Judy Collins is 80, and still touring. As she gets ready to return to Ireland, she tells Ellie O’Byrne about the songs that have mattered most in her incredible 60-year career.
Judy Collins, who turned 80 last May, first emerged on the folk scene in the US at the age of 20; since then, she’s been positioned at the epicentre of US folk, with several notable crossovers into mainstream chart success.
Collins’ father, Chuck Collins, was the son of an Irish immigrant to the US; blinded at an early age, he became a radio star after the family relocated in Judy’s early childhood from Seattle to Denver, Colorado.
Judy Collins’s life in folk has included helping launch Leonard Cohen’s musical career and championing the songwriting of Joni Mitchell, sharing a manager with Woody Guthrie, and four Grammys. She’s also the Judy Blue Eyes of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’, written by Steven Stills about their break-up.
Despite periods of personal adversity including her own struggles with alcoholism and bulimia and the suicide of her only son at 33, Collins’ career has endured for 60 years and she remains a lauded and prolific writer, performer and collaborator.
“I was raised in an amazingly musical family. My father was a wonderful singer and performer, with a career in radio for 30 years. I grow up listening to and learning songs from all the great shows, but I also studied the piano, so I played Mozart, Chopin, Debussy and Rachmaninoff. When I was 13, I played a Mozart concerto with the orchestra.
I was lucky to be able to study all kinds of music, but when I was 15, I heard ‘The Whistling Gypsy Rover’ by the Clancy Brothers and another song, ‘Barbara Allen’, on the radio. Those were the songs that propelled me into folk music.
"Everything about that music was thrilling: the stories, the immediacy. I was completely won over.
"About two weeks after I heard those songs, I got my father to get me a guitar and I went down to Wells Music in Denver and was introduced to all these records: Josh White and The Clancy Brothers, The Tarriers and Ewan MacColl. I just took off.”
“I’ve been exposed to the very best from the start of my life: all kinds of extraordinary performers. My father was the best performer I ever saw, anywhere. He was very powerful. A powerful singer, a powerful storyteller, a powerful pianist.
"You have to know how to communicate, no matter what form of the arts you do, whether you’re a singer or a painter or a poet. You have to have the understanding, the talent, the gift. And you can’t put a formula on that.
"When I was older, I began to travel and listen to and be exposed to all these artists. Denver had a club called the Exodus, which was one of the foremost folk clubs in the country in that time, around ’59. I opened for Josh White there and that was incredible.
"When I got to New York, I played all the clubs and pretty soon I found a manager who also managed The Weavers and Pete Seeger and Woody and Arlo Guthrie. I was right in the middle of an incredible group of artists.”
“I do all sorts of things to get me through. There’s so single distinct medium; it can be nature, hearing birds singing or watching horses run. Life perpetuates art, perpetuates life.
My friend was the president of the Metropolitan museum and the day after 911, everything was shut down and she got a call from Rudy Giuliani — this was before he lost his mind and started saying peculiar things — he called her up and said she had to open the museum.
He said people needed it open to remember that we can get through these things.
And I think that’s a great reminder that the human spirit needs all these things in times of catastrophe: paintings and poetry and music and nature.
I read a book called Tao 365 every day, I read Marcus Aurelius’Meditations. I try to get to writing every day and I try to get out and see art and go to museums.
Almost all of the things that I sing myself, whether I’ve written them or chosen them, are structured to save my life that day. Whether I’m singing Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell or Judy Collins, it gets me through the day.”
"I’m always most inspired by what I’m doing right now. My new album is called Winter Stories and I recorded it with a Norwegian guitarist, Jonas Fjeld, and a bluegrass group called ‘Chatham County Line’ from North Carolina.
"The songs of my own and other people’s that we put on that album are particularly inspiring to me right now.
There’s a Stan Rogers song called ‘Northwest Passage’ on it that I love. But also, there’s Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’, which I think is one of the greatest songs ever written.
"I was so delighted to include because Iactually recorded it in 1989 with Sony and they dumped that record, so it never got released.”
“There are lots and lots of artists out there doing brilliant things, but every now and again you come across someone and go, ‘ah, well, that’s really wonderful.’ There’s a singer called Kirsten Maxwell who is very interesting, and I think she’s great.
Ari Hest I really think is a genius. I think I met him about eight years ago. We recorded an album called Silver Skies Blue together and it got nominated for a Grammy.”
“Most of my music gives the impression of what I stand for in the world, which is staying alive and staying optimistic and in touch with who we are as ourselves, as a country, as the world.
There’s a new song of mine called ‘River of Gold’ and it may not immediately be obvious what it’s about, but it’s about climate change.
I also sang a song a couple of years ago called ‘Dreamers’ that is about the immigration issue in the States.
It’s of course an issue for the entire world because it’s a problem everywhere, if problem it is, but it seems like a particularly pressing thing for the United States to deal with.
People are fleeing their own counties because of famine and war and climate change.”