Of 'Rainbow', 'Clowns' and All Sides Now
March 25, 2010;
by Adrienne Onofri
Among Judy Collins' many accomplishments, she is responsible for the
last showtune to win the Grammy Award for Song of the Year. That, of
course, was her 1975 rendition of "Send in the Clowns," which helped
establish the Stephen Sondheim song as a standard and made it a pop
hit. A folk-music icon, Collins has included showtunes and standards,
as well as rock songs, lullabies and hymns, Christmas carols and her
own compositions, on the 40-plus albums she's released since her
debut, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, in 1961.
Her latest recording is of an all-time classic, "Over the Rainbow,"
written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg for The Wizard of Oz.
Collins sings "Over the Rainbow" on a CD that's included with a
beautiful new coffeetable-book-like picture book, Over the Rainbow,
featuring the lyrics as text and illustrations by French artist Eric
Puybaret. Collins has another CD set for release in May: her latest
album, Paradise. That month she will also begin an extended
engagement at the Café Carlyle in New York City. This is her fifth
straight year performing at the Carlyle, and she'll be there May 4 to June 12.
Over the Rainbow is one in a series of children's books illustrating
famous songs, each accompanied by a CD of the song (Collins also
sings "White Choral Bells" and "I See the Moon" on the book's CD).
The imprint was spearheaded by Collins' fellow
folksinger/humanitarian Peter Yarrow and is published by Imagine
Publishing. Collins herself is the author of more than half a dozen
books, including threeSanity & Grace: A Journey of Suicide,
Survival, and Strength; The Seven T's: Finding Hope and Healing in
the Wake of Tragedy; and Singing Lessons: A Memoir of Love, Loss,
Hope, and Healingthat detail her recovery from the death of her only
child, son Clark, who killed himself in 1992 at age 33.
Collins, 70, is also well known for her work as a social activist.
She's participated in numerous events and campaigns for human rights,
peace and justice; she testified for the defense at the Chicago Seven
trial; and she serves as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. In addition,
Judy Collins is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker. Her movie
Antonia: A Portrait of the Womanabout Antonia Brico, the first woman
to conduct the New York Philharmonicwas nominated for the Best
Documentary Feature Oscar in 1975 and, more recently, was added to
the Library of Congress film registry. Collins studied piano with
Brico as a child, after her family moved to Denver from Seattle.
Born in Seattle, Collins has lived in Manhattan since the early '60s
and has been married since 1996 to her second husband, creative
designer Louis Nelson. I spoke with the singer earlier this week by
phone from California, as she was en route from San Juan
Capistranowhere she'd performed the night beforeto San Diego, where
she had a concert that evening. Collins had also spent time over the
weekend with her 22-year-old granddaughter, who goes to school in
California. In our interview, she talks about singing, writing and
advocating for yourself and others.
Has "Over the Rainbow" ever been part of your repertoire?
No, I never sang it. I recorded "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" for
my 1974 album Judith, and after I did that, I got to know Yip
Harburg, and he was always pushing that song to me..."Why don't you
sing it?" But I thought: No, it's too associated with Judy Garland. I
sang "When You Wish Upon a Star" a couple of times in concert, but
"Over the Rainbow" is a brand-new experience for me. It's not an easy
song, by the way, to get into your voice and to be comfortable with.
But the minute I got the request to do this children's book from
Peter Yarrow, I said: That's absolutely perfect. He wanted young
people to get to know a great song. It's perfect for me, it's a
wonderful thing to do, and I had just seen Wicked for the first time
and I thought, Ah! This couldn't be better.
Is it true you were named after Judy Garland?
My mother told me that I was named after Judy Garland, yes. Well, you
know, it was the time: The movie came out the year I was born. The
song was on the radio in September, and I was born in May. My father
was in show business, so it makes a lot of sense.
You dedicated the book to your parents. How did they influence your career?
There was so much music. My dad was in the radio businesshe had a
radio show for 30 yearsso I grew up in and around a radio station.
And then I got to go and see performers, and they were always part of
our life, people that sang and played and performed. That was very
much the context of our life. I had all that influence of the popular
songs of the era, sung by my father. And when I started playing folk
music, I realized he had been singing a lot of old Irish songs in and
amongst the George Gershwin.
Did they also influence your social conscience?
