The Living Tradition
by Mike Raven - Issue 27 June/July '98
I first met Johnny Collins at the Warwick Folk Festival a few years ago. As you probably know the events at Warwick are spread over two continents and require a bus service to ferry the throngs up hills and across rivers. I was on one of these buses and quietly chatting to a folknik with a ring in his nose when a throbbing roar, akin to the sound of a Harrier jump jet on take off, erupted from the beard in the seat in front of me. Attached to the beard was an ex-British Army sergeant who is capable of playing Chopin preludes on the pianoforte, but who has chosen to share with the world his love of unaccompanied songs in the traditional style and especially maritime shanties.
Johnny Collins is, as they say, a stalwart of the British folk scene. It is people like him who are the past, present and future of the folk arts. The media often latches on to the 'new', in the forlorn hope that the latest flavour of the month will bring in hordes of young people to join the ranks of us oldsters. It's not like that. The folk world is already huge. It is just that all those thousands of social dancers, morris men, session musicians, singaround singers, storytellers and performers like Johnny Collins, are quietly getting on with enjoying themselves and entertaining people with little thought for fame and fortune.
Bright young things and and 'thrown-togther-festival-groups' can be likened to the froth on a tankard of well-matured ale. As Johnny says: "Even if I won a million in the lottery I'd continue singing in the clubs. It's what I do. I love sharing my songs with other people." He uses the word 'sharing' a lot, and this attitude is a large part of what makes him the affable, good-natured and understanding man who has won the respect and affection of the British folk world. Johnny has looked death in the face more than once. When you are lucky to be alive your whole outlook on life changes - be gentle, be kind, anger is a waste of time, most of the best things in life really are free.
With his rich, strong voice and East Anglian brogue Johnny Collins is very much how many of us would imagine the old country singers to have been in their prime. Most of them had seen a few Christmases before they were recorded and their quivery vibrato and short phrase lengths should not be taken as a part of their style, but rather as signs of physical frailty.
So, in Johnny Collins we have the archetypal English singer, a dignified gentleman and a jolly good chap to boot. So, what does an anonymous reviewer in a magazine that covers folk and roots music say about Johnny's 'Strontrace' CD? Words to the effect that 'stront in Friesian means cow dung and that about sums up this record.' Well, that tells you more about the reviewer than the record he was reviewing. Can you imagine how it feels to be at the receiving end of such clever clogs snidery? Easy going as he is, this still rankles with Johnny. Rankles? I'd have hired a hit man.
Johnny Collins was born in Norwich on 10th May 1938. He has no knowledge of his biological parents and no desire to trace them. He ended up in a children's home in Norwich and at the age of two was adopted by Mr and Mrs Collins. They became his parents and that is how he thinks of them now. His father has passed away but his mother is alive, aged 87, and still lives in Norwich. At the age of 16 Johnny left school and went to work at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital where he was trained in pathology, specialising in microbiology, blood transfusion, and histology (tumours and tissue), and qualified as a Fellow of the Institute of Bio-Medical Science (FIBMS). Surprisingly, he has retained his Norfolk burr, especially when he sings, even though he has not lived there since he left home to join the army at the age of 18.
Before launching into his full biography I must tell you this. Johnny came to stay with me at my cottage whilst I interviewed him for this article. I took the opportunity of asking him to record a song I had written 25 years ago called John Collins and he duly obliged. Now, being locked up in a small room with Johnny Collins in full bass-baritone flow is an exquisite experience, in a sadomasochistic way, that is. Whilst an East Anglian tornado battered the furniture, and all but set fire to the carpet, I scrabbled away inaudibly on a flamenco guitar. I only heard what I had played when we listened to the tape afterwards. At one point Johnny said: "Hang on, I can hear birds singing," to which I retorted: "No, Johnny, they're not singing, they're pleading."
At this point my job becomes easy because I also recorded Johnny telling his own story in his own words for a radio program. Here is a slightly modified transcript.
"My father, Robert Henry Collins, was a fitter in a flax mill in Belfast. His father was an Irishman and his mother was a Horsfall with Lancashire connections. He met my mother, whose maiden name was Lake, at Kettering. She came from Norwich.
