Folk legend Judy Collins plays at Dominican University this Saturday
By BILL DWYER
Judy Collins is one of those talents whose career transcends any
given time period.
Since bursting on the scene in the middle 1960s, the Seattle-born,
classically trained pianist and singer has built a sterling
reputation for musical ability and soulful depth. Through five
decades in the music business, her art and life have been thoroughly
explored, both as an interpreter of other's music and as a composer
who has crafted nearly 100 original songs.
Along with her numerous professional triumphs, Collins has
experienced personal struggle and devastating loss. Through it all
she fell back on the creative process and her own discipline and
faith in the human spirit, to find her way to healing and purpose.
Whether singing her own lyrics or those of others that touched her
heart, she made them her own. Hers is an authentic voice capable of
celebrating youthful new love and butterscotch sunlight on a
brilliant English morn, or recalling the dark cold place where a
devastated middle-aged mother lost her only son.
A special night
Collins' talent will be on display this Saturday, Oct. 18 in River
Forest, when she appears in a much-anticipated concert at Dominican
University's Performing Arts Center. Leslie Dominguez, who curates
the Performance Center's season, said, "Judy Collins has been on my
wish list since I came here. I grew up listening to her music. I
think I know every word of every song."
Dominguez and her boss, Dominican President Donna Carroll, both of
whom have previously witnessed Collins' virtuosity, are delighted
"She's a wonder-the folk diva of her time," said Carroll.
"Everybody's thrilled," said Dominguez. "Tickets have been selling
Dominguez said she'd kept in touch with Collins' management the past
few years, hoping to match up her availability with the center's
schedule. This year it all clicked.
"One of the things Dominican always tries to do with the Performing
Arts series is look for innovative performances and classics," said
Carroll, who's satisfied that with Collins, they've accomplished both.
An artist's life
Speaking recently by phone from New York, Collins, 69, was both warm
She doesn't dismiss references to being a living legend, but she
regards that status lightly, as one might a pleasing curiosity.
"I just have breakfast, lunch and dinner and do everything in between
that I have to. That's it," she said. "I have a good philosophy of
life. I take my work very seriously, but myself not seriously." First
and foremost, in other words, a human being-one who loves cats.
"Today I have brand new kittens, so I am very happy," she announces
happily. Names are still being considered. One will be Coco, for Coco
Channel, "because she's so stylish." Another is Tom Wolfe because of
his white "suit." The grey one will likely be called Rachmaninoff
"because I'm sure he can play the piano."
Collins' voice, with its trademark purity and grace, is a musical
instrument in itself. Seemingly effortless, it took many years to
master and perfect. It was not her voice but her exceptional skill at
the piano that Collins developed early on.
"I was trained as an interpretive musician. I studied Mozart, and
then I studied Pete Seeger," she recalled. Only later did she realize
what she might become as a singer.
"I worked very hard on that because my voice was not much to think
about when I first started making records," she admitted. "If you
listen to that first album, (A Maid of Many Sorrows, 1961) you'll
hear an alto who's struggling. ... I really did not see myself as a
singer. I saw myself as a storyteller.
"It took years working with my great teacher, Max Margolis, for me to
find-for him to find-that voice. It was 32 years of going to lessons
and studying and learning about phrasing and clarity, learning how to
make that happen."
Her father, a DJ and musician, was blessed with the ability to choose
the right songs, she said. "I think I inherited that from him. It was
part of the language I learned, growing up and studying."
A personal regimen helped. While others were heading off to the
cultural zeitgeist of Woodstock, Collins stayed behind to explore her
own muse with Margolis. "I was disciplined, I am disciplined. That
was the way I was raised," she said. "I certainly learned how to show
up and suit up and do what I had to do. I had that right combination
of being able to show up but still explore.
"I do know that work is what pays off," she said. "And also
identifying where you want to go, working with great teachers."
Not that Collins didn't sometimes give in to the spirit of the times.
"I can trash my room with the best of them," she said, "but I also
appreciate being able to clean it up."
In 50 years of creating music, Collins has partnered with a Who's Who
of musical talent.
"I've worked with some brilliant people, starting with the
beginning." she said, naming over a dozen stellar session musicians,
including director Spike Lee's father, Bill Lee, a bass player who
recorded and toured with her early on. Stephen Stills. Van Dyke
Parks, and many, many others.
The list of songwriters she has covered is just as
impressive-everyone from Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen to the
Eagles and the song book of Lennon and McCartney.