Oh, yes, very much. They were great believers in the New Deal and in
doing service and giving back and supporting causes that you believe
in. They were true blue Democratsmy father would be cheering from
his grave today with the health-care plan. I guess it's about a
hundred years in coming, isn't it?
I heard Pete Seeger sing "Over the Rainbow" at a demonstration
against the Iraq war in 2003. Do you consider it a protest song?
I feel that anything that's about life and hope and ideas of a better
world is a song that has value in our lives and could be considered a
protest against the awful things that are happening in the world. I
don't only sing protest songs; I sing songs about all conditions of
life. Politics is made up, contrary to what the Republicans think, of
all conditions of life that we feel and can expressand have, of
course, the right and the responsibility to express. That's why we
have freedom of speech here. I suppose in a way it explains why
everyone's favorite song, around the world, is "Over the Rainbow." It
is a protest against ugliness, and the autocrats and the nasty people
who run the show much of the time.
You mentioned seeing Wicked. Do you go to the theater often?
I do, when I can. I try to keep up with what's going on in the theater.
How about some reviews?
Of course I loved Jersey Boys. Everybody loves Jersey Boys. I thought
this remake of South Pacific was extremely good. I even sang in South
Pacific when I was a kidwe did a production in a park in Denver.
Always loved the show; always had the cast album. The redo of Guys
and Dolls was wonderful to seewonderful, wonderful songs, just some
of the best scores in the world. I know all these songs because I was
raised with them: I heard them on the radio, and I heard my father
sing them. "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" I've known since I could
breathe, I think. I recorded it on an album called Classic Broadway.
I sang "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" on that album. I loved the song,
so I got the chance to sing it.
Did you discover "Send in the Clowns" on your own, or did someone
suggest it to you?
The play had been out for a couple of years, and the [cast] record
had been made, and a friend of mine called me and said, "You should
really hear this song." She sent me the record, and I put the needle
on the cut and I played it, and I thought, "Oh, my God! That's for
me." Then I called Hal Prince and said, "You have a great song here
in your show," and he said, "Yes, I know that. About 200 people have
already recorded it." And I said, "I don't care." He said, "Frank
Sinatra's recorded it." And I said, "I don't care. I have to sing
it!" And I called Jonathan Tunick and he did the orchestration, and
the rest is history.
Have you seen the current Broadway revival of A Little Night Music?
No, but I'm going to soon.
Do you feel at all possessive of that song?
I don't have to feel possessive about it. I recorded it, and it
became a huge hit, so I don't really have to claim it so much as just
do it. I know Stephen Sondheim well, he's a wonderful man. I've
recorded other of his songs: "Pretty Women" and "Green Finch and
Linnet Bird" and "I Remember Sky," which is one of my favorite songs
of his early...I think it was from Evening Primrose.
Have you thought about being in a show on Broadway, or off?
I was in Central Park, in the Delacorte, doing Peer Gynt in 1969 with
Stacy Keach. I played Solveig. I was in The Exonerated a few years
ago. I played the Sunny Jacobs part. That was extremely interesting
and very moving to do that part. Bob Balaban [who produced it] had
called me to be in that production, and it was amazing.
I have had a couple of offersthings I wasn't really right for. I did
a reading for Nine once. People do sometimes think of me, but I will
never do eight shows a week. I might if it was one song, but I
couldn't do a standard eight shows a week on Broadway, because it's
too much, I can't afford to risk the voice. Five nights is wonderful,
and I quite often do that. I do about a hundred shows a year, maybe
more110, I think, last year. So that is fine: one out of three days
[laughs], but anything more I would not be comfortable. I'd be afraid
I would strain myself.
What's on your new album?
"Over the Rainbow" is on ita slightly different version [than the
book]; there's an orchestration on the end of it. "Diamonds and
Rust," a song of Joan Baez's, with her singing a duet with me. "Last
Thing on My Mind," which is an old Tom Paxton song, that's a duet
with Stephen Stills. A brand-new song of Jimmy Webb's called
"Gauguin," about the painter. The song of mine which is called
"Kingdom Come" that's about the 9/11 attacks. It's dedicated to the
firefighters. What else is on this album? "Ghost Riders in the Sky,"
one of my favorite songs in the world, with a chorus of the greatest
guy singers: Tom Paxton and Jimmy Webb; Bob Neuwirth, who used to be
Bob Dylan's road manager; my brother Denver. It's really great.
