Judy Collins Says Protesting "Often Leads to Dancing"

At age 72, and with a 50-year recording career behind her, Judy Collins certainly deserves to rest on her accomplishments. Consider her credentials: She was among the prime architects of the '60s folk scene, a skilled song interpreter who helped bring artists like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Ian Tyson...
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At age 72, and with a 50-year recording career behind her, Judy Collins certainly deserves to rest on her accomplishments. Consider her credentials: She was among the prime architects of the '60s folk scene, a skilled song interpreter who helped bring artists like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Ian Tyson initial public awareness, an accomplished composer in her own right, record label president, a strong social advocate, a best-selling author, and a tireless performer who gives100 concerts each year. And did we mention that she loaned her name to one of the most popular songs of all time, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," which then-lover Stephen Stills composed specifically for her?

Yet, here she is, speaking to us by phone while touring through Canada's Northern provinces, chatting eagerly about her recent album (aptly-dubbed Bohemian), and a new memoir (her third to date) entitled -- what else? -- Sweet Judy Blue Eyes.

New Times: Considering all you've accomplished in your 50-year music career, it's difficult to know where to begin.

Judy Collins: (chuckles) Oh, dear. Well, begin wherever you like.

Your new book is fascinating. But how were you able to separate yourself and draw a divide between you as an author and you as the subject of the book in order to maintain any objectivity?

Well, I do a lot of writing. I write journals and keep up with that, which is very helpful, I think. It makes a big difference to keep your hand on it. So I try to keep up with my journaling. When I figure out I have something on my mind, I figure out how I'm going to write a book about it. I'm now trying to figure out what the next book will be about.

It will be hard to top this one.

Oh, good. I'm glad you liked it. Maybe I won't have to write another memoir after this one.

Hopefully you'll have many more memoirs to write in another ten or twenty years.

I think one at 80 will be okay (laughs). Maybe 85 will be fine too.

With the amazing life that you've had, do you sometimes step back and think, "I can't believe that I'm the person who lived this?" It must be awe-inspiring sometimes.

Sometimes I get a little caught up in it all and I think about my ancestors and all the things they didn't get to do (laughs), and maybe I was chosen to do them... (laughs). I have some sort of feelings about that once in awhile. I feel like Shirley MacLaine a little bit, but in a slightly different way.

But yes, it's very exciting to have this kind of life and experience these kinds of things. I consider myself extremely fortunate. In the overall scheme of things, I could be doing a lot of things that wouldn't make me happy. (Laughs) So I love the fact that I have a career. It has many facets. I think one of the things that's a little bit daunting about it is that I'm always touring. I'm doing about 100 shows a year now all over the world.

In fact, you're catching me in Canada now. I'm in the Northern part. It's called the Selkirk Mountains area. Selkirk, Manitoba. Yesterday I was in a place called Nelson, which is a wonderful community. It's a mountain town surrounded by huge peaks and mountains and waterfalls and there's a lake there. There's a community of kind of hippies living in Nelson. So I had a great time there. I said, "Well, I could move here in a second!" That's sort of my kind of place.

With all you've accomplished, is there still something that remains on your bucket list, something you haven't yet had a chance to do?

Yeah. I'm going to have a really nice dinner tonight. (laughs) That's about as far reaching I can think about any of these things.

With every album you've ever done, you've displayed the ability to take outside material, and even though you didn't write the song yourself, you still make it your own. How do you go about selecting the songs you cover?

With the latest album, I wanted to choose three or four selections that would be pertinent to the '60s. I had a long list of songs that I always wanted to sing. It was a big list and one that I had to narrow down to things that really fit. On that list, I had one of Joni's called "A Case of You." I had a song that Mimi (Farina) did called "The Swallow Song," which Joan Baez also did. "Girl from the North Country" was on my hot list, but I'm so glad I didn't record it because I love it, but I heard Stephen Stills do it with Crosby, Stills and Nash the other night, and it was so beautiful, I said, "Oh, I'm so glad I didn't try to do it."

I might do it some other time, but there was a long list and the ones that made it -- like "Pastures of Plenty," I always wanted to record. It's such a powerful song and I've known it since 1959, maybe even 1958 or '57. I wanted to put something in the album that would reflect upon the terrible position that we put ourselves in with our immigrants. It's an awful situation. What it ultimately comes down to is what sticks with me. So I might choose half a dozen songs and try to work on them, and they might be the ones that when I wake up in the middle of the night I can't get them out of my mind.

