Judy Collins Interview: A Bird's-Eye View into Turbulent Times and Triumphant Tunes
Image attributed to Judy Collins
Judy Collins has inspired audiences for years with sublime vocals, boldly vulnerable songwriting, personal life triumphs and a firm commitment to social activism. With a career spanning over six decades, she is known for her eclectic tastes in the material she records (which has included folk music, show tunes, pop music, rock and roll and standards) and for the clarity of her voice as well as her vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.
It was the lead single from her 1967 album Wildflowers,“Both Sides Now,” written by Joni Mitchell, that gave Collins international prominence and won her a Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance. In 2017, Collins’ rendition of “Amazing Grace” was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.”
"It was an interesting time. It was very exciting and filled with music and oddballs, fabulous stars and a lot of questionable behavior, sexual and otherwise (laughs). I’ll always look at it as the time I let my hair down, you know. Those were times you let your hair down, and I think it was important because the country was letting its hair down."
White Bird – Anthology of Favorites is the latest album from Collins, songs that she has hand-selected that remain dear to her heart so much so that she can still remember exactly where she was the first time she heard them. The record was released on digital, on CD in a deluxe digipak and on limited edition white vinyl May 7, 2021, from Wildflower Records, exclusively distributed by Cleopatra Records.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Judy, how’s it going these days with the Covid pandemic?
Judy Collins: Well, we’ve been very lucky because in New York, there are plenty of things to do in terms of ordering food out and taking walks, so we’ve done a lot of that over the past year. We’re doing fine. Now, with our shots, we’re going out to dinner once in a while so that’s good, and we’re seeing some friends, which is wonderful.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you miss performing live?
Judy Collins: I will be doing that very soon, so it’s been an interesting break.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You recently did a virtual concert recreating your Town Hall debut in 1964 in New York.
Judy Collins: Yes. We did Town Hall, which was wonderful fun to be there doing a lot of the material from 1964. I had a great time doing that, but of course, I belong on the stage with an audience, so I have to get back to it (laughs). There are dozens and dozens of shows on the books, so I am hoping that they will all happen.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I hope so, too. The Town Hall in New York has quite the colorful history dating back to 1921 when it opened.
Judy Collins: Oh, gosh, it sure does. It’s amazing. I was happy to be able to do that concert because it made me go back and look at the history of the Hall. So I was surprised by a number of things I had forgotten, including the fact that my teacher, Dr. Antonia Brico, had her own orchestra here in New York before, during and after the war. She was a major symphony conductor, and it’s a well kept secret.
Many people have no idea there was a woman conductor in the 30s and 40s in New York. But she was at Town Hall in 1937. She played with her orchestra, which was a woman’s orchestra, both in Town Hall and at Carnegie Hall for about six years or so on and off.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Dr. Brico was the conductor and pianist you studied with as a child?
Judy Collins: That’s right. I was ten. I was a classical pianist from the age of about five. So I had always studied. But I also learned all the songs of Rodgers and Hart that my father made his living with. So yeah, I had a great combination of music growing up: classical, pop, folk and opera. My father sang the Irish folk songs as well. I sang in opera choruses. I had a very interesting and eclectic background in music.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Your dad was a blind singer, pianist and radio show host. He sounds like a person who was unstoppable. Did he not only inspire your interest in music but your activism as well?
Judy Collins: Both. Absolutely both. He was a very strong influence and very much a person who had a lot of positions about politics. We were always talking about politics at the dinner table, so it just transferred into the 60s, and it made it easy for me to take that step.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Let’s talk for a few minutes about White Bird – Anthology of Favorites. How did you choose the songs for the album?
Judy Collins: I looked over what was going on, and I thought, “This is a group of songs that I can live with, and I think people will enjoy them.” I had not heard “White Bird” until recently, and then when I heard it, I said, “Oh, my God, I’ve got to sing this. This is a great song.” It’s a Beautiful Day is the group that recorded it in 1968, and it was an opportunity to do harmony with myself, which I hadn’t done in a long time (laughs). So that was really special. I can’t even remember the last time I did a song where I sang harmony with myself. I recorded some rounds and magicals that I had done as a younger person. Anyway, it was very special.
