There has been folk music in England since the Middle Ages. Whilst its popularity has ebbed and flowed over the decades and centuries, it underwent a revival after the end of World War II; with a network of folk clubs springing up across the country. This in turn brought a new generation of performers through. They included The Copper Family, The Watersons and Shirley and Dolly Collins. Shirley Collins went on to become arguably the most recognisable face of English folk music until 1980 when she developed dysphonia and was forced into early retirement.
Rob Curry and Tim Plester’s documentary The Ballad of Shirley Collins catches up with the star as she begins to record her first album in four decades. With the help of Stewart Lee and David Tibet (Current 93), we’re afforded an intimate glimpse into her life. Whilst much of the film concentrates on the present, Shirley also looks back at different periods in her life. Particularly, a musical expedition to the Deep South with ethnomusicologist and former lover Alan Lomax.
The Ballad of Shirley Collins is a warm portrait of a much-loved singer. Curry and Plester were given exclusive access to Collins and it feels like a very personal project throughout. The decision to avoid a straight chronological retelling of her life and career is an astute one. The format employed gives it an added freshness. In the end though, there’s only one winner. Regardless of anything else, the greatest thing about the The Ballad of Shirley Collins is the music. And that’s beautiful.
The Ballard of Shirley Collins screens at London Film Festival on 14 October. It’s in cinemas nationwide from 20 October.