Singer-songwriter Judy Collins

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Legendary singer-songwriter reflects on her career choices and discusses her new children’s book, Over the Rainbow.

After her public debut at age 13 as a classical pianist, July Collins continued to make her mark. She's recorded more than 40 albums, using her lifelong love of the guitar and a broad range of material—from folk and pop to standards and her own compositions. She's also written two memoirs, a children's book and a novel and is an accomplished painter, actress, filmmaker and record label head. Collins is a longtime social activist for causes that include UNICEF and suicide prevention. After four decades, she still records and tours.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Judy Collins to this program. The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter is one of the most popular and prolific folk artists in all of music history with seminal recordings of songs like “Amazing Grace,” “Both Sides Now,” and of course, “Send in the Clowns.”
In June she will release her new CD, called “Paradise.” She is also out with her first-ever book for children called “Over the Rainbow.” Judy Collins, an honor to have you on the program.
Judy Collins: It’s an honor to be here. I watch you all the time. I love your show. Thank you for being – doing what you are and being who you are.
Tavis: You are very kind, thank you. James Taylor, one of my favorites, not long ago in this chair.
Collins: I love him.
Tavis: He referenced your name and your music in a conversation with him about what a fan of yours he was.
Collins: Well, he’s a wonderful singer/performer. I adore him and I was flattered that he performed “Suzanne.”
Tavis: Tell me about that song, “Suzanne.”
Collins: I had a friend in New York who was a Canadian who kept saying to me – she was a close friend, Mary Martin. She worked for Albert Grossman, actually, the manager of many people, Peter, Paul and Mary and Dylan.
She kept saying, “I grew up with this Canadian and I want you to meet him.” So in 1966 he came down to my house, my apartment in New York, and he said, “I can’t sing and I can’t play the guitar, and I don’t know if this is a song.”
He had just started to write these things. Then he sang me “Suzanne,” so I said, “Well, you can sing and you can play the guitar a little.” (Laughter) “And I’m recording that tomorrow.”
Of course I was the first person to record his songs, even he hadn’t recorded them. Then I kept on and on. I have a whole album of Dylan’s – also Dylan songs – of Leonard’s songs, and I adore him. I think he’s a great genius.
Tavis: In addition to your own stuff, of course, you covered stuff over the years. I want to talk about some of that in a second. But what makes a song – I think this is a word – coverable for you?
Collins: It’s a matter of its being – it’s creating a love affair for my particular muse. I’ve had a lot of situations like the one with Leonard, where someone brought me an artist. He had never sung anything, he’d never written anything before. He wrote poetry, but not music.
I also was called on the telephone by Al Cooper one night at 3:00 in the morning, and he said, “I’ve got this girl here and she says she writes songs, and I heard one and I liked it a lot and I wanted to sing it to you,” here at 3:00 in the morning, and he put Joni Mitchell on the phone. (Laughter) So sometimes it’s just a matter of they fall into your life, like this one did, really. Like this one.
I don’t know what the qualities are. I can’t tell you because it’s mystical, it’s magical. I’ve turned down songs that were big hits for other people, including one that James Taylor sings that I think Carole King wrote. So it’s not a matter of logic.
Tavis: To your point now, if you’re comfortable doing so, is there a song, as you mentioned, that became a big hit that once you heard it you said, “Maybe I should have done that?”
Collins: Hm – no, no, no. I’m pretty –
Tavis: When you turn it down you’re comfortable with –
Collins: Oh, yeah, no, I could never have sung – it was a song that had certain lyrics in it that I couldn’t sing, and if I can’t sing it I won’t – it’s the matter of the language and the way it sits with you and the way it feels in your speaking and your singing.
No, I feel that these songs come to me and I’ve gathered them together in these 50 years, of course, but then I was raised with music of all kinds. My father played Rodgers and Hart and I played Chopin and Debussy, and then along came Pete Seeger and I was won, because that’s what I had to do, was to sing this kind of music.
Tavis: When you say that the lyric doesn’t sit right with you and so consequently you can’t sing it, are you talking stylistically or substantively? Put another way, is it the song’s styling that doesn’t feel right in your mouth, in your throat, or the lyrical content that you were referencing, that you can’t sing these words?