Then after I chose “White Bird,” I kind of moved into the rest of the repertoire from various albums. I very much wanted to repeat some things like the Dave Carter song “When I Go.” I’ve always found it to be a very powerful song, and I sing it with Willie Nelson. I just think it’s a wonderful song. So I had a kind of idea of what I wanted to put on the album, and then I surrounded “White Bird” with a few of my favorites.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I believe there’s an interesting story behind the song “Me and My Uncle” that involves John Phillips?
Judy Collins: Yes, and I’ve been very puzzled by that lately. Here’s the story that I remember. I heard John Phillips sing the song one night when we were all drunk somewhere, and then I recorded it. I told him, “Don’t you remember writing this?” He said, “I don’t remember it all. I don’t remember writing ‘Me and My Uncle.’” Then I saw a list of Joni Mitchell songs, and obviously, she has recorded it. But did she write it? Maybe so (laughs). There were a lot of foggy moments in those days. But I love the song, and I decided it was going to go on this album. I thought it was a good idea.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I recently watched a live performance of you and Joan Baez singing “Diamonds and Rust” together.
Judy Collins: Oh, goodness!
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It was great, but it was also funny because Joan made a joke about the line, “I bought you some cufflinks,” like who says cufflinks in a song these days (laughs).
Judy Collins: (laughs) That’s right. Where are those cufflinks? Oh, I just looked under Wikipedia, and I’ll tell you what it says. “Me and My Uncle,” often written as “Me & My Uncle” is a song composed by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and popularized in versions by Judy Collins and the Grateful Dead. It doesn’t mention Joni at all. So I got it right that John wrote it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes, hopefully that mystery is solved (laughs). There is a documentary called Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation, that came out just a few years ago, and I believe you were featured in it singing “Both Sides Now.” It talks about the music scene in the 1960s and early 1970s. How do you look back at that time?
Judy Collins: Oh, yeah. It was an interesting time. It was very exciting and filled with music and oddballs, fabulous stars and a lot of questionable behavior, sexual and otherwise (laughs). I’ll always look at it as the time I let my hair down, you know. Those were times you let your hair down, and I think it was important because the country was letting its hair down.
I think we’d been tight- lipped in the decade before the 60s. We wore cute little dresses and pearls and sang versions of songs where you had to have a 75-piece orchestra to get on the stage. And all of a sudden, it was one guy with long hair playing the guitar in Greenwich Village that changed everything.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you meet Janis Joplin during that time?
Judy Collins: I met her once, and I should write a song about the story actually because it was interesting. I had a very good friend named John Cooke. I met him in Boston probably in 1960 or 1961, and we became friends over the years. One night, we were in Los Angeles. By this time, he was Janis’ road manager. He said, “Let’s go over to the Troubadour. Paul Williams is playing.” I played the Troubadour a lot in Los Angeles. I knew that Doug, who ran the Troubadour, could get us in. I don’t know Doug’s last name, but I could look it up on Google (laughs). The Troubadour was a great hangout for all of us in LA because they were really kind to singer-songwriters.
So John and I went, and there was Janis sitting at a table. John said, “Let’s sit here with Janis.” So we sat with Janis Joplin, and she and I talked, laughed and enjoyed the show. And we were all drinking, of course. Then came the intermission, and Janis turned to me and said, “You know, one of us is going to make it, and it won’t be me.” Everybody knew about Janis’ drinking. She talked about Southern Comfort all the time. Southern Comfort was sort of a password, you know. We knew she drank a lot. We knew that everybody used drugs, and she did, of course.
So I knew about her drinking, but I thought my drinking was a big secret. I wondered if she knew about my drinking. My drinking was not talked about in the way hers was. I mean, I was having a terrible time. In 1968, when that meeting of ours happened, it was the only time I was with her. Maybe she knew the way I drank from John because I always drank. I had done drugs with John. His father was Alistair Cooke, an Englishman who was a writer and an on-camera personality that reviewed things, talked about the theater, music and politics, a lot of politics. He was actually at the Ambassador Hotel in 1968 when Robert Kennedy was murdered. So it was probably around that same time. Maybe it was John that told her.
