A Conversation With... Judy Collins
After a night of music, socializing and a long train of tourists out for a walk and peek at longhairs; early morning lower Manhattan streets were empty except for the village as artists engaged in jamming and one-off affairs. There was always a song playing somewhere, a theme that kept life in motion. Downstairs in my tenement building Puerto Ricans played Vanilla Fudge “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” – rarely interrupted, and if so, by intermittent Fania All Stars with Willie Colon.
As the day wore on, up and down the bustling streets of Greenwich Village, the folk singers cut through. This is where Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan crossed paths near and in Gerde’s Folk City. Central village - Frank Zappa and Company were a lock – The Fugs and an arsenal of British bands.
“Farewell Angelina the bells on the crown - are being stolen by bandits, I must follow the sound” – the angelic voice of Joan Baez rang in early morning.
“Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning, and the first thing that I heard - was a song outside my window, and the traffic wrote the words.” The day heats up, cars pass and radio sounds a youthful, vibrant Joni Mitchell.
“Rows and flows of angel hair - and ice cream castles in the air - and feather canyons everywhere - I've looked at clouds that way.” As the hours wore on - storefronts in full operation and turntables spinning -the spirit of a new generation was illuminated and liberated by Judy Collins.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with the grand woman of folk music and it was a moment to remember. Collins at 76 is still the young woman on the cover of her debut Wildflowers – gifted with eternal beauty and a voice that is still pure and robust.
Here’s that conversation…
Bill King: I had such a blast listening to your new recording and I’m sitting there thinking – how can anyone sing this good all their life – there must be a secret.
Judy Collins: I learned how to do this from a teacher I studied with for thirty-two years. I was a natural singer from the start but I was beating it up and losing it and didn’t know what to do. The person I found in 1965 was when I was having a really hard time – I was losing it, getting hoarse on the road all of the time. So I ask Harry Belafonte’s guitarist who I should study with and he gave me the name – Max Margulies and then I asked my friends who ran the Indian Hill Music Camp in the Berkshires and I got his phone number but not his address and called him and told him I’d like to study with him. He asked me what I did – I told him and he said – you people are not serious – I’m not interested. So I begged a little bit and he said – why don’t you come over. I told him I didn’t know where he lived – he told me and then I walked out my front door from the eight floors of 164 W. 70th and I walked past the elevator and buzzed his buzzer.
What it is – it is something called Bel Canto and it’s what makes all the great singers in choirs sing so well – most in England, Ireland and Scotland – some in Germany. Not many in the states – some do. Choirs have a better chance of singing Bel Canto – they have to be trained that way. Many who don’t have an opportunity to learn that have problems and don’t know what to do.
B.K: Late 60’s my stereo was all about Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. You must have crossed paths on numerous occasions. Were there close friendships?
J.C: Yes - with Joan Baez of course – not with Joni – Joni is very difficult.
B.K: Was it the times that brought you together – the politics – radical change?
J.C: No, I think it was just the old friendship thing. I was very close friends with Richard Farina, and Mimi and Joan and very good friends with Leonard (Cohen). Most of us felt like we were friends with each other even though we didn’t get to spend much time together.
B.K: Do you ever walk the streets of Greenwich Village and look at the tenement buildings – the streets and recall this as a place of great music?
J.C: It was a hotbed. It was a very small area – what was called the center of the very great folk revival. I worked in all of the clubs and music was just pouring out the place. It was very magical. Nobody had any money and everyone wanted to be artistic and protest the war. They all wanted to get together and sing. Dave Van Ronk was the mayor of Greenwich Village.
B.K: Where did you live?
J.C: I had an apartment on W.10th and Hudson and wasn’t too far from everything. You just walked across Bleecker and you ran into the Bitter End. The Village Gate was on that other corner and Gerde’s down the street.
B.K: Did you ever play the Riverboat in Toronto?
J.C: I never did play the Riverboat – I’ve played Hugh’s Room. I could be wrong.
B.K: What is the significance of the title Strangers Again on your latest recording?
J.C: It’s the title song by Ari Hest. I went back to his old repertoire – he’s such a good writer and I found the song I think he wrote in 2002 and it was his first venture with Columbia who treated him very badly. We are both Columbia rejects. They did an album of mine called Fires of Eden then dropped me from the label.
This led me to gather these singers together to do duets. I really think Ari’s been badly treated.
B.K: There’s great chemistry between you two – it’s also how the voices match.
