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51 f L


ater, in an email conversation with Shirley, I began by asking her to confirm the titles of the songs she sang with Ian Kearey that afternoon – and if that was the longest singing performance she’d given since the early 1980s?


“I sang Cruel Lincoln, Death And The


Lady, Washed Ashore and Pretty Polly. Yes, – it is the longest singing performance. They are four of the thirteen songs I’ve now recorded for my new album, due out proba- bly next spring!”


As a younger woman when her vocal register was higher than it is now, Shirley learned the repertoire by listening to songs sung by older people, who for her were conduits for the song: how they sounded didn’t matter as much as what – and the way – they sang. Has seeing herself in that way now, a sort of coming to terms with her authenticity, perhaps helped liberate her locked voice?


“The register of my voice has changed through age – it’s got lower and less supple. But there again, it never bothered me that the singers I learned so much from had old voices. And I’ve had to set my vanity aside, and sing in what Brian Catling calls my ‘now voice’. To be considered a ‘conduit’ between the old singers and my generation makes me pleased and proud. I know that I ‘under- stand’ the songs – that’s not too pretentious, I hope! – and that’s what I can pass on.”


So did she enjoy her birthday bash?


“I enjoyed it enormously – all day. I was so pleased that at last Ian Anderson was awarded his Gold Badge by the EFDSS – long overdue in my opinion. It was such a lark to sing Death And The Lady in the style of Muddy Waters for him – bringing togeth- er both his love of the English tradition and the blues – especially with Ian Kearey and Ben Mandelson accompanying me. I thor- oughly enjoyed the afternoon talk with Malcolm Taylor and my friend and fellow narrator Pip Barnes, and Ian Kearey, of course. And then there was the thrill of meeting Robert Plant, who came for the evening. And Billy Bragg, of course!”


“Everyone was lovely on the evening concert, such beautiful singing, except I wish they’d all had time to do more than two songs. And as they were all singing songs from my repertoire, I knew there wouldn’t be any duds!”


Shirley once remarked that the mid- century folk revival was damaging to English folk music as those within it did not necessarily understand or convey a sense of Englishness, so I asked what is that sense of Englishness? How is it best conveyed?


“I do think that’s true. I can’t explain ‘Englishness’; you either feel it or you don’t. But I also think it’s a generational thing, per- haps a class thing, too. I was born into the right rural working-class family in Sussex and just at the right time before the labouring class culture was almost obliterated by pop- ular culture, trampled over by global ‘big business’ music. That’s something of an exaggeration, of course, because there’s some great stuff in pop music. But give me the variety of the good English tradition any day, with its beauty and gentle melancholy.”


How important is style in singing… how much is meaning contained within it?


“S


tyle is the essence of each singing tradition, it’s one way of recognising where a song comes from. And it’s the variety that’s so


valuable. I love the subtlety of the English tradition, its restraint. When singers over- emphasise decorations, for instance, it takes away the heart of the song – I find it maddening and embarrassing often! And it comes from a lack of knowledge and understanding. All young singers need to do is listen to the field recordings made in the 1950s and ’60s – but so many of them resent that suggestion! It’s a precious cen- turies-old tradition, and I wish it was val- ued and understood better.”


Is the current ‘revival’ any better?


“Most of the singers have such lovely voices, but I find many of them bring a tad too much ‘emotion’ and self-consciousness in both the way they sing the songs and the way they seem to have to partly explain or enact the song with their hands as well! I


don’t want to be distracted by hands waft- ing about! And then there are the girls – and I’ve said this before and made enemies – who either sing like waifs, pretty but bloodless, or those who sing in strident voic- es and put me in mind of principal boys. As if that’s the only way to be a strong woman. These are grown-up and powerful songs; they don’t need to be ‘sold’ – just trusted. But I might be being over-critical of the new wave of singers. I’m glad they’re choosing to sing these songs – and after all, as in all things, age has to give way to youth!”


Birthdays are a pause for reflection so simply (aside from children!), what’s her greatest achievement? Greatest regret? Greatest fear? Greatest pleasure?


“I don’t really feel it’s up to me to say – but I’m proud of having written America Over The Water (and I hope I shall feel the same way about my next book All In The Downs, due out in 2016), and I think the performance talks I give with Pip Barnes as co-narrator are OK, too! I’m proud of


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