Isla Cameron was one of a quartet of key figures in England's postwar folk song revival -- and to give a measure of her importance, the other three were Ewan MacColl, A.L. Lloyd, and Alan Lomax. Her public singing career began quite by accident; she was a member of a theater workshop run by Joan Littlewood, who was then the wife of Ewan MacColl (1915-1989), when she and MacColl met backstage. They began a long friendship and professional relationship, and MacColl helped secure Cameron's first recording, an unusual unaccompanied performance of "The Fair Flower of Northumberland," which was released as a 78 rpm disc by EMI in the early '50s. Cameron became one of the most popular woman folk singers of her day, and performed regularly in clubs throughout the British isles -- she had a special affinity for songs from Dorset and Somerset, having grown up there.
Cameron had always set her sights on an acting career in addition to her singing, and by the late '50s she began appearing in movies as well as on stage -- she played small roles in the drama Room at the Top (1958), The Innocents (1961), and Nightmare (1963), and a somewhat larger part in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). Cameron was to have played an on-screen role in John Schlesinger's Far From the Madding Crowd (1967), but her scenes were cut -- it was no matter, however, for her most important contribution to that film was as music advisor to Schlesinger and composer Richard Rodney Bennett. She chose the songs heard in the film, recruited the other folk artists who worked on the movie, including Fairport Convention alumnus Trevor Lucas and fiddler Dave Swarbrick, and was responsible for the recording of the folk songs on the soundtrack album, and did the singing for Julie Christie in the film. Cameron continued to record into the mid-'60s, expanding her repertory to include modern material by Bob Dylan, Kurt Weill, and Bertolt Brecht. Her pioneering work in the 1950s paved the way for such figures as Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention, and opened English folk music to a wider audience than it had been perceived as having.
Cameron seldom sang in public after the mid-'60s, however, as acting became more the focus of her life. She died in a tragic accident in her home during 1980. ~ Bruce Eder