When a song is right, she knows
Say “Judy Collins,” and most people immediately respond with favorite song she has sung: Both Sides, Now, Chelsea Morning, Send In the Clowns, Amazing Grace ....
Breaking through as part of the folk music scene in the 1960s, she has been performing and and recording for more than 50 years. On Thursday, April 23, she returns to the Ridgefield Playhouse stage for the third time.
“I’m delighted people are coming to see me,” Ms. Collins said. “It’s a nice venue, a nice place to work and people can enjoy being there — I’ve been in the audience there. I’ll be doing some things from my newest CD, Both Sides Now, as well as from the Irish show.” She was referring to her September 2013 concert at Dromoland Castle in Clare County, Ireland, which was released in both CD and DVD format about a year ago, and has played on PBS.
Music has always been a part of Judy Collins’s life. “I was very inspired by my father, who was a fantastic singer and performer in all kinds of ways. He did an old-fashioned radio show, where he performed, conducted interviews, wrote skits, everything. He introduced me to a lot of different music and musicians,” she said. She also began playing classical piano at early age; considered a child prodigy, she studied with Antonia Brico, making her public debut at age 13 performing Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos.
But she liked words and took up the guitar and song, performing locally within three years and eventually making her way to the burgeoning Greenwich Village music scene where she was particularly drawn to traditional folk songs and protest poets such as Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. She was 22 when her debut album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, was released in 1961. She met Pete Seeger that same year.
“He was a fundamental part of my life,” she acknowledged. “I recorded his Turn, Turn, Turn on my third album, and I got to know him and his family very well; I loved them.” Like Mr. Seeger, who died last year at age 94, she has also been a lifelong advocate for civil and human rights. “It’s part of what drives me,” she said. “I try to do things that promote them,” including a stint with UNICEF.
Asked how she chooses her songs, Ms. Collins replied, “It’s a mystery... either it’s right or it isn’t. I have always been a big fan great singers and great songwriters ... I have been the first to record a number of songwriters — Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman — they influenced my life and I influenced theirs.” Cohen also encouraged her to write songs, and her Since You’ve Asked debuted on Wildflowers in 1967. But it was her recording of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now on that album gave Ms. Collins her first Top 10 hit, international prominence and won Ms. Collins her first Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance. Ms. Mitchell also wrote Chelsea Morning.
Ms. Collins says she generally finds or selects the songs she sings, but an exception was Stephen Sondheim’s Send in The Clowns from the Broadway play A Little Night Music. “A friend sent me a tape and said, ‘You have to hear this, I think you should record it’ and when I listened to it, I agreed.”
Released on Judith in 1975, Send In The Clowns has become a signature song. It made the Pop Singles chart in 1975, and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female in 1976; Stephen Sondheim won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year that same year. The song spent 27 nonconsecutive weeks on the charts in 1977.
Ms. Collins said she was not surprised Send In The Clowns was well received. “It is an incredible song... and Electra promoted it well.” Told that to date there have been more than 900 recordings of it, she replied, “It shows that if others have already recorded a song, it doesn’t matter; if you feel a song is right for you, you should sing it.”
Has she been surprised by the success of anything she recorded? “Amazing Grace was a surprise,” Ms. Collins replied. “Everyone was shocked, stunned by its success, but in retrospect, I think people were ready for it. We recorded in St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University. When Bill Moyers did his PBS show on the song and asked where I wanted to sing it again, I said, ‘Let’s go back to the chapel.’ And we did.”
Another song on Judith is a Collins composition titled Song For Duke. Who’s Duke? “Duke Ellington,” she said. “He was amazing. I keep his photo in my studio; it is the only one I have in there who isn’t a family member. The song is about his funeral. I don’t perform it often, but now that you mentioned it, maybe I will in Ridgefield.”
Ms. Collins attributes her popular longevity to loving what she does and living a very disciplined life, which she wrote about in her 2005 book Morning, Noon, and Night: Living the Creative Life. She has additionally written two memoirs, the most recent Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music in 2012, as well as a couple of self-help books based on her own struggles and experiences.
“I perform about 120 concerts a year, I’m always on the road... I have songs and books to do; you have to be disciplined to do it all, but I like the demands. I bring my own food and exercise every day; at home I use a treadmill. I also meditate and try to get eight hours of sleep every night. I live a pretty simple life dedicated to work.”
A relatively recent addition to her schedule has been time for Facebook. “I love Facebook; I do it often. It’s fun, fantastic.” She posts regularly and includes lots pictures, both current and of past performances and activities, such as singing the national anthem before a Knicks game last week, accompanied by singer-songwriter Ari Hest.
Judy Collins will appear at the Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 East Ridge, Thursday, April 23, at 8, as part of the Doyle Coffin Architecture Singer-Songwriter Series. Tickets are $60 and may be purchased at ridgefieldplayhouse.org or the box office, 203-438-5795.