But I always thought it was a strange thing for Janis to say, “One of us is going to make it, and it won’t be me.” John Byrne Cooke was his name, and he’s dead now. But he was a wonderful friend and a great photographer as well. A lot of pictures from the 60s are John Cooke’s pictures. You’ll see his credit on a lot of them. He’s the one that found Janis dead. That was so sad.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes, so tragic. You should write a song about your encounter with Janis.
Judy Collins: Yeah. I’m writing that down. I was watching The Doors movie, but I love all the Stones’ work. It’s not my thing, the rock and roll, drugs like Ecstasy and LSD, let’s go crazy and wild and take our clothes off on stage. That was not my thing particularly, but it’s part of my history.
When Jac Holzman was running Elektra Records, he called me and asked me to listen to the Doors. He said, “I’m going to sign them, and I want you to know what’s coming.” I was paying the bill in 1966 at Elektra. So he wanted me to have a say in it. Jac said, “How do you like it?” I said, “I love it!” I always loved it. But I only got drunk with Jim Morrison once, and it was at Big Sur in that wonderful resort, not the Esalen but the other one. I came very close to the fire, but I was not always in it (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were you ever scared about being arrested during a protest?
Judy Collins: Well, I was arrested in an anti-war protest at the Capitol Building. I was protesting the Vietnam War outside on those steps, and then we were inside on the floor of the Congress. Carl Albert was Speaker of the House, and I was there with a whole bunch of people including Joe Papp from New York who ran the Public Theater. Tennessee Williams was on that protest. They wrote a piece about it. We all went to jail overnight.
So I’ve been arrested for my work, my protests. I was always scared. But most of all, I was scared when I was in Mississippi working for voter registration. That was terrifying. I was traveling in a van with three white kids and Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader in the civil rights movement. I met Rosa Parks only once, but she was a hero of mine. It’s extraordinary, this thing that happened with Chauvin’s conviction on all three counts. It’s amazing! That’s historic for a mixed jury to put a policeman in jail. That’s really unheard of. That was never even dreamed of in the old days. I mean, who would’ve thought of such a thing?
When I was in Mississippi back in the summer of 1964, those poor three boys were killed. I was actually there when they were found. All the tragedy. All the unnecessary tragedy.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I totally agree. I read part of the transcript where you testified in the trial of the Chicago Seven in 1969, and the judge said you couldn’t sing on the witness stand, so the Marshal was actually closing your mouth. What was that experience like?
Judy Collins: That’s right. I was very upset at whatever his name is because he left me out of the current movie about the Chicago Seven, and it’s a great movie. Mark Rylance is in that movie playing our wonderful lawyer Kunstler. He was a very great man.
Phil Ochs called me one day in 1968, and actually, it was Saint Patrick’s Day. I was making some green cupcakes for my son who was going off to school, and Phil Ochs called me and said, “Are you dressed yet?” I said, “Yeah. I am.” He said, “I’m going to pick you up because we’re going to go down to the Ambassador Hotel. There’s a press conference to announce the Yippies, and you can also talk about your new album.” So he took me down there. He was part of the founding of the Yippies, and of course, there we all were together. I sang at the press conference.
Kunstler called me the following year and said, “Do you want to come to Chicago to testify in favor of the boys?” I said, “Of course, I’ll be there.” So I did testify, and I didn’t even realize how long that situation went on. As soon as the Marshal put his hand over my face and stopped my singing of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” I must’ve sort of blacked out because I was so shocked that anybody would do that to me, put his hand over my face while I was singing.
Then when the transcript came out, I said, “Oh, my God! I went on talking.” You know, the judge said, “No. You can’t.” Then there was this dialogue between all of the lawyers and Kunstler, and he said, “Can’t she read the words to the song?” And I did. It literally went on for quite a long time (laughs).
So I’m very mad at the producer of this current movie because he didn’t include that, and it’s such a good piece, you know? It’s so different than anything else that’s actually in the story. But that’s life. Some you win, and some you lose. But I loved and respected the guys. I respected Dave Dellinger a lot. He was a conscientious objector and spent a lot of time in jail. Who in their hearts does not object to war? Who in their hearts does not want to see people dying on the battlefield? None of us do, and we certainly don’t want to see our children go off and get killed in these battles. Of course not.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Abbie Hoffman, of course, was a leading member of the Yippie (Youth International Party) movement.