There's a song called "Veteran's Day" which I've been singing in my concerts, and it's Veteran's weekend, and I sang it in Calgary and I sang it over here. Anyway, that song that I found when I was one of the judges in Noel Paul Stookey's song contest he holds every year. It's called Music to Life, I think it's called, and when I heard that song a few years ago, it just stayed with me and stayed with me and wouldn't go out of my mind and I decided I had to do it.

So it all depends. And then of course, there's the four or five new songs of mine. It's different with the songs that I write because I have to find the time to sit down and finish them off. And for the ones that I'm listening to, I've always got a sort of wish list of songs that are old and songs that are new. So it's kind of an intuitive process I guess.

The song "Morocco" sounds like it could have been written about Steven Stills.

(Laughs) Yeah, but it isn't.

When you were writing this book, or for that matter, any of your previous manuscripts, were there any incidents or circumstances that were particularly difficult to write about.

Oh, sure. I began with a manuscript of about 125,000 words and I think they cut it down to about 95,000, so you can imagine there are a lot of things that were taken out or cleaned up or edited out and simply didn't make it to the final cut. But of course there is a great deal of perspective that goes into not only thinking about the things that were going on, but also a lot of research, which I did.

I wanted to be very clear about what took place, as much as I could anyway, and sometimes I didn't remember as well as I would have liked to, so I had to look it up, or check it out, or ask myself, did that really happen? I had to call Stephen, Stephen Stills, about that first couple of pages, and I said, "Were you really driving a Bentley?" And he said, "That was my third Bentley." He's still driving a Bentley. He was driving a Bentley about two years ago when he picked me up to take me to dinner. You know, you have to find that out and sort of check that out and check your memory out and check your thoughts and go through that process while going through your journals and going through your notes and figuring out, well was it really in 1950 that that happened or is my memory deceiving me. Or did it never happen at all? There's also that problem to deal with. There's a lot of personal reflection that goes into it.

But what about the emotional circumstances? Was that difficult to deal with? Did you reopen old wounds?

I think when you go through it... If you're a writer like I am, it didn't happen if you don't write about it, and I've already written a lot about those issues. So journal keeping has kept a lot of that drama under some kind of control. They say you can't be a drunk if you can play a drunk onstage, and I think that's true for your writing too. I do think there's a certain amount of resolve in these issues as you go through life, so you're not reliving them, really, you're telling about them and storytelling is very different from living through them.

When you started writing original songs did you feel at all intimidated by the high bar that had been set by the material you had previously covered?

No, no, not at all. I never thought of doing it before but it wasn't intimidating because I wasn't going to put anything on a record that I didn't feel was up to the mark. Well, there was one song that wasn't up to the mark, and it did make it to the first record, but it didn't survive past that particular recording. (laughs) But no, you can't feel competitive about that sort of thing.

At this point, you're still performing 100 concerts a year. Given the emotional content of your material, can you still find that emotional connection in these songs during every show?

No, you can't do that. The actress Mary Pickford once said she could do a grocery list while she was acting a part in a movie because she's gone through it, she knows what it is, she's been there, she's emotionally taken that journey. So no, again, you can't play a drunk and actually be a drunk.

Do you see a connection between the folk scene of the '50s and '60s and the sort of folk music revival people like Ollabelle and Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsome are championing today? Or more specifically, the student protests of the '60s and populist uprisings like the Occupy movement of today?

Oh, yes. Social activism isn't just a revival of what happened in the '60s. It's been going on for decades. There have just been different spikes. One of the first spikes was the union movement and Woody and Pete wrote a lot of songs for that movement and they participated in it. It was a time of social upheaval that happened with us and the same thing's happening now. But it's a natural kind of outcome; there's nothing particularly mysterious about it. People are getting fired up about issues finally, as well as the particular issues that are going on now. They're gathering and protesting and speaking out, and that often leads to dancing. (Laughs) So it's not an unnatural thing at all. 

Judy Collins performs at 7 p.m., on Sunday, April 13, at the Emerson Center, 1590 27th Ave., Vero Beach. Ticket prices range from $42.50 to $97.50 for VIP seats (which include an invitation to a private meet-and-greet). Call 772-778-5249.

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