Colin Wilkie & Shirley Hart

Colin Wilkie & Shirley Hart


Two singers who went into Europe

There was, I know, a time when I didn't actually know Shirley Hart and Colin Wilkie, but, when I pause to think about it, I can't really imagine it. During the chequered course of twenty years on the folk scene, I have made thousands of acquaintances, hundreds of friends, scores of close friends, and a handful of very special friends. Colin and Shirley are in that Last category. So much so that I seem to have known them always.

Perhaps as a consequence of this, I can't remember in much detail just how I came to meet them. And, to be honest, Col and Shirl aren't much help, because they can't remember either. Having said that, you may perhaps begin to wonder if I'm completely out of my mind when you read the next few paragraphs: they are full of precise dates but those dates don't come out of my head. They are from the columns of Melody Maker, I96I-I962. At that time I was writing for MM a weekly column called Focus on Folk that chronicled the events of the then infant folk club scene. Some of the more enterprising clubs used to advertise in the classified columns under the heading Folk Forum, which exists to this day.

In the I5 April, I96I issue, there appeared an ad for a new club, to open on I9 April at the Star and Garter in Bromley, Kent. Resident singers: Colin Wilkie and Dick Larque. Opening guests: Alex Campbell and Dave Cousins. During the first few weeks of its existence, the Bromley folk club featured, among others, Winston and Mary Jane Young (a Canadian couple who enjoyed immense popularity during a two-year stay in Britain), Enoch Kent, Gerry Lockran (in those days he spelt it Loughran), Redd Sullivan, Long John Baldry.

Later in the same year (5 August), there's a reference in my column to the York and Albany, a pub, that is but a stone's throw from Cecil Sharp House. The folk club, previously known as the York and Albany club had, at my suggestion, changed its name to the Topical and Traditional, and the note names the residents as John Brune, John Cain, and Shirley Hart. I had previously met Shirley at Cecil Sharp House and had been completely knocked out by her singing - in those days, entirely unaccompanied traditional. The new club had a good, informal atmosphere, as near as you can get to a ceilidh round your own fireside, and when the hat was passed (there was no admission charge) the organisers suggested a single modest bob.

About this time, if I remember rightly, Shirley was working as a librarian, but she soon pulled up her stakes and made for Paris. Just a couple of weeks before she left, I arranged for Shirley to appear (on 30 September) at the Troubadour club in Earls Court. I had persuaded Jenny Barton, who was running the club at the time, to put on Stan Kelly, Henry Morris, myself - and, Shirley Hart.

We aren't absolutely sure, but Shirley and I think it was Shirley's first paid gig. I do know that we ran the evening very much in a singaround style, doing a couple of songs apiece, rather than singing in longish sets. I also know that Shirley was acuteIy nervous, and that the evening was a very successful one. lt was about this time that Shirley Hart and Colin Wilkie met. She was the booked guest at the Bromley Star and Garter on 25 October. Then, she made for Paris, where she met up with Alex Campbell, and sang at the Contrascarpe, in those days the mecca for all folk performers in the French capital.

Also about this time, we hit something of a crisis on the folk scene. Pete Seeger was scheduled to come to Britain for a November concert tour. You may find it hard to believe, but, although Seeger now fills any damn hall he pleases, any time he comes over, in those days almost nobody was interested in putting him on in a big concert. Provisional arrangements for a Royal Festival Hall concert fell through, and it seemed that Pete would not have a London venue of any real size. Bruce Dunnett, then organiser of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger's Singers' club, and I, representing Sing magazine, called together an informal committee to see what we could do about it.