Judy Collins: Absolutely. Abbie was such a character. They got him exactly right in the movie. They were very good about that. I loved those boys, and they were boys. They were kids in their 20s. I think Dave Dellinger was a little bit older. It was a fascinating time to be alive.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What issues are most important to you now as an activist?
Judy Collins: The other day I was online with a group called Vote Vets for veterans who are running for office, and I talk, work and think about immigration. Of course, I wrote this song called “Dreamers,” which I’m going to include on my new album, which I’m making now. I’m just finishing up an album of all my own songs. But “Dreamers” kind of puts it to the test for me with the lyrics, “My name, it is Maria. My daughter is a dreamer. She says that she is worried that she will have to leave." That’s the basic idea of the song. So I work on things that I can work on. I do a lot of writing, and I do a lot of concerts.
It was interesting because on the Town Hall show, I had to relearn “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” I’ll always be an activist in protest for Black Lives Matter. So that was great to be able to sing that song. It is a great song, and I love to have it in my repertoire for the coming years. So I do what I can. I try to be present. I vote. I participate and belong to a number of groups of people who think about and talk about issues. I met with my friend the other night who works on the Syrian refugee organization. We just all have to do what we can. I think that’s really the key.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Thinking back on your life and career now, do you have any regrets?
Judy Collins: Oh, no. Oh, no. Some you win, and some you lose. There are things you can’t redo. I have no regrets. I think you may have some idea that you could’ve done things differently, but you can’t go back. You have to go forward. You try to do your best today and deal with it the best way you can.
I found out when I looked at my checkbook and credit cards that I spent an awful amount of money on the last election, I tell you that. But we’ll keep doing it because we have a slim margin in Congress now, and we’d like to bolster it a little bit. Music and art is what heals us and what gives us the break we need just to stay on the planet, don’t you think?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I absolutely think that is true. In addition to being a graphic artist and industrial designer, your husband, Louis Nelson, has written a book to be released next month.
Judy Collins: Yes! His book is on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It’s called Mosaic, and it’s about his life and also about the Korean War Memorial, how it was put together by him and why. It’s a very timely book because of this situation we have now in North Korea. It’s still an ongoing war.
That’s what people don’t remember about this thing. We’ve still got troops over there. There have been millions of people who served in Korea because in 1953, they drew up a cease fire, but they never signed a peace agreement. So we’re still sending boys and girls over there to mind the hot part of that country.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Exactly. I had no idea your husband designed the mural at the Korean War Veterans Memorial and developed designs for the World War I and World War II Memorial and the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan. He really has done some amazing work!
Judy Collins: Yes. He is amazing! He’s a great designer and a great guy. Actually, we just celebrated 43 years together, which is remarkable for an old hippie like me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What does it take for a 43-year relationship to work?
Judy Collins: We were talking about that recently with some friends who have a similar situation because one of them in the relationship has done a huge amount of traveling, so they’ve been apart a lot. I do 120 shows a year normally, so we are apart a lot. But we’ve been together for a long time. We used to have a house in the country, and one of my friends would say, “That house is saving your marriage.” But we’ve always gotten along.
I’ve been here during the pandemic. I’ve been here actually for some critical health issues that were going on where I would’ve been beside myself if I hadn’t been here. But I was here, so this pandemic has given us a break in a lot of ways. I think there’s a high price you pay for tearing around the world and a high price you pay for sitting still (laughs). So you just have to sit back and enjoy whatever it is you’re doing. We just have a good time together, so that’s wonderful. He’s going with me to Norway. I’ll be there for a few weeks in September. He is Norwegian, so it’ll be nice for him to see some of his family members while we’re there.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Judy, what an honor and a pleasure to speak with you. I so enjoyed the chat!
Judy Collins: Me, too! Enjoy the music that’s coming and the music that’s on White Bird. I love the album, and I love that people are going to be able to enjoy it.
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