Shirley Collins is widely regarded as the 20th century’s most important singer of English traditional song, Alongside her sister Dolly, she stood at the epicentre of the folkmusic revival during the 1960s and ‘70s. However, in 1980 Shirley developed a disorder of the vocal chords known as dysphonia, which robbed her of her unique singing voice and forced her into early retirement. Deliberately eschewing a straightforward biopic approach, Rob Curry and Tim Plester’s follow-up to their award-winning documentary ‘Way of the Morris’, is a lyrical response to the life-and-times of this totemic musical figure.
Granted intimate access to recording sessions for Shirley’s first album of new recordings in almost four decades, and featuring contributions from (amongst others) the comedian Stewart Lee and David Tibet of Current 93, what emerges is a meditative and carefully textured piece of portraiture. Counterpointing the film’s contemporary journey with a more literal one taken from the opposite end of Shirley’s life, The Ballad Of Shirley Collins also proves itself to be something of a time-travelling Transatlantic road-movie of sorts – utilising a motherlode of archive audio to recount the tale of her seminal 1959 song- collecting trip around America’s Deep South alongside her then-lover (and legendary ethnomusicologist) Alan Lomax. Here then is a story about one woman’s battle to rise again from long silent ashes. A story about heritage, posterity and the true ancestral melodies of the people. A film which would seem to be suggesting that, during these turbulent and increasingly untethered times, we might just need Shirley Collins now more than ever.