America Over the Water by Shirley Collins review – a vivid tale of ballads, gunfire and rattlesnakes

In this welcome reissue of her 2004 memoir, the celebrated folk singer recounts her song-hunting 1959 journey through the American south with the folklorist Alan Lomax

In 1959, transatlantic travel was still a niche privilege, not least for a young, single, working-class woman. Shirley Collins owed her ticket to New York on the SS United States to her romance with the American folklorist Alan Lomax, whom she had met in London a couple of years previously. She was an ambitious 21-year-old folk singer from Sussex, he a celebrated song collector and musician 20 years her senior. Lomax had been in Europe for several years, effectively in exile from the anti-communist witch-hunt that had blacklisted musicians such as Pete Seeger, alongside Hollywood stars including Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin. Even when collecting Spanish folk songs, Lomax had found himself shadowed by “the black crows” of Franco’s guardia.

After returning to the US, Lomax invited Collins to join him on a song-hunting trip through the deep south, a journey memorably recounted in this memoir – reissued after 15 years out of print, albeit without the atmospheric photographs of the first edition. It offers a vivid and sometimes shocking portrait of a country yet to confront the civil rights era. The couple’s encounters ranged from pentecostal choirs (both black and white) and hellfire preachers to blind fiddlers and mountain ballad singers, some of them familiar to Lomax from a previous trip with his father. For Collins, this was a new world of epic landscapes, rattlesnakes, racism and nocturnal gunfire. St Leonards-on-Sea it wasn’t.

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