by Bruce Mason
• The voice on the line is soothing, eerily familiar and deservedly famous – the unmistakable crystal soprano Bill Moyers once dubbed the “voice of the century.” And the conversation – typical of 73-year-old Judy Collins’ life and work – is revelatory, with unexpected twists and turns, shaped by tragedy, driven by hope.
“I stay very busy working on a new album and a PBS Special, another book, touring, writing, speaking, trying for eight hours sleep, trying to work out and experience friendly endorphins. To make time for good food and people and to read,” she says.
Collins has been sorely tested many times, and mightily. By way of background and a backdrop, events help to inform and light up her grace, elegance, longevity, intensity and relentless creativity. A piano prodigy at age five, she contracted polio and spent months isolated in hospital. Later, she was mentored by famed conductor Dr. Antonia Brico, who, disapproving of her promising student’s budding fascination with folk music and guitar, once wrung her hands saying, “Little Judy, you could have gone so far.”
Nonetheless, Collins’ non-classical, but disciplined, career soared and she later co-created the documentary Antonia, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Collins made her professional debut with a performance of Mozart at age 13. At 14, she attempted suicide. In 1962, shortly after her debut at Carnegie Hall, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent six months recuperating in a sanatorium.
Born in Seattle and raised in Denver, Collins fought alcoholism (her father, a radio star in the golden age of wireless, was blind and an alcoholic prone to periodic rages, yet she still celebrated him in song) and other demons such as depression and bulimia. She has been sober since 1978, despite the suicide of her only child at age 33 in 1992. “My son also had addictions and relapsed. Suicide is like cancer was 50 years ago, a terrible legacy people don’t talk about. What’s happening, including to many young and military people, is tragic and treatable,” says Collins, who speaks tirelessly on suicide prevention, along with other issues such as arts education funding.
“We can’t throw in our cards. Suffering is part of the price of being alive and we must find the truth and learn to speak it, no matter how difficult. I always wanted to be a sort of bad-ass, but come off somewhat angelic, smelling like a wildflower,” admits Collins, who posed nude for her “Wildflower” album (the negatives are still smouldering in the vaults of Elektra records) and created her own Wildflower label to help sow the talents of other artists.
“I don’t know why we Americans can’t get a gun law, reaffirm voters rights and agree on finances and that the world won’t deal with the disgusting fact that the rich get richer and richer and richer,” she adds. “But I do know absolutely, that, rather than despair, we must remain optimistic; pain travels side by side with joy and darkness is followed by dawn and another chance. And I believe that all life is political, down to how we treat other beings, earn a living and what we choose to support, or not. Everything that happens is important for what it reveals and we have to show up, participate in the process and great adventure, pursue what we’re called to and love, finding ways to get it out into the world,” she advises.
In 1969, summoned to testify at the infamous trial of the Chicago Seven, she began by singing, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? until the judge ordered a hand to be placed over her mouth saying, “We’re not here to be entertained.” Unrepentant almost 50 years later, she says, “Thanks to Steve Jobs and others, book and record stores are closing and attention is shifting. But doors are also opening; it’s time for a new movement, to take back the flowers, for fairness and to silence guns. I recorded Amazing Grace and sing it because I think people want and need to hear it – a hymn about redemption and renewal of the spirit, written by John Newton, a slave-trader who became transformed as an outspoken abolitionist.”
As much as anything in her career which includes 40-plus albums, paintings, a handful of books and counting, Collins is credited with introducing Jacques Brel, Kurt Weil, Stephen Sondheim, Randy Newman and other composers to different, larger audiences.
“I look for some magic and something that clicks,” she says of her ongoing, eclectic search and creation, including a legendary find: “I met Leonard Cohen in the mid-‘60s. He had been in Greece and was unaware of the folk boom, heading to Nashville from Montreal, with a notion of pursuing country music to supplement his income as a poet. In my living room, he apologized for his singing and guitar playing, even doubting that what he was writing were songs. I was mesmerized and wanted more.
“After he finished writing Suzanne, he sang it to me over the phone and I invited him to an anti Vietnam War Town Hall where I dragged him on-stage. He stopped partway through the song saying, ‘I can’t go on.’ Collins remembers the pivotal moment, saying, “I pushed him back and the crowd went wild. In turn, he encouraged me to write until I finally walked over to a piano and finished my first composition, Since You’ve Asked, in less than an hour.
Admiring Canadian songwriters – Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson, Joni Mitchell and others – she says, “There’s a freedom in their lyrics, a different, more literate view that I think allowed me to do things I was capable of and to explore other realms.”
And Stan Rogers?
“During the pouring rain at a festival in Nova Scotia I almost fell over when I heard him and the crowd roaring out Northwest Passage like an anthem. I’ll tell you what: here’s a commitment I’ll make to Common Ground readers. I will learn that song and sing it in Vancouver on May 9. It’s going to be an exciting evening.”
On stage, she will divide her time between her “Judy Collins” Martin guitar and the Chan’s Steinway, dipping into her most recent album Bohemian, Judy Collins Sings Lennon and McCartney and stories from her candid biography Sweet Judy Blue Eyes.
“Music is always moving around in my mind. I try to sing every song as if it’s the first time and I intend to go on performing around the world, as long as it’s a possibility,” she concluded.
Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. firstname.lastname@example.org
Judy Collins performs at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, Vancouver, May 9, 8PM. Tickets at www.ticketmaster.ca