America Over the Water by Shirley Collins

Review by Annabel

Shirley Collins is widely regarded as one of the most influential British folk singers of our times. Often singing alongside her sister and composer Dolly, she was a major contributor to the English folk scene in the 1960s and 1970s, going on to sing with various incarnations of the Albion Country Band in the 1970s while married to Ashley Hutchings. She retired from singing in 1980, after her painful break-up with Hutchings, only to return with a new album in 2016 at the age of 80! 

However, before her 1960s success, she met Alan Lomax, the musical historian and folk song recordist, who took her on the trip of a lifetime in 1959 to collect folksongs in America’s South. She wrote a book chronicling this trip in 2004, alternating it with stories from her childhood in Hastings where she was born in 1935. Earlier this year, White Rabbit (Orion’s relatively new imprint which is publishing mainly books about music) reprinted the book, with a foreword from Dave Tibet who originally encouraged her to write the book and a new preface from Collins.

She begins with explaining how ‘a girl from Sussex fetch[ed] up in America with America’s leading folklorist’. She was already a singer when she moved to London in 1953. She worked in a bookshop, and spent all of her spare time at Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, when she wasn’t frequenting The Troubador coffee bar and folk club in Earls Court, where she saw British greats on their way up, but also Bob Dylan (‘I didn’t reckon much of him, and didn’t think much of his chances as a singer.’). She fell in with Ewan McColl, going on tour with him to perform at the Kremlin of all places! And it was McColl who introduced her to Lomax at a party. She already revered him from his television work with David Attenborough, but now she fell in love with him, and moved in with him in Highgate. When Alan’s work in London ended, he decided to move back to the USA. They kept in touch and when he wrote to invite her to join him on a collecting trip in the South as his assistant – she jumped at the chance and boarded a ship to New York in April 1959.

After this Collins takes us back to her childhood, and from this point, chapters alternate between that and the trip with Lomax – the latter sometimes being in the form of letters home, which her mother kept inspiring the book decades later.

During the war, she and her sister Dolly were evacuated to Wales, but homesick and not speaking Welsh, returned to Hastings – where she recalls being strafed by a German plane while out with their baby cousin in her pram! And her 8th birthday celebrations were cut short when the air raid siren went off just as they were about to cut her cake. Although coloured by the war, her scenes of family life reveal a close-knit and happy family, who all loved singing. By the time she was fifteen, she knew she wanted to be a folk singer. When she left school at seventeen, she went to teacher training college in London but it wasn’t for her, so she went home and worked as a bus conductress, until she and Dolly, who wanted to become a composer, could get that lucky break in London.

Her trip with Lomax to the American South couldn’t contrast more.

It was a journey that started in Virginia, and took us into Parchman Farm, the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary, up Kentucky mountainsides to record Primitive Baptist open-air prayer meetings, to the heart of Alabama for a Sacred Harp Convention, into tiny hamlets in the tornado belt of rural Arkansas where the pioneering spirit still existed, and into isolated black communities in Northern Mississippi where we discovered one of the finest hitherto unknown bluesmen, ending our journey on one of the Georgia Sea Islands that had been settled by escaped slaves.

One chapter is set while they tried to record the singing at an open-air Baptist meeting in Kentucky, which was, she recalls, where she got scared for the first time on the trip, when the preacher’s fire and brimstone messages and the long list of additional ‘thou shalt not … commandments’ folk were forced to live already hard lives by seemed directed towards them. Danger of a different kind would be evident at Parchman, where she had to be extremely careful about what she said to redneck prison guards while Alan was recording the ‘majestic worksongs, blues and field hollers of the black convicts.’ She wasn’t allowed out in the field with him. Shirley was always interested in the personal stories of those they recorded, and grateful for the hospitality shown to her and Alan and their bulky recording equipment.

A final chapter summarises what Shirley did next in the decades up to publication of her book – teaming up with some of the biggest names in British folk and forging her own career and family. Her relationship with Lomax (twenty years older), had petered out, but they remained friends until his death in 2002. She was particularly delighted when some of the songs they collected on this trip would feature in the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The snatches of song lyrics liberally scattered throughout the book illustrate the power and simplicity of folk songs, and amplify her writing about the music and musicians.

I never lost my affection or regard for Alan, and I will always be grateful to him for choosing me as his companion on that unique Southern Journey of 1959.

A book to savour for folk and blues fans. Collins is a delightful companion and I can throughly recommend it.

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Annabel is Co-founder and an editor of Shiny New Books. 

Shirley Collins, America Over the Water (new edition) (White Rabbit, 2022) 978-1474623377, 192pp, softback. 

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