Cover girl: Judy Collins on other people’s music
Dylan doesn’t have a life, she’s a one-woman band, and artists know they’ve made it when she covers their songs – after 54 years in the business, Judy Collins isn’t afraid to speak her mind
Judy Collins at 74: ‘The crux of any artist’s life as a creative person is maintaining quality through the years’
Dressed in tip-to-toe black, graceful in demeanour, and with a leonine mane of virtually snow-white hair framing her face, Judy Collins bears all the hallmarks of American music royalty. At 74, she is one of the oldest performers and singer-songwriters from the 1960s still recording and touring – and she is, creatively speaking, the only female singer from that fecund era still standing.
We have reasonably regular albums and tours from her long-standing friend, Leonard Cohen (albeit by default, due to his being defrauded in the mid-2000s), Bob Dylan (who, says, Collins somewhat off-handedly, “doesn’t really have a life”), and Neil Young.
But we don’t have Joni Mitchell (“about as modest as Mussolini”, once claimed David Crosby) or Carole King. Why is that?
“Because I’m a workaholic,” says Collins, gently sidestepping issues of systematic patriarchy within the music industry of the 1960s. “I always toured, even from the start. Music is what I do best, it’s what I know, it’s always what I’m trying to get better at, and it’s what moves me. And I have a very balanced life; I do about 120 shows a year, and when I’m not touring I’m writing – books, songs, albums.
“The other thing, or reason, perhaps, is that it’s awfully hard work, and it’s not for everyone. My engagement with travelling has also remained steady; I mean, I’m no sooner sitting on an airplane seat when I’m looking out the window going, yay, I’m flying. Most people don’t think like that if they’ve been doing it for over 50 years.”
More than 50 years – what about that? Incredibly, Collins started out as an active presence on the nominally termed US folk revival scene from the early 1960s. Her first two albums (1961’s A Maid of Constant Sorrow; 1962’s Golden Apples of the Sun) were noted for several elements, including the clarity and phrasing of her voice, and her treatment of traditional folk songs (on her debut, she covered Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem standards, including Bold Fenian Men and The Rising of the Moon).
However, from her third album onwards (1964’s #3), Collins began to interpret more contemporary folk material, including work by Dylan and other writers who were largely unknown at the time, such as Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Randy Newman, Jacques Brel and Mitchell. A sense of exploration, she says, was there from the beginning.
“From early on I developed an ear for a melody and an eye for a lyric – and I didn’t care where or who the song came from, good, bad or indifferent. I don’t care about the histories of the songs, either – once they connect, I’m fine with it.”
Competition between songwriters to get her to cover their songs was rife. She says without a hint of conceit that songwriters consider “they’ve arrived at a certain point in their careers when I do one of their songs, because what I’ll do is to take it to a place where it hasn’t been before”.
There is some truth in this claim. The public awareness of songwriters of the calibre of Cohen and Mitchell (to name but two) might not have been the same if she hadn’t covered the former’s Suzanne and Dress Rehearsal Rag and the latter’s Both Sides Now some years before they appeared on the respective songwriter’s albums. Also, her renditions of several Dylan songs perhaps softened his edges for the consumption of a broader audience.
“I suppose there was some canvassing from songwriters to get me to sing their songs,” Collins recalls, “but that was filtered to a degree, and I never really knew about the amount. I never had a problem about being asked to do songs I didn’t want to do – I always had the last word. If they didn’t strike a chord within me, I wouldn’t go near them with a ten-foot pole, as they say.”
Got it covered
Throughout the decades, Collins has continued apace. Inevitably she is more defined by her cover-version hits (including Both Sides Now, Amazing Grace and Send in the Clowns) than her own songwriting, but she seems levelheaded enough about what many other artists might perceive as an oversight.
Latterly in her life, she has become a discreet fundraiser and spokesperson for causes such as alcoholism (her own hazy days are a thing of the distant past) and suicide prevention (her son, Clark, took his own life in 1992), and now engages with the music industry independently and smartly.
“The crux of any artist’s life as a creative person is maintaining quality through the years. I look back at over 54 years of doing this professionally, and the effort is not just to keep up the quality but also to keep it moving in the right directions. I’ve been very blessed because I’ve maintained my voice through the decades. I’ve also been doing the best I can in relation to song choices and song writing.”
And then there is the odd surprise guest spot on popular television shows. Collins is most amused by the reaction to her appearance in the second season of Lena Dunham’s Girls. It came about, she admits through a peal of laughter, through savvy management.
“Well, it was just great, enlarging my demographic and getting street cred among the younger members of my family. More seriously, though, I love the show. It’s so out there in the way it talks about all the subjects that women in their 20s in my day didn’t really talk about.”
A true survivor, a pioneer of sorts, and a hard worker for what she believes is worthwhile, success for Collins is simply making a living. “People ask me do I have to do it, and the answer is always yes. I’m not extravagant, but I make a good living doing this, and I want to keep it that way. And working is good for me – touring and doing concerts makes me develop in many ways. I guess I’m a one-woman band.”
Judy Collins performs at the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, on Tuesday. She will be inducted into the Irish-American Hall of Fame at a ceremony at New Ross, Co Wexford, on June 21st