‘When I Sing, I Feel Past Generations Standing Behind Me’

Shirley CollinsIn a recent article in the Guardian, English folk icon Shirley Collins (who turns 80 this year) was quoted as saying, “When I sing, I feel past generations standing behind me – and I hope I’m a conduit for them – those farm labourers and their wives who kept the songs going for us. The songs are social history and their beauty and power undeniable.”

That is exactly how I feel. I certainly enjoy singing one of my own songs, and I’m gratified when people seem to enjoy them. But when I sing a traditional folk song, a song that’s been passed down through the generations, perhaps over several hundred years, I feel as if I’ve been given the controls to a time machine and I’m inviting my audience to step into a piece of living history. It’s not just about visiting the past; it’s about continuity between past, present, and future. And at that moment in time, the song I’m singing is the link. That is an awesome feeling.

Another folk icon, Martin Carthy, puts it like this: “Good folk music is like me holding my grandchildren and wanting to know more about my great, great, great uncle – I’ve got a picture of him – Tom Carthy from Ballybunion, County Kerry. I see his fingers on the uilleann pipes, and I see my father’s hands and my grandfather’s hands. The continuity of folk music is similar, because it is also our continuity” (link here).

For me as a traditional folk musician it is a thrilling thing to step into that line of continuity. And when I’ve passed the songs on – when I see younger people performing traditional songs I’ve introduced them to – that’s the best feeling of all, because I know that the line will continue and those grand old songs will not die, but will continue to inspire future generations the way they inspire me.

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