My mum was a music teacher and so I was started off on keyboard training at the age of six. Then I went into the church choir as a boy chorister and later sang as a tenor for a while, though people find that difficult to believe now. Then I had some laryngitis and when I came back I'd become a bass and that's how I've stayed. I left school and started work in the early 1950s. Skiffle was very much in the ascendancy and my early influences were people like Lonnie Donegan and Johnny Duncan.
Then, in 1956, I went in the army but still stayed with church choirs and choral society singing and did NAAFI singsongs over a few pints and sang rugby songs I prefer not to think about anymore! In 1957 I was posted to London and I was in the West End, hanging around, and came up against Martin Windsor and Red Sullivan who were involved with a coffee house called the Gyre and Gymble in Charing Cross.
They basically took me under their wing and I started having some guitar tuition from Martin. People like Diz Disley were around and I used to play with him and I started busking with Martin and Red in the West End. I also worked with Long John Baldry and Alex Campbell and it was a wonderful time.
But I was still in the army and in 1959 I was posted to Singapore. We went out by sea on the Empire Fowey and I played guitar and keyboards in the ship's dance band. This was great because we were excused other duties and had free drinks. I also did some cabaret in the bars. I think it was about this time that I started listening to the music of the Weavers. Burl Ives was doing things and I worked through his Songbook and also came up against Woody Guthrie.
Then I was posted back to Catterick where I met a couple of guys and we formed a country and western band called The Lonesome Travellers which played working men's clubs and officers' messes.
Then I met up with some other musicians because Catterick was the home then of the Royal Signals Band, and so there were a lot of professional musicians who liked doing things other than brass band music. We had a jazz band called the High Society Jazz Band and had our own club in the Oak Tree Inn in Richmond, Yorkshire.
Then, in 1963, I was introduced to the Golden Cock Folk Club in Tubwell Row, Darlington, which at that time was being run by Tony Foxworthy who was the local organizer for the EFDSS. He took me under his wing - I seem to have spent half of my life being taken under people's wing - and he introduced me to traditional English folk music. Until then I was mostly into American stuff. Tony devoted some time to me, showing me the Journals of the Society and playing me some recordings. After the first long session he sent me away clutching Harry Cox's album of Traditional English Love Songs and the Bert Lloyd's Penguin Book of English Folk Songs record.
When your background has been one of church choirs and The Weavers and people like that it was a bit hard to take, but these traditional English songs very quickly grew on me, I have to say. We are now in the mid '60s and I soon discovered the Coppers and the Watersons. Suddenly this is a whole new ball game. Absolutely wonderful stuff.
Then, in 1965, the army sent me out to Hong Kong and there I ran English style singaround folk clubs and did quite a few concerts with some other guys - an Irish chap called Len Port, an Englishman called Dave Best and an American, Nick Platt. We were doing really quite big concerts in Hong Kong City Hall, that's a 2,000 seater, and we were filling it two nights on the trot. I think we did that three or four times.
I also did radio and television. The biggest audience I have ever had was on Voice of America in East Asia where they got me in a studio and I rattled of a few songs to tens of millions of people - most of whom couldn't understand a word, of course! I also did a lot of charity work and played in some interesting places, like the Eagle's Nest, the world famous night club at the top of the Hong Kong Hilton. I mean, that's the kind of place Shirley Bassey plays!
Then, in 1967, I went back to Singapore. There were already three really well established folk clubs - RAF Changi, RAF Seletar and RAF Tengah - so I started one on the south side of the island at the Anophel Inn, named after the anopheline mosquito, because it was at a Field Hygene Unit. We had people like Pam Ayres sing there and Tom Lewis, who was then a submariner. We met every Friday night and it really was quite popular with people coming from all over.
In 1968 I got demobbed and after a very short spell living in Cornwall I moved to Reading. About this time I met up with Roy Harris and he was a very big influence on me. Pete Nalder was there, running folk clubs, and Roger Watson and John Tams were helping me making records and things. Around this time Derek Elliot and Dave Burland were a big influence on me and a great support to me because I was worried.
