Our goal is to make a feature documentary called The Ballad of Shirley Collins. The film will be a lyrical response to the life and work of this musical pioneer and folk legend.
"Shirley is beyond folk, it’s more than that. Put a pair of lips on a heart and that’s what Shirley sounds like." - David Tibet
Partly inspired by her beguiling autobiography America Over the Water, the film will retell the tale of the famous song-collecting trip she took around the Deep South of America with legendary field-recordist Alan Lomax - a trip on which they uncovered and documented the music that would later inspire the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou.
But the real story is more fascinating than the myth. We will blend the story of the trip with a celebration of her role in the folk revival of the 50s, 60s and 70s, when - amongst many other achievements - she and her sister Dolly produced the era’s most defining monuments in their seminal albums Anthems in Eden and Love, Death and the Lady. Largely forgotten outside hardcore folk circles due to her enforced absence from the world stage, the film will also reclaim Shirley and her sister's contribution to music for posterity.
We have put together some very special rewards for backers, including exclusive musical treats and one-off experiences. As part of the range of rewards, we’re incredibly excited to offer a special edition of a new book Shirley is currently writing. Part songbook, part travelogue, part psychogeography, By the Mark On His Hand will explore her relationship with the English countryside she so dearly loves.
Shirley’s work has been an inspiration to so many people. Performers through the decades have cited her as a huge influence, and some of them have worked with us to put together an album of songs inspired by and dedicated to her - read on for more about this and how you can hear it via backing this project.
We’re so grateful that you've taken an interest in helping us make this film, and we’re excited to introduce those of you who didn't previously know of Shirley to what an influence she has been to folk music and culture in general. People like Shirley Collins don’t come along very often, and we are determined to tell her story to the world in a way that does her justice.
Tell me more about the film
In 1959, a young English folk singer signed on to accompany the esteemed songhunter Alan Lomax on arguably his most important song collecting trip across America’s Deep South. This singer was Shirley Collins, and she was actually deep into an affair with Lomax – a man twice her age. As they crossed the country, from Virginia all the way to the Mississippi Delta and back – they met a series of homespun musicians who mined a tradition of folk music which was centuries old. They had with them a trusty black-and-white stills camera and – crucially – a prototype stereo reel-to-reel audio recorder. It was the first trip on which Lomax recorded folk singers using stereo equipment, and the definitive audio archive that they created – several hundred hours of recordings – will form the basis of our film.
Alongside this, we will explore the life of Shirley herself, beginning with her childhood in the seaside town of Hastings during WWII - where her grandparents sang her folk tunes as they sheltered from German bombs beneath the kitchen table. We will explore her relationships with men, tracing the connections from her first great heartbreak, when her father was pushed out of the family after the war, through her controversial affair with Lomax, to her two - ultimately doomed - marriages.
In much the manner that Shirley and Alan Lomax visited the houses of the finest folk singers of the time, we will also invite a series of iconic and carefully selected musicians of the modern age to visit with and perform with Shirley in her Sussex home. Their conversations will help provide inroads into the film’s backstory, with Shirley’s vivid recollections transporting us over 50 years in time to rural Appalachia and Red State America - and back again, to intermingle and joust with the rich traditions of the Sussex Weald which have helped shape her as a person.
This is a film about stories and storytelling – the story of Shirley’s life, the story of the legendary trip she took and the experiences she had, the fantastical stories she was told along the way, and the stories which lay buried within the songs she heard and has spent her life singing.
In keeping with our previous work, the film will be a unique cinematic blend of reconstruction, audio archive and field-recorded performance - with very little of the conventional biopic apparent.
Shirley Collins is arguably the most important British folk singer of the 20th century; her albums ‘Anthems in Eden’ and ‘Love, Death and the Lady’ in particular being defining monuments of the much-heralded 1960s folk revival. Shirley’s tale appeared to end in the late 70s, when she developed dysphonia - a condition which prevented her from singing live for over thirty years. This painful episode lends her story an added element of pathos, reflecting as it does the fragility of the human condition. Happily, however, Shirley is being coaxed slowly out of retirement, and the film will also serve as a celebration of her return to the world stage.