Collins: Mm-hmm. I can’t say what it is exactly, but it’s probably a matter of style. A certain thing that’s said a certain way which feels right – there are certain comments that we make or things in our language that sit very well in our language, but if someone who doesn’t know the language says it in a different way, it might not sit that way.
Also, the melodic aspect of the music, “Send in the Clowns” is a good example. A friend of mine called me, again, another gift coming right out of the universe to me, and she said, “I’ve just seen this great play called ‘Little Night Music,’ and there’s this song in it called ‘Send in the Clowns,’ and you have to sing it.”
So she sent me the album, I put the needle down on the track when you did that, and I played the song and I said, “I have to sing it.” I only knew that Hal Prince had produced this, so I called him on the phone and I said, “You have a great song here,” and he said, “Oh, I know, I know.” He said, “About 200 people have recorded it.” (Laughter)
I said, “I don’t care.” I said, “I have to sing that song.” He said, “Well, Frank Sinatra – I said, “I don’t really care. I have to sing it.”
Tavis: Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn – who hasn’t done that one?
Collins: So then in that case, (singing) Isn’t it rich, are we a pair, well, immediately I’m hooked. It sits in the voice and then there’s that beautiful English horn playing that note – it just fits. It’s like you put on a piece of clothing and it fits you.
Tavis: The other reason why I asked that question a moment ago is I wanted to get your take on the song’s styling, which you’ve just commented on. But I want to stick with this point about lyrical content. How important for you is the lyric, the word?
Collins: There are many, many kinds of songs that I sing. I sing songs that would be characterized as protest songs, although they’re talking about life – all kinds of life. Love and war and anti-war and pain – whatever the song is, the content could be almost anything.
The love song is terribly important, along with the song. We were talking about my new album, which is called “Paradise,” and on that album there are a number of things. There’s a duet with Joan Baez of a song that she wrote called “Diamonds and Rust,” and we sang it together at Newport. I see you have a picture of it.
I called her and told her I was going to sing the song, and she said, “Oh, let’s do it as a duet.” So we’ve done that as a duet. Then there’s a wonderful duet with Stephen Stills of an old Tom Paxton song, “A Lesson Too Late for the Learning.”
Then I recorded a song of mine that I wrote after 9/11. I didn’t know that I would write anything about 9/11, but I got to know some wonderful firefighters in New York City. I just fell in love with these guys, they’re so wonderful. I wrote the story about a party that I went to. It was the first kind of gathering of a social level after 9/11 of a lot of firefighters in New York City.
So I wrote that song. It’s called “Kingdom Come,” and every time I sing it I’m devastated to realize that the world changed so much. But I think it makes a difference. I also wanted to memorialize the firefighters themselves, because they’re so gallant.
Tavis: Why name that song “Kingdom Come?”
Collins: “Kingdom Come.” Well, the chorus says, “From kingdom come to hell and gone to somewhere far away, where murder doesn’t break the heart on a sunny day.” So it’s a phrase, of course, that we’re – kingdom come, we feel that if we grow up in this culture, speaking this language. It sits in a certain way. It also – lyrically, I think phrases that have that resonance sometimes remind us of a lot more things than what’s actually being said in the song.
So that combination – music, I’ve done this now, as you know, for 50 years, and I really believe in the live concert. All of us who are still around and singing, I think there’s a reason for that. I think people need to hear music, live music, and performers who are singing a range of experience, because they need to remember and they need to feel in the present, but they also need to be reminded of who they are.
Tavis: But do you need to do 110 shows a year? (Laughter) A hundred and ten is your average. Do you have to do that –
Collins: That’s about my average now.
Tavis: Yeah, do you need to do that many?
Collins: Well, there are a lot of people out there who need to hear a lot of music. That’s it. I’m very fortunate because I love that kind of work that I do. I do a series of appearances at the Carlisle in New York City. I start one on May the 4th again for six weeks. That’s really special, because I sing for a number of nights in a row and I have a good time doing that.
Tavis: You mentioned earlier that you grew up, of course, around music. Everywhere in your space, music was all around you. When, though, did you know that music was your gift, that music was your calling, and when did you know that folk was your genre?
