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All in the Downs - A revealing memoir from Folk’s First Lady

Matt Shaw is, by turns, moved to tears and inspired by the story of British folk singer Shirley Collins, her career, her relationships and her life. It’s a book written with such tenderness, he says, that the essence of this talented artist jumps off every page

All in the Downs is a beautifully written memoir by the folk singer, Shirley Collins. The book was launched last week in Bloomsbury with a reading by Shirley herself and hearing Shirley read - recollecting moments from over 60 years of her life through folk song, her walks across the South Downs, and all the trials of life - was nothing short of magical.

All in the Downs takes us through all of the joy, heartbreak, tenderness and determination of following a singular vision that is Shirley’s own. It is celebratory, optimistic, strong - and  for me, a true inspiration. Shirley writes about many of the more difficult periods - in particular of losing the ability to sing for over 30 years due to dysphonia - of relationships that ended, (mutually and otherwise), and of bringing up two children, while balancing a career in music, as well as of some other much less welcome employment.

There are also moments that will bring you to tears - at least they did with me. There is such a lot of love in the way this book is written. People come to life from the page, with  friendships and relationships described with such intimacy, we feel the loss of loved ones and of youth, sharing a collective memory of a time that has passed, a memory that is both nostalgic and bittersweet.

Shirley’s writing style is conversational, inclusive and easily readable. All of those years of exploring other people’s histories and stories seem to have influenced the singer’s own ability to convey her remarkable story. That said, she is an optimist and overcomes adversity - often downplayed with her practical approach to life - again and again. But for me, there is more to Shirley than this, so much more.

Her approach to life is a lesson for us all to keep going, to follow our hearts, to not give in too easily and to keep our dreams alive. Shirley’s late and much loved sister, Dolly, particularly shines in these pages. A life ended far too soon, a talent yet to be fully recognised: Dolly’s true talent and recognition still yet to some. Dolly is still here though, still to be heard on the incredible albums Shirley and Dolly made together. Anthems in Eden & Love, Death and the Lady being my own personal favorites.

Throughout her memoir, Shirley recalls folk songs that serve to add colour and description to the story she is relaying. Many of these originate from her beloved Sussex, but there are also songs she collected on a road trip - across Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas - that Shirley took in the 1950s with her then boyfriend Alan Lomax.

For fans of Shirley’s music we have recollections of recording with Davey Graham, The Albion Band and her sister, Dolly Collins, as well as her solo records. Along the way we meet the Incredible String Band, Ewan MacColl, David Tibet and Current 93, Bob Dylan and Martin Carthy among many others making this memoir a veritable Who’s Who of the folk world of the 60’s and 70’s.

Here is a memoir that takes us from the early 1930’s right up to today, while looking ahead to the future. There are many fantastic photographs, covering all the key moments of Shirley’s extraordinary life, throughout: We see Shirley with sister Dolly, childhood photographs, posters and original artwork (the publisher, Strange Attractor, has done a superb job in producing an exquisite object). The passages about Britain and how it has changed over the years is a folk history in itself: Changing values, the impact of wars and changes in agriculture, as well as more domestic changes in family life.

Now 82 years young, Shirley is still singing live and currently touring the UK and reading from her wonderful book. In 2016, the singer released her finest album to date, the critically acclaimed Lodestar, (released by Domino Records); and there’s now another album in the works to be recorded soon.   

You don’t need to be a fan of folk music to love this book, or even of Shirley Collins recordings, rather an interest in people and one person's unique journey through a long life (she is now in her Eighties) is all that is required. Books written with such tenderness, that communicate so clearly, are rare in my experience. This is a book to cherish and a woman to celebrate.

A documentary film The Ballad of Shirley Collins by Rob Curry and Tim Plester is available now on DVD from Earth Recordings.

A Q&A film with Shirley Collins is available here.

All in the Downs can be ordered from here and from all good bookshops.

This is a book to cherish and a woman to celebrate

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