Socialist Worker

Shirley Collins: documenting the music of the US South

English folk singer Shirley Collins spoke to Weyman Bennett about her experiences in the US South in 1959, as described in her new book, America Across the Water

Issue No. 1971

Shirley Collins in the late 1950s

Shirley Collins in the late 1950s

Different influences had merged together to form one kind of music. The influences went back and forth between the black and the white musicians.

Because people moved about and because radio came into the Southern mountains in the early 1920s people had a chance to listen to different kinds of music.

They just picked it up. One of the singers musicologist Alan Lomax and I recorded in Virginia, in the South, was a man called Hobart Smith. He was a white mountain musician and mostly played songs which British settlers had taken over with them.

Black itinerant railroad workers had come into the Virginian mountains and he heard blues from them. He’d learned a couple of songs and sang them in an almost identical way to the way a black musician would have sung it in the 1920s.

It’s an interchange of music. People love other people’s music. It just happened gradually. Nowadays any integration of music happens much faster. All the influences are there on television, radio, recordings.

The US South was still segregated when I was there. I was in the US on the cusp of the civil rights movement.

In some of the towns in Georgia there were signs up that said “KKK” and you knew you were entering a Ku Klux Klan town. In these places it was legitimate to be a member of the Klan.

Both Alan and I were totally sympathetic and in support of the civil rights movement, but we weren’t there to assist in that as campaigners.

Wonderful black music

The role that we played was to bring this wonderful black music of the South back. When you give other people the chance to hear such music they’ve got to change their mind about how they feel about black people.

The music they’re producing is so wonderful and their stories are so extraordinary. It gives people a chance to understand better what life was like for black people and what a huge contribution they’ve made to the arts and the music of the US.

One of the people we recorded was Fred McDowall. His music was Mississippi country blues. He was a wonderful blues player and one of the most fantastic discoveries Alan made.

Alan also discovered people like Muddy Waters and Leadbelly.

Fred was much appreciated by people like the Rolling Stones who took him up. They loved his music and bought him a silver suit as a token of their affection. He was buried in it.

Fred was a cotton farmer. He was picking cotton the day we met him.

All of this music infiltrates. People hear it and they love it. They realise there’s more to music than what they’re presented with by the big record companies. There’s this undercurrent of the most fantastic music coming up from ordinary working people.

The people who experienced the life like Fred McDowall or the white mountain people were up against it.

There was poverty in the South. You only have to look at the pictures of New Orleans recently to see there is still poverty there. There is an underclass which is mostly black.


In the white mountain regions of the South there was a hell of a lot of poverty. They were struggling against the coal mine owners in Kentucky.

When the people living that life express what they are going through in song it is infinitely better than from somebody else who is imagining what it is like and writing protest songs for other people. You are getting it direct from them.

I’m never quite comfortable with protest songs because they’re generally sung by quite well off middle class Americans. Many of these people haven’t experienced the same things.

The folk singer Woody Guthrie and others obviously experienced it. I’d rather hear a song that originates from the area of where the problem is, sung by those people. It has more resonance and truth about it.

Protest songs always sound a bit too easy for me.

I was brought up in a working class family in Hastings and we sang a lot at home. I grew up with a background of traditional song in a family that was socialist. My uncle Fred wrote the biography of Robert Tressell, the man who wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, which was set in Hastings.

I understood what it was like to be hard up. I was fortunate I grew up the right class — working class. If you’re not working class I don’t honestly see how you can appreciate folk music, which comes from the labouring classes.

It has been passed through the working class for centuries.

I had this understanding of the music and an instinct for it from an early age. Everything fell into place.

I met Alan Lomax in London. We fell in love, lived together and I worked for him. I learned a lot as I was listening to field recordings of folk music from across the British Isles and the US.

It all soaked in. Because I was intelligent as well, I was the right sort of person for Alan to take on that trip. Because I was a young woman from another country, people were interested in me and were nice to me.

People were intrigued because I knew a lot of the songs that they were singing as they were songs from England.

I had a passion for the music and a great love for the people I met. I think that showed and the people reciprocated.

Shirley Collins' website is at

America Over the Water by Shirley Collins is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £20. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

Shirley Collins today

Shirley Collins today

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Sat 8 Oct 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1971
Share this article

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.