Shirley Elizabeth Collins MBE (born 5 July 1935) is an English folk singer who was a significant contributor to the English Folk Revival of the 1960s and 1970s. She often performed and recorded with her sister Dolly, whose accompaniment on piano and portative organ created unique settings for her sister's plain, austere singing style.
Shirley Collins and her older sister, Dolly, grew up in the Hastings area of East Sussex in a family which kept alive a great love of traditional song. Songs learnt from their grandfather and from their mother's sister, Grace Winborn, were to be important in the sisters' repertoire throughout their career.:33–37
On leaving school, at the age of 17, Collins enrolled at a teachers' training college in Tooting, south London.:175 In London she also involved herself in the early folk revival, making her first appearance on vinyl on the 1955 compilation Folk Song Today.
In 1954, at a party hosted by Ewan MacColl, she met Alan Lomax, the American folk collector, who had moved to Britain to avoid the McCarthy witch-hunt, which was then raging in America.:19 Lomax and Collins lived together in London, with Collins assisting Lomax on various European projects and singing backing vocals on a version of MacColl's "Dirty Old Town" by Alan Lomax and the Ramblers, in 1956. “I was madly in love with him,” Collins says of Lomax.
In 1958 Collins recorded her first two albums, Sweet England and False True Lovers. The albums featured sparse arrangements with Collins accompanying herself on the banjo. Sweet England was released in 1959 and False True Lovers in 1960. Collins also recorded a series of EPs in 1958 and 1959 with The Foggy Dew and English Songs being released in 1959.
From July to November 1959, Collins and Lomax made a folk song collecting trip in the Southern U.S. states. It resulted in many hours of recordings, featuring performers such as Almeda Riddle, Hobart Smith, and Bessie Jones, and is noted for the discovery of Mississippi Fred McDowell. Recordings from this trip were issued by Atlantic Records under the title "Sounds of the South", and some were re-enacted in the Coen brothers’ film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. The experience of her life with Lomax, and the making of the recordings in religious communities, social gatherings, prisons and chain gangs was described in Collins' book America Over the Water (published 2005).
Back in Britain, Collins met Austin John Marshall, whom she later married. She also proceeded with her singing career, appearing releasing on three compilations albums (A Jug of Punch, A Pinch of Salt and Rocket Along) in 1960 and an EP, Heroes in Love, in 1963 (now included with False True Lovers on the CD release). It was after that, in a series of influential albums, that she helped to introduce many innovations into the English folk revival. In 1964, she recorded the landmark jazz-folk fusion of Folk Roots, New Routes, with guitarist Davy Graham.:184