Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Best Ships are Friendships

The last few days have been crazy rich in material, so many interesting things going on around me and appearing, as if by magic, from nowhere. Last night yielded an ab-soul-ute jewel of an experience, courtesy of the magical Shirley Collins, who appeared at the Third Floor Arts Centre. Although Shirley described the venue as a dull place, "without even a bar, " I believe she could have performed in an abandoned basement and the audience would have hung from her every word.

I bought tickets for 'America Over the Water' - an evening based around Shirley Collins reading from her memoir of the same title, describing her year in America with the folklorist, Alan Lomax, peppered with extracts from the music Shirley and Alan collected and accompanied by the actor Pip Barnes - for Bean, for his birthday. Bean - along with my mum - is a big fan of folk music, but I have only ever really known of folk music through them, particularly as I grew up. The closest I have come to folk music as an adult has been through Billy Bragg, especially more recently in his Woody Guthrie albums.

The evening was more than a delight, it was a treasure, and I was only sorry that there were not more people there to enjoy it (problems with publicity maybe). Shirley's writing is stunningly evocative, the extracts from the recordings that she and Alan made during their trip across the American south took my breath away, particularly, I have to say, the women who sang (my favourites were Almeda Riddle and Bessie Jones).

In 1959, Shirley and Alan travelled through Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee, recording the songs of the South, wherever they went. The extracts played at the performance are breathtaking, especially when one keeps in mind that they are now over 45 years old. The pair travelled to open air Baptist meetings to record the fervent prayer that took place in song (and incurring the wrath of a very strict minister whilst so doing), to Fyffe, Alabama to hear the Sacred Harp singers in their Big Sing, and deep into Northern Mississippi where they discovered the legendary Fred McDowell.

But don't worry if you missed the evening, because the performance is based around Shirley's memoir of the same title, published by SAF Publishing and available from all the usual places, as well as from Shirley's website at:

Even more than the recordings, however, was Shirley Collins herself; a gentle, softly spoken but utterly compelling woman. I found her writing as compelling as her subject, and her descriptions of people, places, feelings and times so evocative that to picture them was no effort at all. And underneath the story of music she was telling were so many others: the story of a young woman falling in love and acting with such courage in unforgiving times, where to sail to America to travel around the Deep South with your lover was not as acceptable as it might be now, stories of race, of class, of religion, and the story of people making music, not to get to Number 1, not because anyone might ever hear it, but because we are people and to create is what we do. I woke up this morning and switched on my television to see Justin Timberlake strutting his squeaky stuff in yet another image based track, and understood anew the importance of the recordings that Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins made.

We bought a copy of one her cd's too, which we listened to as soon as we returned to my flat. The album, titled The Power of the True Love Knot, was recorded with Shirley's musician sister Dolly, in the late 1960's and includes a beautiful version of Over the Hills and Far Away. It hasn't been off my stereo since we bought it, which also means I'm going to have to stop mocking my mother for her love of English folk. Bugger.

Should I ever get the opportunity to see her again, I will rush for it, and I'll take the majority of my friends with me.

I've spent the afternoon searching out more musical clips in the same vein as the music Shirley introduced me to last night. I have so far been enchanted by Fred McDowell, Sacred Harp singers (there's a group of Sacred Harp singers in San Francisco, even!) and a Google search for Sacred Harp led me to Alison Krauss' Ain True Love from the Cold Mountain soundtrack. My real ambition though is to track down some of the recordings that Shirley and Alan collected in 1959, and Amazon has about five volumes listed that feature the same artists. I have, of course, added them to my wish list. But not before I ordered the first two. To hell with the overdraft, I'm feeling risky.

I highly recommend that you go and register for free at the Alan Lomax online archive, too, where you can access a gazillion extracts from sound recordings that I think everyone will find something to their liking in:

Anything that he collected from America in 1959 that you find here will probably have been collected with Shirley Collins. Oh, and did I mention that she has a book? And I've already checked for you, it's on the shelf at Portsmouth Central, where a friendly library assistant is just waiting to help you find it!

Today's Beautiful Things

1. Howard and Glenn

2. Getting over a very bad wake up call

3. Shirley Collins, obviously

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