Tell me more about the book
In an interview in 2012, Shirley said “I would love to write some more...Perhaps I do have another book in me, but I don’t know what it is yet. It will just come to me one day.”
Now, the moment has come. Shirley is working hard on a book, By The Mark On His Hand, a psychogeographic exploration of her Sussex home, bringing to bear all her love and knowledge of the history and traditions of this ancient landscape. Strange Attractor Press will be publishing it (currently scheduled for summer 2015), and Kickstarter pledgers will be the first to get their hands on a special-edition limited-run copy that will not be available anywhere else.
You can get a copy of just the book in the £30 reward, or alternatively as part of the £200 reward you'll also receive a copy of the book that's been personally signed and dedicated.
Tell me more about the Shirley Collins Inspired... album
We've invited artists inspired by Shirley to donate a track dedicated to her. We thought we’d end up with a handful of great songs, but have been absolutely blown away by the number of people who wanted to be involved. This will be available as a digital download as per the rewards list (see right) - we’ll post more information about who’s included in our project updates, but for now we can tell you that artists include Graham Coxon, Sam Lee, Ned Oldham (Palace Music), Sam Amidon and many more!
Who's behind the project?
The team behind folk hit Way of the Morris - see the full bio (right) for our biographies.
What will I help fund?
Your money will go entirely towards making the film. Any possible profits we eventually make from the film, and the publicity around it, will be put to use in further work with Shirley. There are some truly wonderful projects we could do if funds were available.
We are ambitious and we want to make the best film possible to truly honour Shirley’s life and work!
If we raise £150,000…
We’ll be able to make the full film we want to make, with abundant archive footage courtesy of the Alan Lomax Archives, a trip taking Shirley back to America to revisit the places she saw in 1959, conversations and performances with other artists and musicians, and some very special top-secret features, plus all the post-production work required. Major costs here include the cost of a full-scale filming trip to the US, clearance of archive footage, work with other artists and musicians, post-production work, and the costs of producing those top-secret features…
If we raise £110,000…
We’ll be able to make the film with a little less archive footage, a little less post-production, and no top-secret extra features - but including taking Shirley back to revisit the places she and Alan Lomax saw, conversations and performances with other artists, and telling the fascinating story of her life.
If we raise £80,000…
We’ll be able to make the film using limited archive footage, and use interviews with Shirley herself and other artists to tell the story of her life and her contributions. We can work with our contacts in the US to put together footage on our behalf of the places Shirley visited as they are now, rather than travelling with Shirley to revisit those locations.
If we raise £25,000 - 50,000…
We’ll be able to make a basic film about Shirley’s life, with limited archive footage, interviews with Shirley and other artists, and the beautiful landscapes of Sussex. It would be a more abstract and poetic film, rather than tracing the story of Shirley’s life, and with minimal post-production work. This figure also includes all the associated basic costs of putting this together.
If you're kind enough to back this project, we'll get all your physical rewards to you as soon as possible, and this may mean you won't get everything all at once - we don't yet have a final date for finishing the film, so any film-related rewards will come later. Shirley's new book is scheduled for publication in summer 2015.
Risks and challenges
When it comes to our remaining challenges, we are confident that this movie will be completed but there are a number of things that all filmmakers face when finishing a project. The most common challenge we might encounter is that additional funding is needed to complete the film we embark on making. This can happen for a number of reasons, such as unforeseen events requiring additional filming, discovering new archival material that needs to be restored, or editing taking longer than anticipated. There is a lot of filming to be done. It's possible that it could take longer than we expect, delaying the completion of the film.
However, there is an award-winning team behind this film with a track record of delivering award-winning feature documentaries for international cinema and television and we won’t rest until it’s done ... and it wins lots of awards! It’s going to be a truly affecting film and we can't wait for you to see it.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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