The Ballad of Shirley Collins

Shirley Collins

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A lyrical response to the life-and-times of a folk legend

The Ballad of Shirley Collins is a meditative slice of documentary portraiture, chronicling one woman’s attempts to sing again after a 37-year battle with a debilitating voice disorder. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with directors Rob Curry and Tim Plester.  

Widely regarded as the 20th century's most important singer of English traditional song, Shirley Collins stood at the epicentre of the folk music scene during the 1960s and 70s. However, in 1980 she lost her voice in mysterious circumstances and was forced to retire from musical life.  

The documentary sets out to explore the story behind the icon and chronicles Shirley's battle, at the grand old age of 80, to rediscover that voice she lost so many years previously. The film offsets this contemporary journey with a more literal one taken from the other end of her life and makes fertile use of authentic 1959 audio-archive to recount the tale of Shirley’s seminal road-trip around America's Deep South alongside her then-lover (and pre eminent ethnomusicologist) Alan Lomax.  

Featuring among others the comedian Stewart Lee, the film nonetheless eschews a straightforward biopic approach and mindfully sidesteps any rockumentary talking-heads; the filmmakers instead offering up a meditative and richly textured piece of portraiture. One which uses Shirley’s story as a prism through which to explore and reflect upon themes of heritage, posterity and the true ancestral melodies of the people. Here then is a film about loss and redemption. A film about sacrifice, healing and rebirth. A film which suggests that, during these turbulent and increasingly untethered times, we might just need Shirley Collins and all she stands for more than ever.

UK 2017, 94 mins / Colour + B/W / Certificate 12A

The screening is followed by an evening with Shirley and her band. Click here to find out more and book

Part of a Season of Sound, celebrating the Library’s sound archive. Audio installation supplied by Bowers & Wilkins.


Name: The Ballad of Shirley Collins
Where: Knowledge Centre
The British Library
96 Euston Road
Show Map      How to get to the Library
When: -
Price: Full Price: £5.00
Member: £5.00
Enquiries: +44 (0)1937 546546