Whenever we sing a little of it in the concerts, people go nuts,
because they love singing that chorus: you know, "yippee-yi-oh!"
Had you ever sung with Joan Baez before?
Before this record, I had done two duets. One was with T.G. Sheppard
in 1984 ["Home Again"], and one was with Joan Baez and her sister
Mimia trioin 1967 for a CD that I was producing to raise money for
Women Strike for Peace. They were a very, very important antiwar
women's group; they got a lot of legislation done, they helped with
the nuclear test ban treaty... On that album, it was all women: Buffy
Sainte-Marie sang a song, and I did a trio with Joan and her sister
Mimi, a song of Pete Seeger's called "Golden Thread." I don't know if
it's availableI don't think I've ever seen it on YouTube. But people
talk about it; people remember it somehow. Maybe they have the record.
Is "Kingdom Come," the 9/11 song, something you've been working on since 2001?
I wrote it in the year following the attacks. I sing it in concerts
quite frequently. I never really recorded it properly. It's a very
important song, not only for its contentthe reasons it was
writtenbut also it's kind of an anthem. I think, quite frankly, it's
one of my best songs, and I wanted to do it justice and get it out in
a way that made it sound the way it should.
Just a sidebar here: The day that I open at the Carlyle, May 4, is
called Firefighters' Day. I know this because my friend Jim McGrath,
who is a retired captain in the Fire Department, when we were talking
about it [her Carlyle engagement]he's going to come to the opening
nightand he said, "That is the day." So I'm going to sing it that
night to make an acknowledgment of how important these people are who
put our safety before theirs. I'm so glad he and I were talking about
it, because it's not something I would have known. Although I live
uptown, and the firefighters have a memorial up thereon 100th Street
and Riverside Driveand every year they all bring the bagpipes and
there are hundreds and hundreds of uniformed firefighters who gather.
I'll hear the bagpipes coming in through the windows, and I've been
down there a couple of times during celebrations to speak or to be a
part of it, but I forgot which day it is.
Is Café Carlyle different from the types of venues where you usually perform?
I play everything from, occasionally, a stadiumif I'm in a big folk
festivaleverything from that to Carnegie Hall to small clubs to
private events... There were a couple of great clubs in the Village
that I worked in a lot, the Bitter End and Gertie's Folk City. The
Bottom Line, I worked in a little bit, not a lot. So this is really
only the third club that I've worked in on any regular basis. I do
what I do; it's not what people would call cabaret. It's Judy
Collins' show, really. I love the Carlyle because it is so intimate
and everybody's so delighted to be there. It has an atmosphere, a
kind of a resonance of all these wonderful artists who've been there.
So there's great appreciation for the story-song and for the
storytelling, and that is, I think, the strength that's come through
in the last 15 or 20 years in terms of my own performing. I tell a
lot more stories than I ever did, and people love it because they
love the history and they love the connections with the songs, people
I've known and the things that have happened in my life. That makes
it, I think, even more intimate than it might otherwise be. So it's
not just a string of songs, it's an experience that hopefully takes
you into another place and is musically satisfying as well as in a
literary sense satisfying.
Regarding the issues you have advocated for, do you feel more
pleased or disappointed at what has occurred over the years?
Advocacy is always a disappointing enterprise, 'cause you're never
going to get everything you want. You learn very early on in your
life, if you're going to be a performer, not to count on things until
they've happened. Therefore, your disappointment level goes down as
the years go by. Or perhaps your expectations go downperhaps that's
the more truthful way to put it. I'm thrilled that I've had the
career that I've had, and it's going better than ever. I think that's
kind of remarkable, in what I know about careers.
What about women's rights specificallywhat do you consider the
great advancements and great disappointments for women in your lifetime?
Well, probably, equal pay for equal work has a long way to go. I
heard some interesting statistics in the health-care debatethat one
thing that will not happen is that women will be singled out to have
to pay more for health care. They will not be penalized for being
female. All these seemingly small areas, little windows of
improvement. There still aren't many women in the richest people in
the world, but there will be. Look, Kathryn Bigelow winning the
Academy Award for The Hurt Locker was a very important step. And I
think the general rising of women in terms of their abilities to go
anywhere, do anything, be in any kind of industry has been
phenomenal. My film about Antonia Brico told the story of this
extraordinary woman who was breaking down the barriers of the conducting world.
