Judy Collins turned 70 this past May. Really? Has she been on the scene that long? She has been performing since she was 13, then as a concert pianist.
It would be too simple to think of her only as a “folk singer,” not-as Jerry Seinfeld would say-that there’s anything wrong with that. In addition to her virtuosity on both the piano and guitar, Ms. Collins has sung all manner of music throughout the years and, recently, has turned her hand to literature as well. She is truly a renaissance woman.
Although she has written a number of songs, we probably think of her as a gifted interpreter of other peoples’ music. Sometimes that gift may seem a little unfair. Joni Mitchell, who is as skilled a singer as I know, actually wrote the hit song, “Both Sides Now,” but people generally tend to think of it as Judy Collins’ song. For that matter, I wonder how many people realize that another of her big hits. “Send in the Clowns,” was written by Stephen Sondheim for the show, A Little Night Music.
I have said before, and I will say it again, that nobody covers songs as well as Vonda Shepard, who came to people’s attention as part of the Ally McBeal program. But where is Ms. Shepard now? She seems to have gone into some sort of hibernation, while Judy Collins, who is almost as skillful at covering songs, has been performing for decades. I guess the difference is that, while Vonda will pick her spot, then hit it perfectly, Judy has been absolutely fearless in the range of material she will take on. No, she has not put out a hip-hop album, but, come on.
Judy Collins was born in Seattle, Washington in 1939. As I indicated, she began her musical career as a classical pianist.
To be sure, she has long had an affinity for folk music, both the traditional kind and the more political kind. Her values have always been similar to those singers and composers, such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen and Phil Ochs, and she has held to them steadfastly, with little of the fanfare that attended the other singers of the era.
Way back in 1968, I went to a concert at Summit County, Ohio’s Blossom Center, featuring Judy Collins and Arlo Guthrie. Everybody came to hear Arlo sing “Alice’s Restaurant, (which he did, of course), while Ms. Collins, who gave a beautiful concert, was relegated to being the warm-up act. And, at that, she had to cut her performance short because the general northern Ohio area was operating under a curfew at the time. (Remember, this was one of those riot summers we had in the 1960s).
Even so, the late 1960s were when Judy Collins hit her stride. She put out three straight albums between 1966 and 1968 that are excellent and contain some of her best work. In 1966, she put out the album, In My Life. In addition to the title song, written by Lennon and McCartney, the album featured two truly wonderful Leonard Cohen songs, “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag.” On top of that she performed the highly emotional “Marat/Sade” from the Broadway musical of the same name. It would not be her last brush with Broadway, by any means.
The next year saw the release of her Wildflowers album. It was noteworthy in that Ms. Collins began to showcase her own compositions, On this album were “Since You Ask,” “Sky Fell” and “Albatross.” There was another excellent Leonard Cohen song, “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” and the aforementioned “Both Sides Now.”
In 1968, she put out Who Knows Where the Time Goes? which featured one of the best songs she wrote, “My Father.” Also on the album were “Someday Soon” by Ian Tyson (of Ian and Sylvia), the title song, by Sandy Denny, “Pretty Polly,” a haunting traditional song and-surprise-a song by Leonard Cohen: “Bird on a Wire,” which some consider his very best one. If you appreciate beautiful music, sung with passion, then you should add all three of these albums to your collection, if you have not already done so.
And, if there is room for a fourth Judy Collins album in your budget, I would say, fast-forward a few decades and pick up Shameless, which she released in 1994. (That is also the title of a book she wrote, but I’m referring to the one with the tunes.). It is somewhat (but hopefully not entirely) autobiographical in nature, but it deals with the difficult matter of relationships in all their many aspects, and does so in a powerful and lovely way.
Along the way, Judy Collins has had to deal with many of the demons that seem to haunt the talented and the successful. She has had to overcome alcoholism and eating disorders. Also, as has just recently befallen the unfortunate Marie Osmond, she lost a son to suicide. In Judy’s case it must have been an even harder blow, because that son was the only child she ever had. As a result of the tragedy, though, she became active in the field of suicide prevention, to go with her other social causes.
That is an important thing to remember about this very talented musician. Although she may have moved beyond the songs of political activism that fueled so much of our music in the late 1960s, it was only to seek new challenges in the panorama of music, not sell out to the Dark Side.
What is more, she has carried it off. While self-appointed purists screamed in outrage when Bob Dylan stopped singing “Blowing in the Wind” and went electric, the public-at least that portion of the public that appreciates her music-has tended to trust her judgment, wherever she wanted to venture. And who knows when the adventure will end?
Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt
Own collection and experience