- The Ballad of Shirley Collins by Rob Curry and Tim Plester
Like many of the best documentaries, the true success of The Ballad of Shirley Collins lies in how a wonderfully likable individual invites us to inhabit her world for 94 minutes. Shirley Collins is renowned for her singing of traditional English folk song, and, through her sheer passion for the material, she invites us into this world. The viewer encounters Shirley at the unique moment at which she is considering her own legacy. Shirley reflects on a life lived through music, from her earliest performances to a formative collecting trip she embarked upon with Alan Lomax throughout the United States in 1959. Having curiously lost her ability to sing, this documentary follows Shirley as she records again for the first time in decades, showcasing both a steely determination and a tender affinity for ballad singing.
Shirley's reputation as a folksinger precedes her, and, as she describes herself, "what I do believe about myself, when I was singing at my best, was that I was the essence of English song, you know, that I sang it better than anybody else and understood it better than anybody else." These words must be taken rather seriously given Shirley's self-deprecating nature elsewhere in the film. Recalling a life lived alongside her sister Dolly Collins, who was another powerful contributor to the corpus of English song, Shirley recalls: "Dolly was better at absolutely everything." When listening to a recording from the 1959 collecting trip in which Shirley interacts with the performer, she exclaims: "That was wonderful . . . except I sound so posh!" Punctuated with her characteristic chuckle, remarks such as these permeate the film's narrative.
The notion of understanding the music (as opposed to just reciting lyrics) is at the heart of this film, an extension of Shirley's own approach to performing balladry. Shirley regards her role as the keeper of a tradition, a living repository, with the utmost gravity. Key to the endeavor is truly understanding the story of a song and knowing the myriad contexts in which it has arisen throughout the years. Shirley delights in imagining the mind-set of those who have sung these same words before her; she embraces the manner in which song can be a uniting force across place, class, and culture. Listening to Almeda Riddle's performance of "The Merry Golden Tree" from the 1959 fieldwork, Shirley describes the experience: "I think it was just incredible that this woman who'd lived in the mountains of Arkansas in the Ozark Mountains. When she was singing a song about this dreadful treachery at sea, the lonely, lowland sea, she just completely, you know, gave you this feeling and this view and almost the smell of the sea, and she'd never seen it in her life."
Memories of the 1959 collecting trip are interspersed throughout the film, and that decades-old journey provides a parallel track to the contemporary narrative. This event seems to be the time when Shirley most immediately encountered the people who sang the same songs that she sang. Upon meeting these other folksingers, Shirley relished the kinship between them while also realizing the ways in which she differed from these other singers with working-class backgrounds. This revelation seemed to enhance and complicate her own relationship with the music. In her old correspondence, Shirley wrote to her family: "Dear Mom and Dolly, my romantic illusions about Kentucky have fled like pigeons from a cat." The trip itself was so formative that Shirley hopes to be remembered as both a singer and "somebody who was on an amazing, rather unique collecting trip." She goes on to explain that it was "unique because really I don't think it could have happened that way since, because the states changed so much." The collecting trip provides not only a window into Shirley's own life, but also into the distinct cultural moment that was America in 1959...