I had this traditional label on me, but I liked other things, like Music Hall songs and American music, and wasn't sure where I was going. I remember Derek Elliot saying that as long as you enjoy what you're doing and the people out front are enjoying it you'll be doing it 20 years from now. Well, it's been 25 years, and I'm still doing it! Much of my present repertoire is by contemporary writers such as Harvey Andrews - a good friend - Alan Bell, Derek Gifford and Bill Staines. I'll always be grateful to Derek and Dave Burland for their support and encouragement
In this connection I remember I was in the Queen's Arms at Edenbridge, about 1974, and chatting to George Spicer, the Sussex traditional singer, and I asked him what he really liked singing. He replied: " I love the traditional ballads but it's hard to beat the Music Hall songs."
In 1975 I moved to Watford with work. At that time Jim Mageean had just come down from the North-East and was running a company in London. We actually met for the first time at the Berkshire Mid-Summer Festival, though we knew of each other by reputation. We did some singing together and travelled with each other in cars, did harmonies to each others songs and we liked each other's material. So, after a few weeks we thought "Why don't we work together as a duo?" and the rest is history. We did quite a lot of European work and did some American tours, and then, in 1983, we reached the pinnacle of our career as a duo.
We went off to Rostock, in East Germany (DDR) and won the Intervision Song Contest, which was the Eastern Bloc equivalent of the Eurovision Song Contest. We did it with a medley of three unaccompanied sea shanties. It was memorable because when we presented ourselves to the organizers they asked us for our music for the orchestra. We said: "We don't work with orchestras; all we need is a microphone." They were somewhat bemused by this. There was this 96 piece band and all we wanted was a microphone! And we did it! And we won! The jury was the audience and we got 25% of the votes. It didn't make any difference to our careers but it was great fun to do. That year, 1983, some earlier heart problems re-emerged and I finished up having a triple by pass operation at Harefield Hospital. My surgeon was a jazz trumpeter!
Inn 1987 Jim Mageean and I went to East Berlin for a concert celebrating the founding of the city. We were held up beneath the concrete dome of Checkpoint Charlie and to pass the time gave an impromptu concert of sea shanties. The gun-laden guards were scowling when we started but soon were smiling and after 20 minutes they waved us through.
In 1986 my partner, Joyce Squires, and I found ourselves at a hotel somewhere at a festival with John Heydon and he mentioned that he needed a caterer for his Haddenham Ceilidhs, which we were familiar with because we'd sung and danced at them. Joyce and I had both had a background in catering and both loved good food and we said "Oh! Yes," and that's how The Singing Chef catering business came into being. At one time we were doing six or seven festivals a year and weddings and bar mitzvahs and we both had full time daytime jobs. It was seriously hard work although we did enjoy it enormously and had a lot of fun. But by 1994 we were both having ticker problems and we had to cut right back. We still do the Haddenham Ceilidhs as a labour of love and it gives us an opportunity to try out new dishes on a discerning public.
In 1995 my health took an even worse turn and at the Redditch Festival I was waiting to go on for my last concert but went into the local Intensive Care Unit instead. It wasn't too bad. One of my grafts is blocked and I've been told to take it easy, which I have been, really.
I still do some singing because I've been told by my medical advisers that it's good for me, and festival organizers have been wonderful by providing me with transport. I can sing but I have problems with stairs and walking and when the weather is cold. But the pills keep me comfy and I am allowed to drink - Scrumpy Jack and Weston's Vintage Cider, and German lagers are my favourite tipples. I still travel to the Continent; I'm off again in a few weeks time - to Norway - and will be doing some gigs with Shanty Jack (Pete Haselden), a working tug boat engineer and a good melodeon player. He is the Musical Director at Hull Maritime Festival, and a good mate of mine, and we do quite a lot of work together.
Probably the most interesting thing I've done recently is some shanty overdubs for an animated cartoon film of Moby Dick being made by Natalia Orlova for S4C, which I did with Roy Harris and Dave Webber.
My latest CDs are Pedlar of Songs, a collection of contemporary material but all in the traditional style, with a chorus which includes Dave Webber and Anni Fentiman, who were with me in The Widows Uniform folk drama; Coming of Age, put out by some Dutch friends to celebrate Jim Mageean and I being together as a duo for 20 years; and Shanties and Sea Songs, with Dave Webber and Pete Watkinson, which was put out by Bob Barratt on his Grasmere label. And that's about it, really."
Links, further information and recordings:
Fellside are preparing a CD compilation of recordings from Johnny's early albums, and he has, of course, made numerous guest appearances on other artistes recordings, most recently on the latest CD made by Joan