I'm a great supporter of women's choice, and I think it's disgusting
that there are so many limits and so little understanding about
choice. Thank God for Nancy Pelosi, who understands, even though she
is a Catholic, that this is an issue of choice for women. What
they're going to do with their bodies should not be dictated by their
insurance companies or their governments. We did get Roe v. Wade, and
it's kept us, I think, from some of the worst possibilities that
might have been. And it has not been overturnedat least not legally.
It's been eaten away in some areas, but it's still there. So that's a
bit of a triumph that we shouldn't overlook, even though it seems as
though some things have been lost. Still, a lot of progress has been
made in the areas of women's health, the understanding that women
have the right to choose the way they want to livewhether they want
to make a living, whether they want to raise a family, whether they
want to devote their lives to service of one kind or another. And,
you know, we've had a woman pretty close to the presidency. A couple
of times. It may happen before we know it.
What encourages, and discourages, you about the current
sociopolitical situation in our country?
It's kind of a free-for-all out there. The Tea Party people might
think about getting a life. But that's the price you pay for living
in a democracy; you cannot say, "Freedom of speechexcept you and you
and you." The news-cycle focus on argumentative politics, I just turn
it off, because I don't want to engage in it. But the alternative to
chaos is to have a monarch. We don't live in a monarchy, so we have
to deal with the chaos the best we can.
I do think it's a positive development over the years that people are
not interested in keeping secrets anymore. Except for the great
conspiracies that go on that we can't seem to do anything aboutthe
conspiracy of the insurance companies to bleed us all blind, for
instance. Money has a great deal to do with that, and greed and
powerit seems to have swept the country up in a habitual, nonstop "I
want, I want, I want" and "More and more and more is better." I don't
happen to agree with that philosophy. But, on the other hand, I think
people are, generally speaking, more engaged in much of what's going
on in their lives for the better. People have much more become their
own advocates. That's something I have been very much about in my
work, in my writing. I've written a lot about suicide and survival,
because I lost a son to suicide. To me, that was a social taboo that
I hope has changed. When he died, there was nothing written about it
particularly; now the bookshelves are filled with people's ideas
about it. I do some speaking for mental health organizations and
suicide prevention and/or recovery organizations. The organization
that I'm more affiliated with was begun by Ed Shneidman, who was the
foremost educator and spokesperson and writer about suicide in this
country. He's the first person who started a suicide hotline, in 1949
in Los Angeles, when it was very taboo. In fact, they told him he
should take the word "suicide" out of itit was not something that
could be spoken aloud in public. It's like cancer being once upon a
time very much a secret, and now it's spoken of openly. The same
thing about alcoholism. I think Betty Ford did [so much] for
alcoholics and addiction because she spoke out. In that regard,
people's rights of free speech and education, and becoming their own
advocates, is a very big, big area of growth and exciting change.
Because I was a '50s girlyou didn't talk about nothin'! Everything
was a big secret.
What message do you share with people about recovering from a
devastating loss, such as the suicide of a loved one?
You have to get down to basics like grieving, and eating and sleeping
and having a social life. As far as I'm concerned, doing that is a
very political statement. To go into the world and say, "I deserve to
have a happy, joyous and free life, and I'm not going to let these
dark shadows destroy me." It's very politicalpersonal politics
involved... It's like putting the oxygen on yourself before you try
to help the other people in the plane. You have to find a way to go
through the grief and to come out the other side. It doesn't matter
that it will happen againof course, it happens all the timebut you
have to educate yourself and develop your survival skills. Every
person in the world has to find a way to survive the planet, because
it's not easy.
What else is coming up besides your album release and Café Carlyle shows?
I have a lot of upcoming events, including hospital visits. We went
to the Children's Hospital in Denver to do a presentation and took
them about 25 books. I was in that Children's Hospital myself when I
was 10, with polio, so I have a connection with the hospital and am
happy to support them.
We're doing Glastonbury in England in June, and then I'm going to
France for a concert. I'm doing a big AARP concert in October with
Crosby, Stills and Nash and Richie Havens...their big yearly
convention, in Orlando, and we're thewhatever you call itthe
My book that's coming out in 2011 is coming along very well. It's
called Sweet Judy Blue Eyes. It's a memoir. The subtitle is Sex,
Drugs, Rock & Roll and the Music That Changed a Civilization.
So music and art can change a civilization?