The results of the 2016 Presidential election cannot be sitting well with Judy Collins this week. The folk legend, writer, social activist and public speaker has been an openly progressive force dating back to her first record in 1961, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, which featured a cover of the venerable title track (changed from “Man of Constant Sorrow”), plus more traditional cuts like “Wild Mountain Thyme” and “Pretty Saro.”
Throughout the rest of her (at times tumultuous) career, Collins would record her own renditions of vital protest songs such as Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now,” which peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. The 77-year-old Seattle native’s catalogue not only helped soundtrack such era-specific issues as the unpopular Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, but through her music, Collins also shone a light on now-legendary songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Eric Andersen, Ian Tyson, Randy Newman and Robin Williamson, among others.
Today, Collins still performs and releases new material (her latest was this year’s joint effort with singer/songwriter Ari Hest, Silver Skies Blue). She also maintains an active presence on social media, often posting about politics, and before the election, her favored Presidential candidate. Prior to Election Day, she wrote on Facebook: “Let’s do it—get this experienced, steady, thinking, working, motivating, smart, connected and respected (around the world) candidate into office. Stop fooling around with a land mine that could go off in your hands and in the White House—do the right thing for your country and your [sic] chidren. Yes!! Vote for Hillary—Celebrate diversity and the American Dream.”
Paste caught up with Collins earlier this month (just prior to Cohen’s death and Election Day, unfortunately) to look back at her storied career, talk about her friendship with Cohen and her feelings surrounding Hillary Clinton, whom she calls “remarkable.”
Paste: You started out as more of a classical musician, then you changed course to become more involved in the folk-music revival in the ‘60s. What triggered that change?
Judy Collins: I did study seriously and I played with the symphony and studied with a great woman conductor who was also a great pianist. So I got really a incredible training when I was growing up, being able to listen to and study the classics and then also have all the music that my father did, which was popular music at the time, you know the Rodgers and Hart songs and the Great American Songbook. Of course in high school I did all kinds of things, and in junior high I sang in church and school choirs and performed in the Broadway shows we did in school.
When I was 15, I found a couple of folk songs on the radio and was just completely dumbstruck by them and I decided I must get a guitar and I started hanging out with the Denver Folklore Society and buying all the records and listening to Bob Gibson, Josh Wyatt, Jean Ritchie and all these wonderful artists and of course Pete Seeger. I quickly decided that [folk] was what I was going to do instead of being a classical pianist.
Paste: The movement had a lot of left-wing ideology behind it. Was there something about that that spoke to you even as a young person then?
Collins: Oh, yes. I was raised in a very proactive, radical kind of family—outspoken, always on the edge of things. My father was in radio but he talked about everything that was controversial. And he was controversial, so I was up for that, too. It was the age in which the war was going on, and we were opposed to the war and we were very much in favor of getting rid of racial segregation. It was all a part of the package. You had to be out there on the barriers of trying to change people’s minds, and I think we did change people’s minds. Both with the music and our activism. So it fit right into my own personality.
Paste: What gives you new ideas and inspiration for projects to pursue?
Collins: Well, I’m open to new ideas. I’m a great reader—that’s my main addiction. I also always wanted to write and have written a number of books now in my life. My first effort was a songbook in 1969 and actually, it was Stephen Stills who suggested to me that I should write instead of just putting out a songbook, that I write chapters. He knew about my family and knew they were interesting, fascinating, different and odd. And amazing! Not a run-of-the-mill family. He suggested I write seven chapters about my family, which I did.
That was the beginning. And then after I got sober in 1978, I began to think about writing a book about my life. So my first big memoir was published in ‘87. Since then, I’ve written a number of books about different aspects of my life. That’s been a balance between the songwriting and performing. Then, because of the books, I’ve been able to do a number of speaking engagements along with my concerts every year. I’ve been doing about 130 shows of one kind or another. Probably 15, maybe 10 of those were performances, or rather dates where I have speaking engagements about mental health or suicide prevention or other things. It’s a good balance for me, a lot of different ways to look at what I do.
Paste: In the years since getting sober, how would you cope with the moments when you felt like you might relapse?
