June 27, 2009
by Glenn Swift
Judy Collins can´t remember life without music. Nor would she ever want to.
"I was raised in a home where music was our bread and butter as well
as our pleasure. There was never any doubt as to what I wanted to do.
I started singing at two and a half and have been singing ever
since," said Collins.
Collins´ father, despite being blind, was a Seattle disc jockey for
over 30 years and opened many a door for his daughter.
"He was a remarkable man," said Collins. "He loved music as much as
anyone and because of him I had the opportunity to meet a number of
great musicians growing up."
Collins´ musical proclivities were obvious to her father who arranged
for her to study classical piano with world-renowned pianist, Antonia
Brico. The master´s influence was profound and Collins made her
public debut at age 13.
"I performed Mozart´s Concerto for Two Pianos," recalled Collins.
Three years after her debut as a piano prodigy, she was playing
guitar. Her music became popular at the University of Connecticut
where her husband taught as Collins performed at parties and for the
campus radio station along with David Grisman and Tom Azarian.
Collins then made her way to New York´s Greenwich Village, where she
busked (performed in public places for tips) and played in local clubs.
During the early 1960s, "The Village" was at the heart of an American
folk music revival.
"It was the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan who
would have the greatest effect upon me."
Indeed, Collins´ career now took an entirely new direction. In 1961,
she signed on with Elektra Records (a label with which she would be
associated for 35 years) and released her first album, A Maid of
Constant Sorrow, at the age of 22.
"Through Woody, Pete and Bob I developed my love of lyrics that has
lasted to this day."
Collins went on to record her own versions of important songs from
the period, such as Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and Seeger´s "Turn,
Turn, Turn." And just as Joan Baez brought Bob Dylan into the public
eye, Collins was instrumental in bringing a number of lesser-known
musicians to a wider audience, especially Canadian Poet, Leonard
Cohen, who remains a very close friend to this day. Collins also
recorded songs by Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman and Richard Farina long
before they garnered national acclaim.
While Collins's first few albums comprised straightforward
guitar-based folk songs, her career took yet another turn in 1966
with the release of In My Life, which included work from a number of
diverse sources (the Beatles, Cohen, Jaques Brel and Kurt Weill).
Mark Abramson produced and Joshua Rifkin arranged the album, adding
lush orchestration to many of the numbers. The album was regarded as
a major departure for a folk artist and set the course for Collins'
subsequent work over the next decade.
With her 1967 album, Wildflowers, also produced by Abramson and
arranged by Rifkin, Collins began to record her own compositions, the
first of which was entitled "Since You Asked." The album also
provided Collins with a major hit and a Grammy Award for "Both Sides
Now," which reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Collins' 1968 album, Who Knows Where the Times Goes, was produced by
David Anderle and featured back-up guitar by Stephen Stills (of
Crosby, Stills & Nash), with whom she was romantically involved at the time.
"Yes, I was the Judy in ´Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,´" laughed Collins.
Time Goes had a mellow country sound and included Ian Tyson´s
"Someday Soon" and the title track written by the UK
singer-songwriter Sandy Denny. The album also featured Collins's
composition "My Father" and one of the first covers of Leonard
Cohen's "Bird on the Wire."
By the 1970s, Collins had a solid reputation as an art song singer
and folksinger and had begun to stand out for her own compositions.
She was also known for her broad range of material: her songs from
this period include the traditional Christian hymn "Amazing Grace,"
the Stephen Sondheim Broadway ballad "Send in the Clowns" (both of
which were top 20 hits as singles), a recording of Joan Baez´s "A
Song for David," and her own compositions, such as "Born to the Breed."
In the 1970's, Collins guest starred on The Muppet Show, where she
sang "I Know An Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly." Collins also appeared
several times on Sesame Street, where she performed her song,
"Fishermen's Song" with a chorus of Anything Muppet fishermen, sang a
trio with Biff and Sully using the word "yes," and even "starred" in
a modern musical fairy tale skit, "The Sad Princess."
In 1979, Collins posed nude on the album cover of Hard Times for
Lovers. She sang the theme song of the Rankin-Bass TV movie titled
The Wind in the Willows.
In more recent years Collins has taken to writing, producing a
memoir, Trust Your Heart," in 1987, as well as a novel, Shameless. A
more recent memoir, Sanity and Grace, tells the story of her son
Clark and his death from suicide in January, 1992.
Though her record sales are not what they once were, she still
records and tours in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
"I´ve been touring nearly all my life," Collins said. "To be able to
do it at my age I have to live like an athlete. A strict diet and a
routine exercise program are both par for the course. Of course, I´m
also very lucky in that I have a great voice teacher and one I can
Collins also acknowledged good fortune as playing a role.
"I had surgery in 1977 on my vocal chords. It was the same kind of
surgery that Julie Andrews had. Sadly for her, it did not work. I was
blessed with a great surgeon and a brand new procedure at the time. I
enjoyed a complete recovery."
Collins performed at President Clinton´s first inauguration in 1993,
singing "Amazing Grace" and "Chelsea Morning." (The Clintons have
said that their daughter Chelsea was named after Collins' recording
of the song.)
In 2008, she oversaw an album featuring artists ranging from Dolly
Parton and Joan Baez to Rufus Wainwright and Chrissie Hynde covering
her compositions; she also released a collection of covers of Beatles
songs. In May of that year she received an honorary doctorate from
Like many other folk singers of her generation, Collins was drawn to
social activism. She is a representative for UNICEF and campaigns on
behalf of the abolition of landmines. Following the 1992 death of her
son, Clark Taylor, at age 33, after a long bout with depression and
substance abuse, she has also become a strong advocate of suicide prevention.
In 2003, Collins authored Sanity and Grace: A Journey of Suicide,
Survival and Strength. Four years later, Collins penned The Seven Ts,
which lays out the lessons she learned in the aftermath of her son's
suicide. In this solid, heartfelt guide to grief and tragedy, Collins
draws from her own experience to provide a set of tools to help "dig
your way out of tragedy and loss." The book was conceptualized as a
way to better navigate Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's stages of grief.
Collins' seven T's aren't chronological steps, but "a kind of mantra"
in seven parts that's durable enough to assist readers for a
lifetime. Through the T's, Collins deals honestly with the demons of
loss-guilt, isolation, hopelessness, depression and violence, while
detailing many practical, proactive ways to cope, carry on and
As for the Seven T´s...
"Truth (tell it), trust (allow it), therapy (get it), treasure (your
loved and lost), treat (your body and mind), thrive (without drugs or
alcohol) and transcend."
Whether it´s writing a book or a song, Collins´ profound wisdom and
introspection are relatable to us all. A profoundly spiritual person,
Collins has little use for dogmatic thinking.
"Religion is for people afraid of going to Hell; spirituality is for
those who´ve already been there."