On Oct. 10, some of those people returned the favor, performing some
of Collins' original songs at a fundraising concert for the
celebrated New York jazz venue, Joe's Pub at New York's Public
Theater. A new album of those songs, titled, Born to the Breed - A
Tribute to Judy Collins, features 15 covers of Collins' music by such
artists as Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Shawn Colvin and Chrissie Hynde.
It's scheduled to be released Oct. 28.
Collins is pleased, to say the least. "To turn around and have Joan
Baez playing one of my songs is just terrific," she observed. "I'm
just very honored. I really am."
While some artists seem to balk at continuing to play the songs that
made them famous, Collins embraces her whole repertoire.
"That's why you have to be careful you pick great songs-because you
might have to sing them a lot," she said. "I only sing things that I
love. That means I have to fall in love with a piece of music."
Both sides then and now
After 50 years, there's an authority in Collins'voice, a lyrical
gravitas that commands attention, an authority wrought not just from
study, but from living through both fairy tales and nightmares. She
sings as compellingly of life's hardships and personal setbacks as
she does of soaring joy and triumph-of sunny days and the sun setting
in her father's eyes, and of the devastating loss of her only son,
Clark, through suicide, a loss that left her "beyond devastation."
In her darkest times, Collins' emotional alchemy allowed her to
translate the mundane into the sacred, the momentary into the
eternal. In the words of one notable song she's covered, "take a sad
song and make it better."
The torment over Clark's death was made barely endurable by her art.
She'd penned an earlier song for him when, as a 16-year-old aspiring
musician, he'd ventured out onto the same road she'd taken. "Born to
the Breed," she said of him. But unlike her, Clark never "reached the
sky," never realized the dreams his mother so deeply wished for him.
It took 11 years to write and record a second song about him. During
that time she also wrote a book, Sanity & Grace: A Journey of
Suicide, Survival, and Strength.
"I had to write to get through it," she acknowledged. "That was
essential-that I was able to ... process what was going on, both in
my journals and in sitting down at the piano. I mean, the first
person the music heals is oneself, after all."
Through that work, she took her pain and turned it into something
transcendent. "That's how people who are creative get through these
things, they keep creating," she said. In "Wings of Angels," Collins
transformed her agony into a haunting and uplifting prayer of
motherly love. Naked emotion, swaddled in poetry, the song is an act
of genuine courage, facing a hurt that can never be defeated or
banished, only accepted and transformed. Rather than run away from
her pain and risk remaining forever a stranger to it, she walked
through her pain until she understood it.
"Wings of Angels" starts with the realization that "Promises and
prayers won't bring you back." Spirit, for Collins, is a nurturing
reality. Those you love, she said, never really leave, though you
have to find another way to embrace them. She sees her son in the
natural world around her.
"When the birds flock to the south
When the wind calls to the north
You are in the falling snow
You are beauty going forth."
But it is beauty she would gladly trade to feel her son one more time
in human form.
"I would give the sun and moon/Once more just to hear you speak."
Finding another voice
As with her vocal ability, Collins discovered songwriting much later.
Leonard Cohen first suggested, in 1967, that she become a songwriter.
"He said, 'I don't know why you're not writing your own songs,'" she
recalled. "And I didn't have an answer for that. I'd never thought about it."
Collins not only began penning the first of over 100 songs, she also
began journaling, a practice she continues today. She's written nine
books and is starting her 10th, which will focus on her 50 years in
the music business. It's challenging work, she said, "trying to
remember what I thought I remembered and what I forgot a great deal of."
Collins loves both the process and the product. "I've always been
very grateful that I found out that I do love to write," she said. "I
find it's a very gratifying thing to do. Through the process, I've
really become a memoirist of some kind." She relishes exploring her
experiences and finding the meaning in them-having "a better sense of
history and my own place in it. That brings me a feeling of
authenticity that nothing else quite does, I must say."
Her other gifts aside, it is the legendary singer and musician that
some 1,200 people will experience this Saturday.
"I mix them up with all kinds of other songs," she said of her
signature numbers, "songs from the present and from the past. That
really is wonderful, to have that kind of scope in your concert-when
you can play songs from the beginning of your career, and wind up
with some new song you're learning."
Collins also hopes to create a space for people to reflect on their
own lives for a while.
"That's really what it's all about. That's how I know I've been to a
successful concert, when I have thought for two hours about my own
life. I'm hoping that will be what happens with my audience-giving
them the opportunity for tranquil reflection and some laughter," she said.
"I like to make people laugh."