Collins: First of all, I was fortunate enough to be stopped in my tracks and sent to treatment by a doctor who understood what was wrong with me. This was 1978. And I found the program, the 12-step program. Those are the secret weapons agains the addiction. And I don’t think, frankly, between you and me, that anybody stays sober, truly sober, unless they are involved in a recovery program. They say your whole life doesn’t matter, you do it a day at a time. You stay among the people who are doing what you do. You take your day, one day at a time, but you know your sobriety represents not just your own, but everybody else’s. In other words, if I relapse, God forbid, I’m taking everybody else down with me. I don’t want to do that. It’s a “we” program that I belong to. It’s not just me, it’s not a selfish “look what I’ve done.” It has to do with an entire community around the world who are practicing certain tenets of behavior. You always have a solution. You always have a go-to place. You always have a friend to call. You always have contact with reality.
Of course you can relapse. Since you’re dealing with an illness, we know that people who have cancer or diabetes, other kinds of illnesses, they can relapse, so why not the illnesses of addiction? However, the more you know, the more you understand. The more we deal with it as a group effort, the safer we are. I can’t do it alone. I never have done it alone.
Paste: I wanted to talk a little about Leonard Cohen and his latest album, You Want it Darker. I know you two have been close over the years, and you covered songs of his, like “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag.” As someone who was so instrumental in Cohen’s singing career, how does it feel for you to witness his critical success 50 years later? [Editor’s note: This conversation took place in the weeks prior to Cohen’s death at 82.]
Collins: I discovered him. He came to see me in 1966 when nobody knew who he was. He was a total unknown to me and the world. He played me “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” and I recorded them both, which put him on the map. Then I recorded more of his songs—I recorded before John Hammond came along and put him on Columbia Records. I recorded half a dozen of his songs and made him a known quantity. People then began to discover.
I was instrumental—he knows that, he is very generous to me and always has been and acknowledges as everybody else does. If you read I’m Your Man, you’ll see the extent to which my being forceful about supporting him made it possible for everybody else to be excited about him.
I just have every respect for him. After I had recorded a number of his songs, he called me one day and said, “It’s very wonderful what you’ve done for me and I’m so grateful—don’t stop doing it.” Then he said, “I want to know why you’ve never written any songs of your own.” It was the question which in a way, really changed my life, because I started writing immediately. I mean, you don’t have somebody who is a monk and a genius to ask you that question without responding. So I began writing my own songs which I’ve never stopped doing.
Paste: Why do you think Cohen was so intent on seeking you out in the ‘60s?
Collins: He knew what I had done for other people. By 1966, I had recorded Eric Anderson and Phil Ochs—all of these people now had a bigger audience after I recorded their songs. He knew this. Our mutual friend, Mary Martin, who worked for Warner Brothers, had been talking to me about Leonard Cohen for years. We’d have dinner together downtown and she’d say, “This guy is so wonderful, I went to school with him. He’s a poet, now he’s published a few books of poetry, he’s so interesting and intelligent and mysterious!” Then in 1966 she said, “Oh, Leonard wants to come to you!” There was sense in that, not only because she was a mutual friend of both of ours, but because he knew that that’s what I did from the start. I made other people famous. So he’s not stupid! That’s one thing about Leonard, he’s not dumb.
Paste: I’ve got to tell you, I love your Facebook page. I particularly enjoyed the post where you were talking about how your cats refused to watch one of the Presidential debates. You also frequently reference your close relationship with the Clintons. I would love to get your perspective on watching Hillary, who named her daughter after one of your songs, run for President of the United States.
Collins: It’s interesting. It’s mind-boggling actually. The whole thing is mind-boggling. Of course she’s up to it. She can keep steady and she can keep focus and she can keep on message, she can keep from being flustered, which I think is remarkable! I don’t think anybody who hasn’t had her kind of background would have been able to, in the way that she was, to maintain her steady position. It says a lot for good breeding, of her experience, it says a lot for survival. I think you have to be able in life to take what comes along and turn it around and make it something that helps you and helps other people. We’re not in this alone, and I think that was the message Hillary gave to all of us. That we’re here together and we can do something positive.
Judy Collins will be performing with Ari Hest at the Cafe Carlyle in New York City through November 19. Tickets are available here.