Her Amazing Grace
Judy Collins is still changing the world one song at a time
Always an advocate for peace and civil rights, Collins also raises her voice for causes close to her heart, like suicide prevention and mental health issues.
“When my father and Lingo told me that I could change the world, I believed them,” says Judy Collins of the 1950s folk singer. More than a half century later, Ridgefield’s legendary troubadour is sharing her memories of “singers and poets, rabble-rousers and rebels” in her brand new memoir, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music.
Singing under the stars on Lingo’s Colorado mountaintop where her family mused with “singers, pickers, storytellers, and assorted hippies” about injustice and freedom inspired the teenaged Collins to pledge her life to folk music. “I think I’ve made it safe for live music in a lot of ways,” she opines during a wide-ranging, late August chat. “Live music is a service—it’s necessary for people to hear live music and to be changed and focused and healed by it.”
Although trained as a classical pianist, Collins is best known for her pitch-perfect soprano, which she has used as a vehicle for social change and healing for over half a century.To illuminate her 70th birthday and her 50th year in the business, Collins compellingly writes about how music was always the constant in her life—and often the catalyst for change. (Photo below left: Collins waiting backstage in Central Park, 1966.)
Working from old journals and datebooks, Collins seamlessly weaves together the drama of her personal metamorphosis with memorable moments in American music history, including the first time Stephen Stills, of the legendary 60s folk rock trio Crosby Stills & Nash, played her song, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” the inspiration for the book’s title.
Fans of a certain age will recall that Stills wrote the classic hit as an ode to Collins during the denouement of their love affair in 1969. “I heard ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ for the first time: the story of my life, of our relationship, of the ins and outs of my therapy, and our pain together, his and mine,” she writes. “The sweeping seven-minute song told everything one would have needed to feel the heartbreak, to feel both our hearts break. It was magnificent, and we both wound up in tears.” (Photo right: Stephen Stills and Collins while they were dating.)
Despite the heartbreaks (and she has suffered some devastating losses, most significantly the suicide of her son, Clark), Collins is a most resilient storyteller whose ability to find a silver lining is impressive. A collector of sentences and poems and snippets of books, she chose to preface her memoirs with “The Parade” by former Poet Laureate, Billy Collins (“How exhilarating it was to march ...”), recalling the hopeful determination of the 60s folk music culture to end the war in Vietnam.
Now a prolific songwriter, as well as a performer, Collins skyrocketed to fame with her 1967 Grammy Award-winning album, Wildflowers, which included covers of others’ songs, like Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” She continued to record covers, each carefully chosen for its perfect blend of statement and musicality, until her longtime collaborator and friend, Leonard Cohen, finally asked her why she wasn’t writing her own songs. (Photo left: Collins with fellow folk sensation Joni Mitchell in 1993.)
It was a life-altering “aha” moment for Collins, and she started not only writing her own material (her first composition, “Since You Asked,” took her all of 40 minutes to write) but also playing piano onstage. Her latest album, Bohemian, was released in October 2011 and features an eclectic mix of her own compositions, such as “In the Twilight,” which she wrote in memory of her late mother, a handful of songs from the 60s, including “Cactus Tree” by Joni Mitchell, and some songs by new writers.
In Sweet, Collins pays tribute to the mentors who helped her along the way, from fellow performers to songwriters to record company executives. After 40 years with big record labels, in 1999 she decided to start Wildflower Records, an artist-driven label that allows her to not only produce her own music but also to nurture fresh talent. “I have a history as a singer of finding great song writing talent and making sure they get out into the world, and the record label is an extension of that,” she explains.
To Collins, the search is ultimately about the song. If it’s beautiful and has social meaning, she is hooked. “You know, life on this planet is not easy. The beauty of the world is always inspiring, and the horror of the world is always inspiring, too, in a different way. There’s never a lack of inspiration—the subject matter for songwriters is never ending.”
When she is not on the road, Collins shares a Manhattan apartment and a contemporary lakeside Ridgefield refuge with her long-time soulmate and second husband, Louis Nelson. She has filled the apartment with an eclectic collection of art, souvenirs, photographs, beautiful lamps, and rugs, creating a three dimensional scrapbook of her life, while three extraordinary cats, Rachmaninoff, Coco Chanel, and Tom Wolfe, add to its offbeat charm and energy. The Ridgefield house, meanwhile, is a quiet refuge. “We don’t entertain there. I read, I write books, I write songs. We sleep and watch movies,” she says. “We spent the most wonderful rainy weekend there recently. It’s something that is so special to us and provides a respite from the frantic pace that we keep. It’s just a little jewel, and I find being there really very restorative.”
The process of researching and writing Sweet was rewarding for the tireless chanteuse, who still performs over 100 shows each year. “I got reconnected with people I hadn’t seen in decades ... dug up things that I hadn’t thought about or talked about. It was really exciting.” Behind-the-scenes anecdotes about her friendships with bold face names from the industry, like the first time she heard Mitchell sing “Both Sides Now,” a song that would ultimately change both women’s lives; her sing-along sleepover at Joan Baez’s Spanish-style villa in Carmel, California; and the backstory on Bob Dylan writing “I’ll Keep it With Mine” for Collins to record, drive home the fact that not only did this ethereal beauty witness history, she made it.
On the witness stand during the Chicago Seven trial to indict anti-war protestors in 1970, Collins answered a question by singing the first line of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” a song of peace. While the judge forbade her to sing in his courtroom, Collins remained calm and proceeded to recite the lyrics in support of her beliefs. She went on to raise her voice in song for many people and causes she held dear, like former South African President Nelson Mandela, for whom she sang “Amazing Grace” at Yankee Stadium in 1990.
Collins is frank when describing her long-term abuse of alcohol and embrace of the free-love lifestyle that ultimately destroyed her first marriage and continued until she met Nelson and got sober in 1978. She writes and speaks with compassion and enthusiasm about her evolution as a multi-faceted woman. When describing her current fashion style as “extended Robin Hood”—a reference to her 1959 troubadour look, she laughs.
Gone are the pixie haircut, red tunic and black tights. Her 21st-century sartorial style is really more elegant Bohemian than legendary man-in-tights. And, when she performs on stage, this unconventional superstar likes her bling. “I wear a long slinky, satin skirt that kind of flares out at the bottom, and then I add a top—sometimes sparkly. I like sparkles a lot,” she adds with a twinkling smile. Which brings us back to those sparkling blue eyes, to which Stephen Stills paid tribute so many years ago. After all they have witnessed, they, like Collins herself, are still luminous—still filled with light that reflects hope and truth and, befittingly, plenty of grace.
Photo below: Collins and her son, Clark, after whose suicide she wrote Wings of Angles, pleading "come to me in dreams again."
Photo below: Collins and her soul mate and second husband, Louis Nelson on their wedding day, 1996.