Although I watched far too much telly in April, I still managed to read eight books rather than my usual ten-twelve. I’m getting behind in my reviewing though, so some brief thoughts on two non-fiction volumes today.
America Over the Water by Shirley Collins
Shirley Collins is one of the most influential folk singers of our times. In 2004, she published a book of memoir recounting her 1959 trip to America with Alan Lomax, the musical historian and folk song recordist, alternating with stories from her childhood in Hastings where she was born in 1935. Earlier this year, White Rabbit (Orion’s relatively new imprint which is publishing mainly books about music) reprinted the book with a new introduction, and preface from Collins.
She begins with explaining how ‘a girl from Sussex fetch[ed] up in America with America’s leading folklorist’. She was already a singer when she moved to London in 1953. She worked in a bookshop, and spent all of her spare time at Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, when she wasn’t frequenting The Troubador coffee bar and folk club in Earls Court, where she saw British greats on their way up, but also Bob Dylan (‘I didn’t reckon much of him, and didn’t think much of his chances as a singer.’). She fell in with Ewan McColl, going on tour with him to perform at the Kremlin of all places! And it was McColl who introduced her to Lomax at a party. She already revered him from his television work with David Attenborough, but now she fell in love with him, and moved in with him in Highgate. When Alan’s work in London ended, he decided to move back to the USA, and they kept in touch and when he wrote to invite her to join him on a collecting trip in the South as his assistant – she jumped at the chance and boarded a ship to New York in April 1959.
After this Collins takes us back to her childhood, and from this point, chapters alternate between that and the trip with Lomax – the latter sometimes being in the form of letters home, which her mother kept to inspire the book decades later.
During the war, she and her sister Dolly were evacuated to Wales, but homesick and not speaking Welsh, returned to Hastings – where she recalls being strafed by a German plane while out with their baby cousin in her pram! And her 8th birthday celebrations were cut short when the air raid siren went off just as they were about to cut her cake. Although coloured by the war, her scenes of family life reveal a close-knit and happy family, who all loved singing. By the time she was fifteen, she knew she wanted to be a folk singer. When she left school at seventeen, she went to teacher training college in London but it wasn’t for her, so she went home and worked as a bus conductress, while she and Dolly, who wanted to become a composer, could get that lucky break in London.
Her trip with Lomax to the American South couldn’t contrast more.
It was a journey that started in Virginia, and took us into Parchman Farm, the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary, up Kentucky mountainsides to record Primitive Baptist open-air prayer meetings, to the heart of Alabama for a Sacred Harp Convention, into tiny hamlets in the tornado belt of rural Arkansas where the pioneering spirit still existed, and into isolated black communities in Northern Mississippi where we discovered one of the finest hitherto unknown bluesmen, ending our journey on one of the Georgia Sea Islands that had been settled by escaped slaves.
The chapter set while they tried to record the singing at open-air Baptist meeting in Kentucky was, she recalls, where she got scared for the first time on the trip, when the preacher’s fire and brimstone messages and the long list of additional ‘thou shalt not … commandments folk were forced to live already hard lives by seemed directed towards them. Danger of a different kind would be evident at Parchman, where she had to be extremely careful about what she said to redneck prison guards while Alan was recording the ‘majestic worksongs, blues and field hollers of the black convicts.’ She wasn’t allowed out in the field with him. Shirley was always interested in the personal stories of those they recorded, and grateful for the hospitality shown to her and Alan and their bulky recording equipment.
A final chapter summarises what Shirley did next in the decades up to publication of her book – teaming up with some of the biggest names in British folk and forging her own career and family. Her relationship with Lomax (twenty years older), had petered out, but they remained friends until his death in 2002. She was particularly delighted when some of the songs they collected on this trip would feature in the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The snatches of song lyrics liberally scattered throughout the book illustrate the power and simplicity of folk songs, and amplify her writing about the music and musicians.
I never lost my affection or regard for Alan, and I will always be grateful to him for choosing me as his companion on that unique Southern Journey of 1959.
A book to savour for folk and blues fans. Collins is a delightful companion and I can throughly recommend it.
Source: Own copy. White Rabbit paperback, 192 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore – Apr into May’s Book Group pick
This was our book group’s choice for ‘Y’ is for – our penultimate alphabet pick. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to finish the book before the meeting – in the hardback it’s 322 pages of small type (plus another 75 of notes and index!). But just skimming the first hundred pages and the epilogue gave a real feel of this awful man. I hadn’t realised that Stalin came from Georgia, and that in the early years of the 20th century it was like the wild west riddled with gangsters – and of course the young Stalin ruthlessly ruled a successful gang who raised money for Lenin and co by robbing banks. The book starts with such an epic 1907 raid, which required an inside man…
This key ‘inside man’ afterwards revealed that he had helped set up this colossal heist only because he was such an admirer of Stalin’s romantic poetry. Only in Georgia could Stalin the poet enable Stalin the gangster.
The author of this 2007 biography, SSM, had gained unprecedented access to papers detailing young Stalin’s life, not previously accessible – doubtless locked away again now. We were surprised by many things: his alcoholic father, his mentally unstable mother, his school years at the seminary – where he was the one that got in trouble the whole time but didn’t care. And Stalin’s poetry – several translations preceding the various sections of the book, which do show that romantic streak, otherwise not evident underneath his magnetic psycho exterior. He was a teenager when these poems were first published under the penname ‘Soselo’ (one of Stalin’s many aliases, which run to a full page appendix!).
In 1901, he was in Batumi, and commanded a colleague to select some men to work with them – but that he should watch them through the window first – he rejects one.
‘That guy’s a spook,’ said Stalin. Shortly afterwards, continues Vadachkoriaa, ‘when Cossacks broke up a meeting, we saw that man in a policeman’s uniform. It was decided to wipe him out. He was killed.’ Here is the first instance when Stalin sniffs out a traitor and has him killed, probably his first murder. In any case, henceforth, he played rough in ‘the serious fame of conspiracy.’ There would be other Karzkhiyas. But even then he left what he called the ‘black work’ – the killing – to his henchmen.
SSM’s biography takes us up to 1917 in this volume. A previous book, In the Court of the Red Tsar chronicles the rest of Stalin’s life. As a group, we found this book very readable, if necessarily complicated. SSM’s depth of scholarship is to be admired and we felt he gave a fair account of the man, who in 1917 adopted a quadri-national persona:
Georgian by nationality; Russian by loyalty; internationalist by ideology; Soviet by citizenship.
Although I enjoyed the portion I read, I’m not sure whether I will finish this book – my review pile is teetering at the moment. For more complete reviews from a fan of these books by SSM, do read Basil’s ones for Shiny of the two volumes here and here.