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Desert Island Discs: Shirley Collins mesmerises


There can be few examples of the rottenness of Britain's honours system more glaring than prime ministers, departing in disgrace or otherwise, sending posh kiddies to the House of Lords for having sucked up to them, whereas someone as thoroughly deserving as Shirley Collins has to settle for the MBE. I am sure a Communist's daughter doesn't mind a bit so I'll just mind on behalf of this inspirational shining star of English folk music.

Not for the first time, Salut! Live is indebted to another inspirational shining star (of folk rock), Linda Thompson, for making it aware of the appearance of Dame Shirley - I've decided on my own honours list - on that essential fixture of BBC radio, Desert Island Discs.

A friend and fellow Sunderland supporter, John McCormick, also wrote to let me know about it and the two of them, John and Linda, made me head for the BBC Sounds replay link before this afternoon's first match of the season (there is an update, too sad to specify).. It was presented, of course, by another Sunderland fan, the quite excellent Lauren Laverne, and lived up effortlessly to Linda's verdict: "mesmerising".


If you have access to Sounds, go to and listen to this uplifting 42 minutes of conversation and music for yourselves. And if you want to be surprised by what you hear, stop reading now as I offer snippets - and the tracklist - for those unable to do so.


Back from France for just a weekend, I would normally have missed this or any radio programme and am still smiling having heard Lauren and Shirley's engrossing exchanges.

Shirley is now 88. She has led an eventful life. Folk music gripped her from childhood in Sussex, home of the seminal Collins family, and she has played an important part in its survival and occasional limited success. Solo, in duo with her late elder sister Dolly, in bands, she has contributed enormously to this often overlooked source of national pride. Her singing style was always unadorned though Wikipedia's description - "plain, austere" - feels a little harsh.

She lived and worked with the distinguished American folk music collector Alan Lomax, making valuable discoveries among US blues singers and others, married the British folk-rock guru Ashley Hutchings and overcame decades of voice-robbing dysphonia to record again at 82.

Her chat with Lauren was pretty much as Linda Thompson said.

We heard sad but matter-of-fact reflections on a childhood marred by the uncaring distance of a father who did not even honour his obligation to send small, regular pocket money after leaving her mother for another woman.

The death of Dolly at just 62 and the break-up with Hutchings were excruciatingly painful. After Hutchings told her he was "consumed with love" for an actress and would be packed and gone next morning, she cried all night.

The listener hears Shirley becoming emotional when describing such distressing events in her life. But there were also wickedly funny anecdotes. When waiting for an early-hours train after a gig in Leeds, travelling bag and banjo case at her side, she was c0nfronted  by "two heavy cops who almost accused me of being a prostitute - I mean, how many banjo-playing prostitutes are there?".

Shirley's allowable luxuries on the desert island would be the absence of jars and packets she's always struggled to open and the provision of large fridge stocked with her favourite Italian ice cream.

I loved her choices of music. Of the tracks she chose, she would want if limited to one Dolly's enchanting piano solo, Poor Sally Sits a-weeping.

Ian Anderson, who ran the much-missed  fRoots magazine, thought it was a wonderful programme - "still dabbing my eyes" - and so did I. Your damehood is fully merited, Shirley, and Lauren, a mere scrap at 45, can have an MBE to be going on with.

Shirley Collins Desert Island Discs tracklist

1: Chiling O Guiry by Concerto Caledonia

2: The Birds in the Spring by The Copper Family

3: Who Would True Valour See by Maddy Prior and The Carnival Band

4: Dear Father, Pray Build Me a Boat by Sheila Smith

5: 61 Highway Blues by Mississippi Fred McDowell

6: Poor Sally Sits a-weeping by Dolly Collins
7: A Heart Needs A Home by Richard and Linda Thompson
8: Going Home. by Mark Knopfler


Tom Dooley

Via Facebook
I will definitely give this a listen, Shirley, apart from being a great singer, is great to listen to, she pulls no punches.
And (Sunderland born) Lauren Laverne has developed into an excellent presenter of Desert Island Discs.

Colin Randall

Tom Dooley she was superb with Shirley. It was sheer delight to listen to the two of them. Lauren, you and me deserved a better result !

Colin Randall

When I made Lauren Laverne aware of this article, she generously acknowledged it on Twitter and also commended another Sunderland-related instalment of Desert Island Discs - once again a delightful interview, the guest being the acclaimed former England footballer Jill Scott. Suinderland-born like Lauren. I didn't warm to Jill's musical choices but the conversation is top class ...

Sarah Taylor

Thank you very much Colin for your lovely write up of Shirley's Desert Island Discs. It was such a pleasure for me to visit her at her Lewes home for the research chat and then to greet her and record her programme at Broadcasting House.

There has been such a lot of love for Shirley's programme and it was a total honour to have produced her programme. Lauren and I had a great morning in studio with her. And credit too to Gillian at Domino records for all the logistics on her side. It's a tremendous listen and another treasure to put in our Desert Island Disc audio archive.

Sarah Taylor (Producer, Desert Island Discs)

Pierre Tran

Apols, a bit late on this one - but it was indeed a memorable Desert Island programme, with the sad and quirky personal anecdotes. And the choice of the last Disc, the theme tune from Local Hero, was simply wonderful.

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