Justin Hopper  

The Corner of a Field: Shirley Collins, Folksong and the ‘Pastoral Noir’

“…I catched fast hold of her curly, curly locks / And I dragged her through the fields, Until we came to a deep riverside / Where I gently flung her in…”
- “The Oxford Girl”, trad.

“Walking through the Etchingham fields … it was as though I understood the murder [in The Oxford Girl]. I began to see the corners of fields as seductive, beautiful but dangerous places; places where anything could happen. It was as if I had become the woman in the song – such dark thoughts to have had…”
- Shirley Collins

From the late-1960s through the end of the 1970s, the Sussex singer Shirley Collins made a series of albums that today provide a touchstone for musicians, artists and writers interested in concepts of dark ecology, weird-folk tradition and the pastoral noir. Rooted in the landscape and traditions of their native rural Sussex, yet bravely musically experimental, Shirley (b. 1935) and her sister Dolly Collins (b. 1933, d. 1995) recorded traditional English folksong that used pagan themes, early music arrangements and a dash of psychedelia to imply pre-modern authenticity: a reliance on cyclical time, oral tradition and a breakdown in the dichotomy between the ‘natural’ and the ‘manmade’.

In a series of interviews with Shirley Collins conducted over the past two years I’ve discussed her way of living – one that sees no separation between landscape, song and self. In this presentation I will draw upon these interviews and with reference to Collins’ peers and admirers (Alan Lomax, The Copper Family, Rob Young, Current 93) and writers and thinkers interested in the rural landscape and the nature/manmade dichotomy (Longbarrow Press, Timothy Morton, Bruno Latour). The Corner of a Field will thus examine Shirley Collins as a critical figure in the folk revival’s new interest in experimental landscape music, ambient sound, field recordings and concepts of dark ecology.

Justin Hopper is an American writer and curator living and working in rural Essex. His site-specific writing projects have been commissioned by organisations in the US, UK and France, and he has curated events and exhibitions related to sound art and psychogeography in the US and UK. He is currently working with Shirley Collins on her memoir By the Mark on Her Hand, forthcoming from Strange Attractor Press, July, 2015.