We here on Earth have lucky ears. Our collective tympanic membranes have been blessed with the divine voice of Judy Collins since the beginning of the late 1950s/early 1960s folk boom. Besides being one of the foremost singers of her generation, Collins, who will appear at the Egg in Albany this month, is one of the leading interpreters of the songs of others. Her early recordings of their compositions greatly popularized up-and-comers like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell (a 1967 Grammy-winning cover of the latter’s “Both Sides Now” helped establish Mitchell as a songwriter), and in 1975 she took Broadway tunesmith Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” into the pop charts. (Not that Collins has ever eschewed her traditional roots; her 1968 a capella version of “Amazing Grace” was a surprise hit.)
Collins was born in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of a prominent local radio singer and program host. Her family later moved to Denver, Colorado, where she sang in choirs and school musicals and learned piano. By her teens she’d discovered folk music and switched to guitar, playing local coffeehouses before getting her first big break at Chicago’s Gate of Horn in 1960. Later that year she relocated to the East Coast, where she performed at New York folk clubs before being snapped up by Elektra Records and cementing her stardom with a trilogy of hugely selling folk rock LPs, In My Life (1966), Wildflowers (1967), and Who Knows Where the Time Goes (1968). Judy Collins will perform at the Egg in Albany on December 9 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $34.50.
(518) 473-1845; www.theegg.org.
Many listeners probably don’t realize you came from a classical background, having studied under conductor Dr. Antonia Brico. What made you want to play folk music?
The stories. Folk songs have such great stories, and I’ve always loved a good story. I can remember putting on a play of “Little Red Riding Hood” with my friends when I was very little, so I was already very interested in storytelling before I came to music. Of course, Mozart and Rachmaninoff have some seriously great stories in their music, too. But hearing songs like [English folk ballad] “The Gypsy Rover” just really got me.
You’re known for interpreting songs by artists who eventually became well known in their own right, like Leonard Cohen, an untried performer whose songs you debuted on In My Life. What was it that attracted you to his music?
Well, Leonard was pretty well known as a poet before he became a musician. But we met and he came to my place and played me three songs that I just loved: “The Stranger Song,” which I haven’t recorded yet, and the two I recorded for the album, “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag.” I wanted to do something different at that point and I loved that his songs were very dramatic, especially “Dress Rehearsal Rag.” He kept telling me how he couldn’t sing, but I told him he sounded great and that he should become a singer.
With In My Life you went from straight folk to a folk rock sound, even covering the Beatles and Donovan, which alienated a lot of your traditional folk audience. Were you surprised by that kind of response?
I didn’t know what people were thinking. I didn’t really pay that much attention—although I do remember how [music journalist] Richard Goldstein at the Village Voice just tore the album apart. Really, I think very few people understood what was going on in my personal evolution. But the album did very well and I had a great time, and I knew that I could move out from there and do what I wanted, musically. And so on the next album [Wildflowers] I ended up having a complete orchestra.
Are there any contemporary songwriters out there you like?
Oh, sure. There’s Amy Speace, who I signed to my label [Wildflower Records]. She’s a marvelous artist. And [Hudson Valley local] Michael Veitch, who I found out about after he submitted “Veterans Day,” a really great antiwar song, to the Music 2 Life songwriting contest. Music 2 Life was founded in 1971 by Noel Paul Stookey [of Peter, Paul and Mary] and every year I’m one of the judges. I didn’t know Michael at the time but I really loved the song and I recorded it. Later on we met in Paris when I was playing there.
Besides being a songwriter yourself, you’re also the author of a novel, Shameless (2007, Pocket Books), and several memoirs, including Trust Your Heart (1988, Fawcett Press) and Sanity and Grace (2003, Penguin Books). What writers do you like? Any new books of your own in the works?
I’ve always been a big reader. Right now, I’m reading Robert K. Massie’s new book about Catherine the Great [Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman; 2011, Random House]. I love history, and his books are great. But I have a big stack of other stuff I’ve been wanting to get to next. As far as books by me go, no. Sanity and Grace is still fairly recent, and I feel like that’s enough for the moment.
Tragically, you lost your son Clark to suicide in 1992. Since then you’ve worked with suicide prevention organizations to raise awareness in that area. These being trying times for so many, can you recommend any groups that you feel could be especially helpful to people?
I really think suicide prevention starts at the local level, and that people should take advantage of the hotlines and other organizations that are available right there in their communities. The SOS [Signs of Suicide] Program and [child-loss bereavement group] the Compassionate Friends are great organizations. We’re lucky enough to have the Internet nowadays, which we didn’t really have 20 years ago when Clark died. I would tell people that’s the best place to go first, along with the self-help sections of their local library or bookstore.
Speaking of these desperate times, what’s your view of the Occupy Wall Street movement? You’ve been involved in social activism since the 1960s; how does the mood of society compare now to the way it was in the ’60s and early ’70s?
With the Occupy Wall Street protests, I think it’s high time it happened. I’m very proud that people are making their discomfort and their desires known, and letting the people at the top know that what goes around comes around. I’m actually going [to the protest site] myself soon to show my support. [At this writing Collins was set to appear at the Occupy Wall Street encampment on November 23.] There are definitely a lot of similar feelings nowadays to those we had 40 or so years ago, with people being “mad as hell” about what’s been going on.
What is it that keeps certain songs alive for you after playing them for so many years?
The songs that last are the ones that captured my imagination right away; a lousy song never lasts. But having done this for 50 years and made almost 45 albums really helps. Having a selection of so many songs to choose from keeps them all pretty fresh.