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Published On: Tue, Mar 8th, 2016

Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: Throughout Changing Folk Music Currents, Judy Collins Remains a Constant

Judy CollinsThe folk music scene has changed significantly since the early 1960s, when the world revolved around Gate of Horn in Chicago and Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. Judy Collins was there at the beginning, and she continues to shape the industry today.

“I have been doing this for 56 years now,” she said. “I figure it’s the second-oldest profession in the world. I am so blessed to have fans who have followed along with all of the changes that have come into my music.”

Collins was keynote speaker at the 28th annual Folk Alliance International conference on Feb. 19 in Kansas City. More than 2,000 musicians and industry members from 20 nations attended the conference.

Although Collins, now 76, was witness to many of the seminal moments in folk over the past six decades, she also is focused on the future. Last fall, she released a collaborative CD on her own Cleopatra label. Guest artists include Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, Jeff Bridges, Jimmy Buffett and Ari Hest, who joined Collins to perform the title song, “Strangers Again,” during the festival.

“I have no idea how the music business works any more,” she said. “I am happy to say that it’s on my own label, which I started from desperation about 15 years ago. I also am happy that it’s been very successful, and I’m happy for the seasoned, professional artists who worked with me. It’s been an adventure, because I never tried anything like that before.”

Musical roots

Collins was born in Seattle but moved to Denver when she was 10, where her father pursued a musical career.

“I grew up in a dysfunctional family,” she said. “There was a lot of music and a lot of fun. My father sang Irish songs, so we had Irish Alzheimer’s, where you forget everything but the grudges.

“Joan Rivers said to me, `you have nothing on my dysfunctional family. I knew I was an unwanted child, because my bath toys were a toaster and a hair dryer’.”

Her father was host of a musical radio show for three decades. “He sang all the songs of Rodgers and Hart, and George Gershwin,” Collins said. “We used to call that the great American songbook. Now we call it the Rod Stewart songbook.”

Her father got her on stage for the first time at age 4 during a show in Butte, Mont. “I sang `I’ll Be Home for Christmas’,” Collins said. “It was a wonderful hit. It also was April.”

Her early training was in classical music, and at age 13, Collins performed a well-received recital of Mozart’s “Concerto for Two Pianos.”

“I played quite seriously on the piano and studied with a great teacher, Antonia Brico,” she said. “I played with a Mozart symphony, and we did beautifully. On Feb. 2, 1953, we were at Municipal Auditorium in Denver, and everybody loved us – both of the people who came. We had a whole symphony orchestra, but there was a huge blizzard that night.”

After being exposed to folk music, she stopped taking piano lessons — against Brico’s strong advice — and picked up a guitar.

“I started singing around Denver and joined the Denver Folk Choral Society,” she said. “I had jobs in Denver, Boulder and up in the mountains. Then I found my way to Chicago to the Gate of Horn, where I met a lot of up-and-coming folksingers.”

Life in the Village

Like other young folksingers, she soon heard the siren call of Greenwich Village.

“When I got to New York in 1961, I went to Gerde’s Folk City, and everyone I had heard on Folkway Records and Elektra Records was there,” she said. “I was a headliner and couldn’t understand why, since I had only been doing this a couple of years. Then I realized my opener was a 13-year-old named Arlo (Guthrie).”

The New York folk music business was a tight-knit group at that time.

“My manager was Harold Leventhal, who managed everybody — Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Arlo Guthrie and Woody Guthrie,” Collins said. “Bob Dylan was at Gerde’s Folk City. He just arrived from Colorado, where he had a different name. I thought, `he’s just pathetic.’ He was singing old Woody Guthrie songs, and I thought, `badly chosen and not well done.’

“I was there later at the Newport Folk Festival when Pete Seeger tried to cut the cord, although he denies it. The thing is, he got over it.”

Collins released her debut album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, in 1961, covering music by Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and others. She didn’t begin writing her own songs until later in her career.

“I didn’t write any songs, so I was unusual in that respect,” she said. “I also never used drugs, because I was really afraid it would interfere with my drinking.”

A major break came when Joni Mitchell asked her to record a song she had written, “Both Sides Now.” As the lead single on her 1967 album Wildflowers, it reached the Billboard top 10 and earned Collins her first Grammy for best folk performance.

Her biggest hit came in 1975 with the Stephen Sondheim song “Send in the Clowns” on her best-selling album Judith. The song charted that year and again in 1977, for a combined total of 27 weeks. She enjoyed further success with her covers of “Someday Soon,” “Chelsea Morning,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Cook with Honey.”

Despite the many highs, Collins also has experienced her share of lows, on and off the stage. Looking back over more than a half century of writing, performing and recording, she believes music is the thread that holds life together and gives it meaning.

“I just lost my brother in Denver to cancer,” she said. ” Of course, my dad’s gone, my mom’s gone and my son took his life some years ago. Everything that happens to me, I have to write about, I have to pursue the music that’s been dear to me to find my way. I think that’s why we all do this.

“We love what happens when we hear these great songs and also what happens to us when we think about these things in a way that is going to make whatever happens to us turn into something that could help somebody else. That’s what music is all about. It allows us to live on this planet, this beautiful, terrifying, amazing planet.”

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Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: Throughout Changing Folk Music Currents, Judy Collins Remains a Constant