MTPR

Judy Collins's Remarkable Voice, Vitality And Activism Are No Accident

May 16, 2019

This edition of Musician's Spotlight features one of the linchpins of late 20th-century American popular and folk music, the singer who popularized classic songs by writers both beloved and unknown: Joni Mitchell, Woody Guthrie, Leonard Cohen, Pete Seeger, Ian Tyson, Bob Dylan, Stephen Sondheim, Kurt Weill -- and "trad. arr. Collins."  Starting with 1961's "Maid of Constant Sorrow" all the way up to 2017's "Everybody Knows" (with Stephen Stills) and into the present, her recording and performing career has thrived alongside a passion for social justice.  Judy Collins is John Floridis's guest.

Judy Collins was a thirteen-year-old classical piano prodigy who got seduced by the emotional truth and political resistance she discovered in songs written and adapted by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Her debut album's songs can be traced to 18th-century English broadsides, 19th-century Scottish adaptations of rural folk music, and the Fenian writing of post-civil-war Ireland.

By 1966, Collins was introducing her listeners to interpretations of new music - often protest songs - by Phil Ochs, Gordon Lightfoot, Malvina Reynolds, Randy Newman, Richard Fariña and Bob Dylan. The single from Wildflowers, "Both Sides Now," scored her and the song's writer, Joni Mitchell, a #8 Billboard hit in the U.S. in 1968, and 1975's "Send in the Clowns" (Sondheim) reached #19. After recording his song on In My Life in 1966, Collins cajoled Leonard Cohen onstage with her at New York's Town Hall to perform "Suzanne," a move that helped launch the esteemed Montreal poet's international musical career.

Half a dozen of Collins's recordings hit gold or platinum status, and she's been nominated for Grammy awards four times - most recently for Silver Skies Blue in 2017. Another measure of her success and popularity: over a dozen appearances on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.

At age 80, Judy Collins is thriving. A lifetime spent following the practice discipline of a classical musician has kept her voice in beautiful condition and her performance chops top-notch. She works on behalf of UNICEF, landmine abolition and suicide prevention. She writes books (seven to date), and co-directed an Academy Award-nominated film about her own piano teacher, Antonia Brico,  the first woman to conduct various major symphonies around the world. She's a keynote speaker, a painter, a record label director, a musical mentor -- and a survivor of polio, TB, alcohol addiction, bulimia and the most unforgiving aspects of the music business. Musically, she's as prolific as ever, planning the release of two new studio albums and more touring.

Collins insists that art and creativity belongs to all of us. "Everyone has a haiku in them. Everybody has a song in them. They may not be able to sing it, but they can write it. We all have the artist gene somewhere that can help us stay on the planet."

(Broadcast: "Musician's Spotlight,"  5/16/19. Listen on the radio Thursdays, 7:30 p.m., or via podcast.)