Judy Collins has the rare distinction of being immortalized in one of the Woodstock era’s greatest songs. Stephen Stills wrote “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” after the couple’s romance ended, and it became the centerpiece of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s first album in 1969.
“It’s still one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard,” she has said. “It was a real privilege to be honored in such a way.”
But Collins, who performs Saturday night at the Ferguson Center for the Arts, was well known before that moment of lyrical enshrinement. She’d already staked out a place on the folkier side of pop-rock with hit recordings of Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” and a string of albums dating back to 1961 when she first laid down a set of traditional folk songs on Maid of Constant Sorrow at the ripe young age of 22.
Hers was the prettiest voice of the time, rich and pure in its timbre. Knowing that she had studied classical piano with famed orchestral conductor Antonia Brico when she was growing up in Seattle, I asked her last month if she’d also had classical voice training.
“No,” she answered. “But I did study voice for many, many years with a wonderful teacher named Max Margolies, so I have had the benefit of learning how to sing from him. I was lucky to be able to study with him as long as I did. I started studying with him in 1965, and then he died 32 years later. I studied with him the whole time.”
Though she made her performance debut at age thirteen playing Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos, it was the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the ‘50s folk revival that spoke to her most eloquently.
“There was all kinds of music going on all the time,” she said of her childhood years, living with a blind father who was a singer, composer and broadcaster himself. ”I fell in love with folk music when I was about thirteen or fourteen years old. Because of that, I was able to start learning and singing songs.
“I wasn’t going after anybody. I set out to be my own person and my own artist. But there were a lot of people that I listened to, both classical and folk singers. My father was probably the most important influence in my life in the beginning. He had his radio show and he sang; he was a wonderful singer. So I had that. And then people that I met along the way, like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. I was right in the middle of all that.”
She provided a boost to the careers of several of those she met along the way, recording songs by Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell when they were still virtual unknowns. In the ‘70s, she began to bloom as a songwriter herself, and her choice of outside material expanded to include music from the theater and “art songs.” Her hit version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” from her album Judith won the “Song of the Year” Grammy in 1975.
“It was a natural transition,” she said. “The main thing that I would say is that when people ask what kind of songs do I sing, I say that I’m in the category of ‘Judy Collins.’ I don’t think that there are many people who make the kind of choices that I do, but I don’t necessarily want to be categorized. Of course I am cataloged as a female vocalist, folksinger…but then, who cares?”
She cares about a lot of things herself, from the political and social causes she’s been involved with, to her painting and her prose. She’s written eight books, including a poignant 1998 autobiography, Singing Lessons, that dealt frankly with her own alcoholism and her son’s suicide. She later delved even deeper into that issue with the inspirational Sanity and Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival and Strength.
“We all have problems,” she told me. “We all have to go through difficult things. Writing about it helps me a lot. I find it very satisfying to be able to share my own experience with other people and then help them to get through whatever it is.”
Her most recent book, Morning, Noon and Night: Living the Creative Life, mixes personal experience and learned advice for those seeking to maximize their creativity. Her latest album, Portrait of an American Girl, has been hailed by critics as a return to her old form. And Friday night she’ll be doing what she does best, live in front of an audience of longtime friends.
“I’ll be singing songs from the Christmas repertoire,” she said, “but also songs from my new album. It’s wonderful. I get to do this, and I’ve been doing it for 46 years. I love it…I get pleasure out of everything I do.”
copyright © 2005 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.