What do you ask a folk music icon who inspired one of the greatest love songs of all time?
That was the challenge as I prepared for a phone call with singer-songwriter Judy Collins recently. I decided to keep it simple … my first question, “Do you prefer Judy or Ms. Collins?” was enough to get the ball rolling. I found “Judy” to be engaging, modest and illuminating in our chat ahead of her upcoming appearance in Newport.
Collins is headed to the Jane Pickens Film and Events Center for a two-night stand next month. The 83-year-old Grammy Award-winner with the most famous blue eyes in popular music first played the city by the sea at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival when she was 24. She was a rising star in folk music circles by that point having released her first album A Maid of Constant Sorrow in 1961.
Collins was a frequent guest at the festival in the 1960s and has returned more than once since then including a memorable show in 2019 when she joined a band of younger folks on CSN’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” It was an extraordinary moment. (See the video for chills.)
Of course, artists like Judy Collins aren’t just born talented. Formal training, careful nurturing, and rugged perseverance are all part of the equation.
“I was raised in a musical family, my father was a very successful musician, he had a radio show for 30 years,” she explained. “I was trained as a classical pianist, I played with an orchestra, I sang in all kinds of professional environments, on the radio and on stage. I did a lot of performing growing up, so I knew about the discipline that was necessary. I watched the way my father worked. He said ‘always be on time, always do your work, always get prepared, don’t worry about who’s in the audience, it doesn’t matter how many there are, it just matters who they are.’”
She has fond memories of her first time in Newport.
“The first Newport festival for me was in 1963 … of course, I knew all about it, and was friendly with many of the people who were on the board. My manager Harold Leventhal was on the board, and of course Pete Seeger, and George Wein, I knew him very well. I had a wonderful experience that first time, I sang a song called “Anathea” on that first visit to Newport,” Collins recalled. “It was an exciting time to be there with all my friends. I went back a few times and I loved it.”
She reflected on how the festival has changed over the years.
“Well, it’s very rock and roll today, many people have drums, and that would have been outlawed… just like Dylan’s electric guitar which kind of changed everything in 1965. It’s always about the song, if there’s a great song, it’s kind of a linchpin for what goes on. Folk music, the folk revival, and the people who are part of it, a lot of us really see ourselves as storytellers, so I think in that respect, the essence of the Festival itself is still there.”
Her most recent album, Spellbound, was released in February 2022. 60 years into her career, it’s her first album of completely original music. The album is one of her finest works in years. With layered sounds and compelling lyrics, it’s certain to be on many “Best of ’22” lists.
“I’ve been writing songs since 1967 when Leonard Cohen said to me ‘I don’t understand why you’re not writing songs.’ So I ran home and wrote ‘Since You Asked’ and I’ve been writing ever since. I always put two or three of my own songs on my albums, where I gather the songs of other singers that I am most attracted to at the moment. That was part of my DNA for a long time,” explained Collins.
She’s unafraid to weave new sounds and fresh ideas into her sonic tapestry. “In 2013 I met Ari Hest and I started singing with him and touring with him,” said Collins. “We recorded a duet of a song he wrote called ‘Strangers Again’ and then I added ten more wonderfully talented men, Willie Nelson and Jackson, to that duet’s album.” The album, Strangers Alone, also includes duets with Jimmy Buffett, Michael McDonald, Marc Cohen and Jeff Bridges.
“Then Ari and I decided to write an album together, Silver Skies Blue, which got us a Grammy nomination. That was very exciting. It was his first, it was my first in 40 years. At that point, I pulled out a couple of songs and said ‘what do you think?’ I never had a long-term writing partner until I met Ari, so he inspired me. I just kicked up the engine and started writing poetry and taking the poems to the piano to see what would come out. Previously my writing consisted of going to the piano, sitting down and noodling until I found a hook.”
That was her practice when she composed many early songs including “Since You Asked,” “My Father,” “Secret Garden,” and many others. “All those songs came about because I had time at the piano. That’s what led to Spellbound,” said Collins. “It was all about a change in direction about how I was working.”
She’s covered so many great artists over the years, I wondered which ones stood out in her mind.
“Leonard of course, Pete Seeger, Woody. Of course, Tom Paxton, and in the early years, Eric Weissberg and Phil Ochs. Jimmy Webb became a very good friend of mine when I recorded a song of his called ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.’ And then of course, Sondheim with ‘Send in the Clowns’ which was his first real hit song. And Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny … I just keep my eye out.”
As for the Stephen Stills penned celebrated breakup anthem “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Collins recalls her original response after hearing the song. “Oh, Stephen, it’s such a beautiful song. But it’s not winning me back.”
With more energy than many artists 60 years her junior, Collins has many years ahead and is genuinely still at the top of her game. I asked what she wanted her legacy to be?
“Live today as you would like to live all the time … be happy, joyous, and free, and take the time to be kind. Figure out if you’ve got a passion and go for it, and if you’ve got a particular NGO that you want to work for, or a place you want to send money to, do it. Take time to look at your checkbook, that’s what my friend Gloria Steinem, who is a wonderful artist and writer says.”
Collins shows no signs of slowing down, she’s as busy as ever, still performing over 100 shows a year. She is still very much involved with “writing producing, singing, practicing, touring… I mean it’s a big life,” she said. She assured me she has no plans for retirement, “I’m just happy to be coming to Newport, it’s gonna be wonderful, I look forward to it.”