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find the chronology a little confusing, as it starts with the period covering her relation- ship with Hutchings and its eventual break- up connecting with the loss of her singing voice. But it’s a splendid read which I thor- oughly enjoyed.


All In The Downs


Shirley Collins Strange Attractor Press (ISBN 978-1907222-412)


This is an engagingly-written memoir of Shirley Collins’ life story, starting with her childhood in Hastings on the south coast of England and moving on through various adventures in London, her singing career (much of which involved her beloved sister Dolly) and two marriages. Her life-changing trip assisting Alan Lomax in song collecting in the southern States is only lightly touched on here as she previously documented it in the equally fascinating America Over the Water. But I whenever I think about Mississippi Fred McDowell and his wife Annie Mae who Shirley got on so well with, I can almost hear the collective intake of breath when Shirley said goodbye to Annie Mae and kissed her – a white woman embracing a black woman as a friend would have been almost unheard of, back then and there.


She writes well and powerfully evokes the atmosphere of the Sussex Downland and the way that English traditional song has per- vaded her life. It’s very honest, sometimes brutally so, both about herself and others. Ashley Hutchings does not come out of it well, and as for Ewan McColl – ouch! I love the occasional glimpses of surprising episodes in her story – the great jazz quarrel (!); typing the original manuscript for The Ipcress File (!); Jimi Hendrix (!); and during the War little Shirley and Dolly being strafed by a machine- gun from a German plane and having to dive under the hedge in Alfred Road.


I think I first saw Shirley live when we booked her at Bristol Univerity folk club in about 1970, and have a reasonable working knowledge of her timeline and music; but it occurs to me that someone meeting her for the first time through these pages might


Shirley Collins in 1963


Apart from its companion volume of America Over The Water, useful books to read alongside this would be Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, being written about work and poverty in Hastings at the beginning of the 20th Century and then A Breath Of Fresh Air by his biographer FC Ball (who also happened to be Shirley’s uncle Fred).


strangeattractor.co.uk Maggie Holland


The Tin God


Chris Nickson Severn House (ISBN 978 0 7278 8786 3)


Author Chris Nickson’s name will be familiar to fRoots readers as a long-time contributor, but what you may not know is that he has an acclaimed parallel career as a prolific writer of historical fiction, in particular a series fea- turing the late-Victorian-era detective, Super- intendent Tom Harper. Harper’s fictional patch is Nickson’s home city of Leeds.


I’m a sucker for history books that grip like novels, so page-turner novels grounded in well-researched history are obviously right up my street too. (I read this one straight after finishing Helen Dunmore’s Birdcage Walk, set exactly where I live but roughly a hundred years earlier). I’d enjoyed some of The Tin God’s predecessors, but this one has particular resonance as among its characters are the real-life folk song collector Frank Kid- son and his niece, and – without injecting too many plot spoilers – snippets of lyrics from traditional songs quoted by a mysterious assailant are recurring clues.


This book’s story is centred around the


efforts of Harper’s wife Annabelle to get elected as a Poor Law Guardian, and to gal- vanise local women voters. Oh, but hang on a minute, surely women didn’t get the vote until 1918: haven’t we all just been celebrat- ing that centenary? Well, it turns out – and this excellent novel was the spark for discov- ering this – that women were able to vote locally since 1894. I didn’t know that, and I’m sure many others are unaware too. As Nick- son writes elsewhere online about this bit of hidden history, “…the Suffragettes as a movement only really took shape in 1904. Before them came the true pioneers, the Suf- fragists, and Leeds women were very much in the vanguard…1894 was the great watershed moment. A change in the law meant that ratepayers of either sex, men and married women, could vote in local elections and run for office as Poor Law Guardians or to serve on parish councils. That is where the modern world, the voting system as we recognise it today, really began.”


The tale, involving death threats and intimidation, bombings at hustings, and a sub-thread of smuggling at Whitby, unfolds apace. It’s full of engaging and believable characters and plenty of clearly well- researched descriptions of the daily lives of working people in Leeds, pulling you into a world that was long ago but in some ways uncannily echoing situations we know today. A can’t-put-downer, I was happy to burrow into its ambience. And meet Frank Kidson.


severnhouse.com chrisnickson.co.uk


Ian Anderson


Lament From Epirus: An Odyssey Into Europe’s Oldest Surviving Folk Music


Christopher C KingWW Norton & Co (ISBN 9780393248999)


I've never been to Epirus but after reading Lament From Epirus, I'm on my way. The book is part travelogue, part reflections on what makes music speak with the truth of a culture that’s the living product of generations stretching way back before recording was invented.


King writes without pretension, he describes himself and what happens to him with an observer’s eye – and ear – for detail. It’s a romantic quest, yet told in direct, earthy language – neither academic nor populist. His is a very singular and severe view of music: “In my view classical music is cerebral and aspires to a lofty yet groundless culture that few can enter. Contemporary popular music … is over-researched, mass-marketed, vacu- ous tripe – a dulling, inescapable, even sinis- ter noise. …In modern music, I hear self-cen- teredness, a constant referencing of individu- al artistic expression. It is all about the ‘me’. But in the old music that I love, I hear selfless- ness, continuity, and communal expression. It was all about the ‘we’.”


I don't agree but I know what he means, and, more to the point, his obsessiveness leads him on a journey from Virginia to the mountains of north-west Greece, and on the way he drinks a lot in the interests of convivi- ality, has many a traveller’s adventure, meets fellow-obsessives and music-playing, dancing, drinking villagers, and shares with the reader his passion for music that connects with something he considers has all but disap- peared as a consequence of cultural globali- sation and the arrival of the music industry.


His passions are ancient recordings of acoustic blues and, latterly, both ancient recordings of the rural greats of Epirus and the still-living tradition which seems to be just about hanging on in the much more ancient traditions of the region. As a collector and musicologist, he has put together various collections of pre-war music, and as well heading to Epirus (which sounds a daunting place for a teetotaller). I'll be buying all the Epirian records in his discography.


The book is a great read in itself, but for aficionados of hardcore folk music, it’s essen- tial, grappling as it does with what might lie (perhaps deeply buried) in the heart of the music we love.


wwnorton.co.uk Nick Hobbs Adventures Of A Ballad


Hunter John A Lomax Souvenir Press (ISBN 9780285644137)


“My family belonged to the upper crust of the po’ white trash…’’ So begins this memoir, first published 70 years ago, by John Avery Lomax, born in Texas in 1867. At nine years of age Lomax befriended a former slave twice his age, hired as a farm worker by his father James Lomax (who also made shoes for the Confederate army during the Civil War). The author acknowledges this three-year friend- ship as the start of his lifelong fascination with African-American culture, especially folk songs. His first book, Cowboy Songs And Other Frontier Ballads (published in 1910), intro- duced the likes of Home On The Range to a


Photo: Brian Shuel


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