This is a folk song from North Carolina, collected in 1916 in the southern Appalachians by Cecil Sharp. I had moved from Hastings to London in 1954 so I could start looking in the library at Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and learn more folk songs to sing.
One of the first I learned was My Dearest Dear, a beautiful song with such romantic words. Around this time, I fell in love with [US folklorist] Alan Lomax after I met him at a party thrown by Ewan MacColl. He was 20 years older than me. I’d heard him on the radio talking about his American collection, and when I saw him at the party I fell in love on the spot. I think it was because I loved the music so much. He was also this great big Texan with shaggy dark hair and big shoulders – he reminded me of an American bison, my favourite animal.
Later, I moved in with him. When he went back to America I thought that was the end of the whole thing, but after a few months he wrote me a letter asking me to join him on a recording trip in the deep south, so I caught a ship and joined him. We discovered the great blues singer Mississippi Fred McDowell, and some of the music we collected was used in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?
We were together for four years, after which things went a bit awry. But I always end my shows with My Dearest Dear – it always reminds me of Alan. The first words are: “My dearest dear / The time draws me / When you and I must part / And no one knows the inner grief / Of my poor aching heart.” The audience is often in tears – blokes as well as women. [Shirley Collins]