In the documentary The Ballad of Shirley Collins, Shirley Collins was at the epicentre of the folkmusic revival during the 1960s and ’70s, before a vocal disorder robbed her of her uniquely ancestral singing voice. Granted intimate access to recording sessions for her first new album in almost four decades, and making adventurous use of a motherlode of seminal archive audio, The Ballad of Shirley Collins chronicles one woman’s gallant battle to rise phoenix-like from long silent ashes.
Widely regarded as the 20th century’s most important singer of English traditional song, Shirley Collins is someone who was born to invoke the old songs.
Alongside her sister Dolly, Shirley stood at the epicentre of the folkmusic revival during the 1960s and 1970s. But in 1980, in traumatic circumstances, she was robbed her of her unique singing voice and forced her into early retirement.
Counterpointing the film’s contemporary journey with a more literal one taken from the opposite end of Shirley’s life, The Ballad Of Shirley Collins also proves itself to be something of a time-travelling Transatlantic road-movie – lovingly retelling the story of her seminal 1959 ’Southern Journey’ song-collecting trip around America’s rural Deep South alongside her then-lover (and legendary ethnomusicologist) Alan Lomax. A trip that took them into neglected rural communities, both black and white, that were about to be forever changed by the burgenoning Civil Rights movement. They uncovered and documented a peerless document of traditional American music – one that would later inspire the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou.
Deliberately eschewing a straightforward biopic approach, Rob Curry and Tim Plester (Way of the Morris), is a lyrical response to the life-and-times of a totemic musical figure. Granted intimate access to recording sessions for Shirley’s first album (Lodestar) of new recordings in almost four decades, the film also features contributions from the comedian Stewart Lee, Appalachian singer Sam Amidon, and David Tibet of “Current 93″.
What emerges is a meditative and carefully textured piece of portraiture. Here then is a story about one woman’s battle to rise again from long silent ashes. A film about loss and redemption. A film about sacrifice, healing and rebirth. A film which suggests that, during these turbulent and increasingly untethered times, we might just need Shirley Collins and all she represents more than ever.
Check out photos from The Ballad of Shirley Collins: