From the soggy tale of "Chicken on a Raft" to the soggier story of "The Groggy Old Tailor," Johnny Collins is a specialist in singing shanties, sea songs, and maritime ballads. Since the mid-'50s, Collins has been active as both a performer in folk clubs and an organizer, and has made quite a few recordings of his repertoire. The nature of his songs of course draws him toward all things maritime, and Collins has appeared at such venues and festivals as the Maine Maritime Museum, the Kendall Whaling Museum, the Newport News Maritime Museum, and Expo '88 in Brisbane, Australia, where he performed as the resident shantyman.
His musical partnership with the younger singer Jim Mageean began in the early '80s. The two have performed throughout Europe and released a collection entitled Coming of Age to inaugurate their first two decades together. Indeed, Collins' presence on the British music scene is so steadfast that it might be hard to believe that he ever thought of doing anything else. Yet, as a teenager his interests were far from learning all 211 verses to "Blood Red Roses." Although he had sung in church choirs and liked popular artists such as Lonnie Donegan, Collins was more interested in science. At 16 he left school to work at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and trained there in pathology, microbiology, blood transfusion, and histology, the study of tumors and tissue. Collins is a Fellow of the Institute of Bio-Medical Science, a good thing to remember the next time another round of "Bold Reilly-O" commences.
His army years of the mid-'50s might be seen as something of a corruption, as it was in this context that he began hanging out at London folk clubs and becoming involved with players such as Martin Windsor and Redd Sullivan. This pair booked a Charing Cross coffeehouse called the Gyre and Gymble, and took Collins along on busking expeditions. From this professional start, Collins went on to gig with Long John Baldry and Alex Campbell, among other rootsy performers. At this point, most of the repertoire actually focused on American folk music, but this would all change in the early '60s when Collins discovered the amazing storehouse of song from his own land.