This year marked the 15th anniversary of Green Man Festival and, accordingly, there was an extra buzz about the site: the genre-busting headliners; the live broadcasts on BBC 6 Music; even the green man itself was bigger, more impressive in its definition.
But for a segment of the punters – a larger, noisier, younger segment than anticipated, it has to be said – this Green Man Festival was a celebration of the triumphant resurgence and appreciation of one person: Shirley Collins.
It began with journalist Laura Barton’s double-page spread in the festival programme, charting Collins’ curious career to date and how, in many ways, she has become as renowned for not singing, as she has for singing. The feature made a bold claim: that Collins is ‘the UK’s greatest folk singer’, but the packed Babbling Tongues tent that roared appreciatively at Pete Paphides’ introduction of ‘Dame Shirley’ seemed to agree, as the singer took to the stage for a 45-minute deliberation over life, love and lore with another journalist, Jude Rogers, on the Saturday afternoon.
Rogers was a wise choice for interviewer. Her evident understanding of British traditional music, the mid 20th-century folk revival, and subsequent performers’ approaches to it, not to mention her apparent and genuine friendship with Collins, meant that this knowledgeable audience were not invited to go back over old ground, well ploughed, furrowed, and harvested.
Instead, we were dropped off outside Collins’ Sussex cottage in the present day: how poet and artists David Tibet coaxed her to sing again, how she put her band together, how her latest album, Lodestar, came to be conceived, and how she felt about being the subject of a forthcoming biopic, The Ballad Of Shirley Collins. Oh, and how, most importantly, her love of singing had returned.
“I’ve just loved whizzing about all over the country, singing these songs again. And the band, they like the music and I just love them,” she said, laughs closing each sentence as though she couldn’t quite believe her luck. “I had thought that part of my life was over.”
Shirley talked comfortably, as she always has done, about her approach to singing and song – that the song is first and foremost; the singer merely the vehicle to its conveyance – and her intense dislike of stylised, over-dramatised performance. Her fondness for contemporary singers Alasdair Roberts (also performing at the festival), Lisa Knapp and Emily Portman provoked a palpable sigh of relief from the audience – all is not lost! the tradition’s in good hands! – while her admission to liking REM, Go West and – get this – James Blunt, sent eyebrows soaring.
And when Rogers probed for future plans, the audience reacted louder still. “Yes, I’m already thinking about the next album,” she replied modestly, her laughs coasting over the cheers.
So when it was time for Shirley Collins and her band to appear on the main Mountain Stage later that day, that same audience gathered close by, excited to know that this might not prove to be the once-in-a-lifetime performance they had presumed it to be. The band took their seats in a semi-circle, with introductions to each song – its age and origin, the singers it had been collected from – made from the lectern. It felt perhaps more like a recital this way, especially as listeners really did have to listen, away from the hubbub of the surrounding chai halls and paella stalls and the squeaks and creaks of feedback that momentarily blighted the performance.
Contributions felt individual rather than collective: deft fiddle from Pete Cooper picking its way over the assembled heads, a solo morris man providing wonderful visual and percussive appeal, and Collins’ vocals more measured than recent radio performances.
But the response of the audience was most definitely collective: unanimous and audible. Shirley Collins was well received, and admired. Of course, whether that’s what she would want, given her ‘song-first’ stance, is tricky to predict, but her well-documented, intriguing musical career has certainly added to her allure. As she had earlier in the day, she thanked the audience profusely for their attendance, and laughed gently.
(Main pic: Eva Vermandel)