'The committee included Bill Leader of Collet's record shop, Gerry Sharp of Topic Records, Jenny Barton, Anthea Joseph, organiser of Alex Campbell's club at Richmond - and Colin Wilkie of Bromley. Dunnett searched for days for a I000/2000 seat theatre or hall, didn't find one. took a deep breath, and booked the Albert Hall. Filling it seemed a preposterous idea, but we were willing to have a go. Nobody should ever minimise the amount of work Bruce put into filling the Albert (we did it!), but his right-hand man-of-all-work was Colin Wilkie.

lt took us all quite a while to recover from the Seeger tour, but, after Christmas, Anthea Joseph and I were offered Tuesday nights at the Troubadour for a folk club, and, with Colin, we launched the Comeallye club. lt opened on I6 January, I962, with Colin as resident and Louis Killen as our first guest. The declared policy of the club was to put on people who at that time were getting little or no exposure on the London scene, and besides Louis, our early guests included Johnny Silvo, the Hoddesdon Ceilidh Singers, Carolyn Hester and Dick Farina (who later married Joan Baez's sister Mimi, and was tragically killed in a road accident), Pete Stanley, and many others who have gone on to make a name.

Shirley came back from Paris and teamed up with Colin. Attitudes on the folk scene then were much more rigid than they are now, and the pairing of these two seemed very strange at that time. Shirley still sang a thoroughly traditional repertoire, mostly unaccompanied - one of the reasons, perhaps, why she had not done better in Paris, from which she wrote to me 'Here, the guitar is God.' Colin, on the other hand, was much more of a professional entertainer, with a marvellous line in side-splitting patter that he still retains - indeed, the duo was described as 'the ethnical Shirl and the entertainical Col.' However the mixture seemed to work. They appeared, on 3 April, at the Comeallye and did numerous bookings in London and the Home Counties.

But it wasn't long after that (nobody remembers the exact date) that Colin and Shirley took off for Paris, and from there started to work on the Continent generally. The work was a mixed bag of cafe dates, busking, concerts, a little radio work, and so on. They have been back to Britain many, many times since then, of course, but Colin and Shirley slowly began to build their reputation and their home in Europe, long before the term Common Market had been invented.

One of the last major gigs they played in England was the Horsham festival, on 26 May, I962. Compared to the big events we now see at Loughborough, Cambridge, etc, it was a very modest affair, organised by Tony Wales, now the press and publications officer of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Colin and Shirley went down extremely well, and were asked to lead the closing song of the festival 'Will ye go, lassie, go?' A small, now-defunct, label (Arco Records, later Fable Records) put out an album of selected items from the festival, and that album, Welcome to the folk festival, very much a collectors' item, has on it George Townsend, a fine octogenarian singer from Lewes in Sussex, now dead, George Belton, Bob Blake, and (believe it or not) me.

The only people to get two tracks on the album are Colin and Shirley, who sing Margret Barry's song 'The Blarney stone' and 'The sweet nightingale', known by almost everyone who has ever been in a folk club for that wonderful chorus line 'As she sings in the valley below.'

As a result of this album Colin and Shirley made an ep for the Fable label. It was called Colin Wilkie and Shirley Hart sing and the four tracks were "The Waggoner's lad", "Girls of Ontario", "The fickle young man" - a lovely French song in a singable Translation by Shirley and "Kelvin Grove" Colin played banjo and guitar very tastefully on this record, and his banjo-picking on "The Waggoner's lad" appealed muchly to Hedy West on her first trip to England.

I was in touch only sporadically with Colin and Shirley in the middle sixties. I remember getting from them an ep of a group called Les Landsmen, recorded on the French Columbia label: the trio on that disc consisted of one Tom Everett, and Colin and Shirley. The arrangements, syrupy after the manner of the times (some would say the practice still persists), were all 'sur un theme du folklore'. You would have recognised 'The fox went out on a chilly night' (the only song on this ep sung in English), and 'La chanson du rossignol' as 'The sweet nightingale', but I wonder if you would have identified from the titles 'Buvons, le vin est bon' as 'Follow the drinking gourd', and 'Les femmes n'ont pas de chance' as 'The waggoner's lad'. In 'The fox' the singing is heavily popped up, but the other three songs are beautifully sung. Then, as now, Colin and Shirley's diction was impeccable.

For a long time, Colin and Shirley were settled in Stuttgart, Germany, and, apart from their success as club and concert performers and regular visits to various European festivals, they were getting radio and some television work. They were also turning out a few records for the English market on the Saga label. With John Pearse, they did a record for Saga's sister label, Society, called Folk '66. Colin sang one of his own songs 'George Barker' on an anthology record called Folk Scene after the magazine of that name that flourished in I964/65, and the duo made "We travel the road" for the German Polydor label. The songs and sleeve notes on this album are in English, but the record has never been issued on this side of the English Channel.

