Thursday, February 12, 2004
In a concert and recording career spanning more than 45 years, singer/songwriter Judy Collins has embodied the spirit and power of music to lift souls to a higher purpose and meaning.
With her graceful beauty and an enchanting purity of voice that fellow folk musician Richard Farina once described as “amethysts singing,” Collins, along with Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, was a leading performer in the burgeoning folk scene of the 1960s. Where Baez’s music was more overtly political and Mitchell more attuned to probing the psychological and emotional meaning of the broader cultural landscape, Collins evoked the enduring qualities of music as a force for beauty and healing.
“I have tried, in all the ways I can, to make timeless music,” says Collins, who will be making a much-anticipated concert appearance tonight at 8pm at Carmel’s Sunset Center. “It is very healing to hear live music, to hear cultural and personal concerns talked about in music. It is a deep source of affirmation that is needed for all people and all cultures.”
Whereas many performing artists from the ’60s and ’70s draw audiences today more out of nostalgia than for the continued vitality of their music, Collins remains an engaged and meaningful artist whose political commitment and enduring musical values continue to connect with a wide range of listeners.
Collins believes her audiences today are in many ways broader in outlook than those of the 1960s.
“In the old days it was just us 18-to-20 year olds,” Collins says with a laugh. “That has changed a lot. Audiences are now vast in terms of demographics; now I work and sing for everyone, for families and people of all ages.”
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Collins was formally trained in music before embracing the folk music idiom. Caught up in the musical and political renaissance of the late ’50s and early ’60s, Collins abandoned classical music at 16 to become a guitarist and folk singer, touring the folk circuit and releasing her first album of folk tunes, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, in 1961.
It wasn’t until 1967, and her breakthrough, Grammy-nominated recording of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” on her classic Wildflowers album, that Collins became widely recognized as one of the leading voices of her generation. While an accomplished songwriter herself, Collins, who acknowledges her eclectic tastes in music, is best known for her covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Richard and Mimi Farina, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, and a host of other artists. Her great interpretive gifts and marvelous voice not only helped broaden her own audience but created a wider audience for folk music itself.
In 1975, Collins’ version of Stephen’ Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” a ballad written for the Broadway musical A Little Night Music, won “Song of the Year” at the 1975 Grammy Awards, and her mid-’70s cover version of the gospel classic “Amazing Grace” stayed on the charts in England for a record 84 weeks.
Trying to explain what compels her to record particular songs, Collins says, “It’s like asking, ‘Why do I breathe?’ It is the message that draws me and why I’m attracted to some songs and not others.”
For all of her musical and political idealism, Collins, describes herself as a “working girl.” Four years ago, in the aftermath of a disappointing relationship with Columbia of a type Collins says is “symptomatic” within the industry, Collins established her own label, Wildflower Records.
“I didn’t want to muck around anymore, and frankly I became sick of making records where there is no promotion or interest from the label,” she says.
Proceeds from Wildflower Records support a host of nonprofit humanitarian institutions such as Amnesty International, UNICEF, and the Firefighters Scholarship Fund.
In addition to her own recordings of concert and studio dates, Collins is busy seeking out new artists to record, and has re-released her first four classic albums on Elektra Records under her new label. She also has produced several concert CDs and videos from her recent series of festival shows. In addition, she is putting the finishing touches on a collection of all her past performances of Leonard Cohen songs for a new release due out this summer on Rhino Records.
Reflecting on the legacy of folk music and the politics of the ’60s, Collins defers to music critics and historians when it comes to drawing conclusions on the significance of those times. She prefers to focus on the music itself and her ongoing commitment as a performing artist.
“I don’t talk about legacy, I let the critics do that,” insists Collins, “but I do think it is a revolutionary act to be an artist, to remain as an artist and commit oneself to what one believes. Music will always be a part of our lives and culture, and it is important because it lets you know there is another way to look at and feel about things.
“I’ve been lucky, there have been good and lousy times, but I do feel I made a huge contribution. I consider what I do to be a service that is needed, and it is a privilege to do it.”
Judy Collins performs tonight (Thurs.), 8pm, at the Sunset Center, San Carlos and 9th, Carmel. Tickets $45, 624-3996.