Collins: My dad sang Irish songs as well. He sang, (singing) Oh, Danny boy, in between the Rodgers and Hart. But I didn’t understand that that was folk music; I just thought it was what he did.
I was playing the piano, studying hard, playing with orchestras. At 13 I was debuting playing Mozart with a symphony. I was a very serious pianist. But I also learned “Laura” from George Schering and I learned all these great songs from my father, too, all the Rodgers and Hart.
But I was about 14 years old and I came home from school one day and I turned the radio on, and they were playing a Jo Stafford song. I really knew her for “Shrimp Boats are Coming” and “You Belong to Me,” and she was singing this song – (singing) “‘Twas in the merry month of May when the green buds were swelling,” and I was hooked. (Singing) “A young man on his deathbed lay, for the love of Barbara Allen.”
And I said, “Oh, my God, I love that song. I have to sing that song. And then I found out that was a folk song. It’s funny for Jo Stafford, who made her living as a pop singer, to do this, but she made an album of folk songs in 1950, and I happened to hear it.
Then I heard the “Gypsy Rover,” and between those two songs I was gone. I was won. Part of it – well, all of it, I suppose, is the story. I want the story. I want the melody, but I want to tell the story, whatever it is.
Tavis: Tell me, speaking – I’m just mesmerized by your voice, sitting here.
Collins: Oh, thank you, thank you.
Tavis: Speaking of stories, tell me the story behind this children’s book, “Over the Rainbow.”
Collins: Well, I’ve been a friend of Peter Yarrow for many years – 50 or so, I guess – and he called me one day and he said, “I’m calling you for the first time in years. It’s not about a benefit. It’s about a book that I want you to do, a children’s book.”
He had a big success with “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” and they gave him an imprint, so it’s the Peter Yarrow imprint on Imagine, the publishing company, and he said, “I want you to sing the favorite song of everybody in the world,” which turns out to be “Over the Rainbow.”
So I said, “That sounds great.” I had sung it once on the “Dinah Shore Show” a long time ago, ’82. They did a beautiful orchestration for me and I sang it. But I didn’t ever otherwise sing the song. Although the song was born the year that I was born, in 1939.
Now I’m telling on myself, but why not? (Laughter) I have earned the right to sing the song.
Tavis: You have indeed, yes.
Collins: So I said, “Yes, I’d love to sing it. I’d love to sing it.” So I recorded the song and this book – I think the art in this book is so special. In the back there is a CD that has my version of “Over the Rainbow,” with the bridge, which was very special. It wasn’t in the movie, and it’s a great little bridge that – little verse, I guess, that opens the song.
So that’s on the CD in the back, and also two other children’s songs from my days at camp when I was growing up.
Tavis: The paintings in this thing are – is it Eric –
Collins: Eric Puybaret.
Tavis: Puybaret, I didn’t want to mess that up.
Collins: Yes, he’s a wonderful artist.
Tavis: Yeah, it’s great. It’s a great piece of work.
Collins: He’s not actually a children’s – well, I suppose now. Form follows fashion, I guess. He’s now – must be considered an illustrator of children’s books because he’s done Peter’s book, “Puff,” and this one, of course, but he’s a painter by profession. I think he did a beautiful job.
Tavis: He did an amazing job, as did you on the CD.
Collins: Thank you.
Tavis: As you have done with everything else you’ve lent your voice to.
Collins: Thank you. (Laughs)
Tavis: Her name, of course, Judy Collins. The new children’s book that she performs inside of, with great paintings by Eric, is called “Over the Rainbow.” The forthcoming brand new CD from Ms. Collins is called “Paradise.” I am delighted to have you on this program.
Collins: Oh. I haven’t seen the cover before. Just interested –
Tavis: Did you like that?
Collins: I like the cover.
Tavis: Show her her cover again.
Collins: I approve of that.
Tavis: Do you approve of this now that it’s on national television?
Collins: That’s an Annie Leibovitz photograph which she gave me, and so I thought –
Tavis: Hard to go wrong with Annie’s photograph on the cover of your CD.
Collins: Yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: So you approve?
Collins: I approve, yes.
Tavis: All right, we can sell it now.
Collins: Yeah, you can get it out there.
Tavis: Go get it, now. Good to have you on the program. (Laughter)

Collins: Thank you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm