Friday, September 06, 2013

Shirley Collins — ‘America Over the Water’

It’s the voice of those who for generations have been despised, abused and neglected, and for their part in keeping the music alive, I feel they should be honoured, and their music shouldn’t be appropriated by people who don’t understand this. (p.57)
Shirley Collins and Alan Lomax are at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, just prior to their great song-hunting ‘Southern Journey’. She finds the festival ‘a great disappointment’ (p.56), due to the liberties the performers take with their material. There’s a singer with a voice which is too operatic (Martha Schlamme), and a band who kid around too much (The Kingston Trio). There are other performers she does like, who are less ostentatious, less prone to mix and match styles (Jimmy Driftwood, Jean Ritchie, Frank Warner, Earl Scruggs). Her criticism raises a question about what folk music is: if its great virtue is that it is open to all — a way of history being told, for once, by the losers — then how can rules be imposed by the winners? Disliking a performance is one thing, censuring it for failing to conform to a particular mould is more dubious. Presumably Martha Schlamme intended to sing the way she did, and The Kingston Trio intended to kid around. It’s similar to the old rockism debate, argued firmly on the side of tradition, and against the kind of stylistic hybridity which is the lifeblood of pop music. There is also a class element to what Collins says: she may mean that folk music should only be made by the ‘despised, abused and neglected’, and that modern distortions by performers jumping on the folk revival bandwagon are therefore an affront to and a dilution of a proud outsider tradition.

America Over the Water tells two stories, in alternate chapters. One is the story of Collins’ journey with Lomax, and the other is an account of her childhood up to the age of 17, in 1952, when she realises she must move away from the backwater of Hastings if she wants to make it as a folk singer. The austerity of postwar small town life contrasts in interesting ways with the kind of life Lomax leads, always on the move, a voracious cultural tourist and archivist. It’s not that he’s rich (the ‘Southern Journey’ gets increasingly hand-to-mouth near the end), but he has a global perspective, a need to be everywhere. Just how un-cosmopolitan Collins is comes out in her cooking, which fails to impress Lomax. She prepares a dish called ‘sukey’:
You put milk in a saucepan, added chopped up cheddar cheese, a knob of butter and white pepper (the only sort there was available then), put it on the heat and stirred it till the cheese was melted and stringy, and then you poured it over toast. It did make the toast soggy, but we’d loved it as children. (pp. 23-4)
Some of her strongest impressions of America are of the food she finds there:
And the food on the train! I mean, even the breakfasts were out of this world! To start, a choice of strawberries, raspberries, cantaloupe and honeydew melons, figs, prunes, blueberries...... a choice from a dozen cereals, followed by eggs with ham, sausage, bacon, fish, with toast or muffins, french rolls or sweet rolls, pancakes, wheatcakes, and perfect coffee! All this on a train! (p. 40)
This is from one of the letters home to her mother and sister that Collins gives in their entirety. She’s no mean archivist herself, and includes many letters, postcards and photos in the book. If she can find a piece of writing she did at the time, she uses this directly rather than re-writing, and it helps to capture the spirit of this irrepressible young woman, who seems to have made friends wherever she went. The final chapter, ‘The Ending’, gives a potted history of Collins’ subsequent career and the loss of confidence which led to her giving it up, so there’s a fragility too to the joyous letters from an earlier time. Their spirit won’t be lost, but it won’t remain quite unbroken either.

And the music of the ‘Southern Journey’ itself? There’s plenty on that, of course, on the ‘heart-stopping intensity’ (p. 135) of Fred McDowell, the ‘dangerous sexual charge’ of Willie Jones (p. 146), the ‘soft whoomping’ (p. 103) of the Memphis Jug Band, among many others. To come to this book from the ‘Southern Journey’ records would work well, I’d imagine — it even contains Lomax’s complete recording logs at the back. But I came to it through Collins’ Anthems in Eden LP (and to that via Rob Young’s book Electric Eden), with its guitar-free English folk music sung so plainly and so beautifully. What she says of Almeda Riddle’s singing is true of hers too:
There was such a clarity in her style, and she had that rare and admirable quality of serving the songs, rather than the songs serving her. (p. 159)

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