During these years, Colin and Shirley would spend up to four or five summer months in Britain, where they were always in great demand on the club scene, but they made only a few big appearances here, including an Albert Hall concert I organised for the Musicians' Union's benevolent fund in I963, and a couple of tours of major concert halls (Swansea, Exeter, Birmingham, Brighton) in I966, under the sponsorship of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In these concerts, Colin and Shirley appeared with (among others) Julie Felix, Derroll Adams, Harvey Andrews, the 3-City4, Guy Carawan, Alex Campbell, the Watersons, and Cyril Tawney.

In I967, I was invited to the Burg Waldeck festival in Germany, where I saw Colin and Shirley performing on what by now had become their home ground. They had moved to a very well designed and modern house in the village of Stockheim, near Heilbronn, and were touring in Belgium, Holland, Scandinavia and Switzerland, as well as in Germany itself. Their performance had not changed radically. lt was better, of course, as you'd expect from a couple who had sung together for six years, and there was a fair admixture of Colin's own songs in their repertoire, but the traditional British songs were still there and flourishing on foreign soil. By this time, Colin and Shirley were the friends and colleagues of Germany's leading singers, Franz-Josef Degenhardt, Hein and Oss Kröher, Schobert and Black, and many others. I've been back to Germany many times since I967 and have learned to enjoy the work of these splendid performers, many of them writing their own material.

Last year, the German Label Da Camera Sound issued Sunflower seed, an lp of Colin and Shirley that must be considered a breakthrough for them. The songs were all Colin's, and the backing included some magnificent keyboard work from Milcho Leviev. (The record was reviewed in Folk Review, July I972). Their latest offering, on the German Plane label, is an album called "morning". Two of the songs on it (Karl Dallas' 'The family of man' and Derroll Adams' 'Portland Town'), are songs Wilkie and Hart were singing for years before they became popular. The other eight are Colin's songs.

These include 'The soldier's song' - a blast against the 'glamour of army life', 'Wat Tyler' - a long ballad about the peasant's revolt, 'Willow and rue' - a song of lost love, and 'Morning' - possibly the only bearable song ever written about the Aberfan tragedy. This last song is written in a very low-key fashion, and simply describes the events of an ordinary day in a village that becomes identified only in the very last word of the song, and it is very movingly written and performed. (Sunflower seed and Morning can both be ordered through Collets record shop, 70 New Oxford Street, London WC1. There's a book of Colin's songs available from Feldmans.

Shirley und Colin have been settled for some years in Stockheim. They have a son, Vincent, who is nearly four, and, as the time for his schooling approaches, they would prefer to enjoy a stretch off the road. 'We've sung', says Shirley 'in every town of any size and some towns of no size in Germany and Switzerland. Going by petrol receipts, we have covered about 120,000 kilometres (close on 75,000 miles) in the past two years. We have had 467 (I counted them myself) rave notices over the years in European papers, and three dreadful pannings. But the first fine romance of the road has worn off after twelve years and we've both got a let's- settle-down urge' 'We get a tremendous charge from actually being up there und performing,' says Colin, 'but oh, that long dusty road! All I see is a bowel-like trail of autobahns and other roads.'

Settling down should be a possibility. Colin is busy on quite a lot of radio writing. Last year he did four programmes for Swiss radio, illustrated with records and by Colin and Shirley's live singing. He's also done several profile programmes (on, for example, Derroll Adams, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie), and a number of his stories for children have been broadcast, besides a twelve-part serial. The Wilkies have also made several tv films, most of which, says Shirley, are 'stolen' by Vincent who'll be signing autographs soon.

Meanwhile, singers who go to Germany continue to drop in on Colin und Shirley (turn left at Brackenheim: it's easy to find) and they are very much in touch with the British scene as a consequence. They are singing und writing first class songs, and it's my guess that they will continue to do so for many years.

Eric Winter, 1973

PDF - Download

↑ nach oben