WHEN Shirley Collins was growing up in Hastings during the Second World War, she could scarcely have imagined what the next few decades would have in store.

She would go on to play a central role in the revival of English folk in the 1960s and 1970s and tour the world including playing venues such as the Sydney Opera House and even the Kremlin in Moscow.

Now, on the eve of her 80th birthday, a special celebratory concert is being held in her honour at London’s Southbank Centre.

The great and good of the folk world will gather to look back at the distinguished career of one of this country’s greatest ever recording artists.

Described by political singer/songwriter Billy Bragg as “one of England’s greatest cultural treasures”, she was born in 1935.

She grew up with an older sister Dolly, with whom she performed and recordedh, in wartime Hastings, learning songs from their grandfather.

Speaking from her Lewes home, she said: “I could never have imagined as a girl that one day I would sing at the Sydney Opera House, Royal Festival Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room, the National Theatre and even in The Kremlin.

“Yet some of my most favourite gigs have been in much smaller venues, such as folk clubs when you are really close to your audience.”

When she was 17 she was living in a London bedsit, training as a teacher by day and singing in folk clubs by night.

While living in the capital, she surrounded herself with fellow folk musicians, political activists and free-thinkers, including the famous American folk collector, Alan Lomax, who had fled the States to escape the McCarthy ‘witch hunts’.

But in 1959, she travelled by ship to America with him to embark on a five month trip collecting songs in the Deep South, recording in religious communities and at social gatherings.

They even recorded in the Mississippi State Penitentiary and captured the blues and work songs of chain gangs.

The recordings from that trip were released by Atlantic Records in the collection Sounds of the South and some of the songs featured in the Coen brothers’ film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.

She said: “It was a unique experience. It couldn’t happen now. And the highlight was our discovery of one of the finest bluesmen, Mississippi Fred McDowell.

“He’d been picking cotton the day we met him, but when people heard the recordings, he moved into the wider world and was even taken up by The Rolling Stones, who bought him a silver lamé suit.”

She later wrote about the experiences of the trip in her book, America Over the Water, published in 2005.

Following her adventures in the United States she returned to the UK to pursue her own singing career and released a number of albums that would influence the future of the English folk revival.

“I worked with a range of musicians including Davy Graham, the guitarist, and David Munrow of the Early Music Consort, who are both geniuses in their field.”

In 1964, she recorded for the first time with her sister, Dolly, who accompanied her on portative organ.

“Working with Dolly was always a wonderful experience.

“In 1968, Dolly and I were on at The Woburn Festival, where we first met Jimi Hendrix, who later came to visit us at our home in Blackheath – my daughter Polly sat on Jimi’s knee.”

The following year she released what many consider to be her seminal album, Anthems in Eden, a collection of songs depicting the changes to rural England brought about by the First World War.

The following decade she was involved in the formation of The Etchingham Steam Band, an acoustic set up formed in response to the power cuts of the time that were causing problems for many bands using electrical instruments or amplification.

Such was the problem she would often play in folk clubs by candlelight.

She retired from public performance after her 1978 album For As Many As Will and took up a relatively normal life running an Oxfam shop in Brighton.

She has continued to lecture and appear on radio as an expert in traditional music.

In the Queen’s 2007 New Year’s Honours List, she was awarded an MBE for services to music.

She said: “It’s good to know that my albums are still selling all these years later, and that I haven’t been forgotten.

“How do I feel about turning 80? Just glad that I’ve made it, and happy that I live in Sussex in sight of the South Downs.”

Tickets for All in the Downs, Shirley Collins’ birthday celebration at the Southbank Centre in London on July 5, can be booked online. Tickets cost £15 to £30. Visit southbankcentre.co.uk.

Musical history

HAVING recorded 23 albums over the years with several bands and countless musicians, Shirley Collins is regarded as a champion of folk.

As a child growing up in Sussex, she was surrounded by the music of ordinary people and she learnt all manner of songs that would make up much of the repertoire throughout her life.

In 1959 she crossed the Atlantic and spent five months in the US travelling in the deep south, collecting recordings of the musicians she met on the road.

Among her recordings was the famous blues work song Po Lazarus, sung by the chain gangs of the Mississippi State Penitentiary as they chopped logs in time to the song.

This was re-enacted in the George Clooney film, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.

On return to the UK, she recorded numerous albums that would shape British folk music during the folk revival that took place in the 1960s and 1970s.

The pioneering 1969 album Anthems in Eden took the genre back to basics, using medieval instruments which challenged the increasingly popular idea that guitar was the best accompaniment to folk music.

Largely retiring from public performance after her 1978 album For As Many As Will, she remained an authority on the folk circuit and in 2007 received an MBE for services to music. She is currently patron of South East Folk Arts Network and Folk South West.