to weep. Some nights I could manage a few notes, sometimes nothing came out at all when I opened my mouth. And it was in front of an audience, you know, and the band." So she stepped away from music, unable to sing. But now, aged 81, she's back, with last year's Lodestar album and a different take on what her voice can do. "Shirley Collins MBE is the most important living voice in English folk music," Doran says. "She is 81 years young and only just reaching the peak of her powers." Watch her open up about her past, returning after more than 30 years away and why she hopes people understand the reasons behind her absence in the first place.
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