J.C: I heard it when he started opening for me – that’s really a good voice. That’s a voice I could really sing with. I’ve never done that before. I did a duet with T.G. Sheppard once, Leonard (Cohen) and I – (Stephen) Stills and I did a duet of “That Was the Last Thing on My Mind.” At the big festivals I used to sing with Pete (Seeger) – we’d all get together but never found a voice I thought was a match with mine. We’ve made an album together and releasing in June and it’s called “Silvers Skies Blue” and that will be a new adventure. Last night at my concert in London – I hadn’t worked with Garnet (Rogers) before – we rehearsed and sang “Northwest Passage” together – it was fantastic. I can sing with him. I could also sing with probably Ian (Tyson) and Gordy (Lightfoot). Same kind of chemistry – something about those voices.
B.K: You must have compiled a list of singers and said – this will work. Any a bit more difficult adjusting to?
J.C: The youngster – Bhi Bhiman worked out alright - Hallelujah. Everyone else it was kind of a cinch.
Marc Cohn came to the studio with Jon Leventhal – you know who he is – he’s married to Rosanne Cash. He’s a wonderful guitar player. Cohn was very nervous about singing with me but it came out beautifully.
B.K: Over what period of time?
J.C: About six months. Recorded all in New York. Sometimes in person – sometimes electronically. Jackson Browne was in California and Willie (Nelson) was somewhere.
I didn’t think I’d get Willie since he was on tour with his book. It’s an amazing track.
B.K: Can you speak about your longtime producer – the late Mark Abramson?
J.C: Mark was doing the sounds albums for Electra – going off to record trains and other outside sounds. He produced several of my albums then opted out and wanted to move to the country with his wife and kids. He took his advances and said bye, bye. We remained close and always talked. He died of lung cancer.
B.K: Having someone you can trust in the studio who makes it comfortable is something rare.
J.C: There was drama sometimes but it was very consistent, the real drama was with John Haney, our engineer, who was a wild cocaine addict. He’s now sober near thirty years and lives in Tasmania. He’s wonderful – I’ve seen him and he’s in great shape.
Everything else was smooth. We agreed on most things, occasionally intellectual arguments about certain things - nothing like Stills and Nash.
B.K: This will never get resolved.
B.K: In choosing songs – were they submitted or did you put of feelers for material?
J.C: Both ways. Jeff (Bridges) was interesting. I called Jeff first after deciding we were going to do this. I said I’d really like to do 'Crazy Heart' with you. He said, “That’s a terrible idea.” He said, “why don’t we do the song from Candide,” - “Make Our Garden Grow?” He has a foundation that feeds kids in the states and sings that song at his concerts when he goes into his fundraising. I said – we can do it – it’s a beautiful song. Then I went to hear a concert of his – he has a wonderful band – Jeff Bridges and the Abiders. They are a little unusual - some European in there - a violist, cello and guitar. He sang some Tom Waits songs – which I didn’t get to put on this album and did ask Tom to sing with me and he said, “I can’t sing with you, too embarrassing.”
We were talking back stage and he said he didn’t write 'Crazy Heart' alone and had a partner and his name is John Goodwin and you should call him. So I called John, in the meantime I was already making the connections with Glenn (Hansard) – talking about material with him and with Jackson we decided on a song from Randy Newman and I was looking around for something with Michael McDonald we could do. So I called Goodwin and he said, “let me send you a bunch of stuff unmarked – I co-wrote these but I won’t tell you with whom.” He sent me a bunch of things and on it was “Miracle River.” I called him up and told him I love “Miracle River” and he said, “Guess what, Michael McDonald’s wife wrote that,” – Amy Holland.
Sometimes it’s me, sometimes they had an idea.
With the guy from Norway – Thomas Dybdahl – the connection was – his producer is the guy who used to be married to Joni Mitchell.
Everybody is mature people - they are grown-ups, no drama queens – it was easy and fun.
B.K: Looking back on Greenwich Village and that generation and where we are today – you must think - “Wow,” – did we actually get things together?
J.C: We were pretty crazy!
B.K: You were friends with Jerry Rubin.
J.C: We were pretty nuts. When you look back at all of that stuff that was going on - I just had to take a step back in those days and go – “whoa” look at my friends dropping acid – Altamont – there was nuts stuff going on. Now, it’s like someone’s got a very bad case of Tourette Syndrome – I could name a few.
Its men and war - wherever they are – they want to play. It doesn’t matter if it’s over in Kuwait, here or wherever – they want to play. If they can’t play over there they are going to play here. I think it all comes back to Vietnam frankly, I think we all just lost our minds over there. We never got them back or resolved it. We never really took responsibility for it.