The mid to late 1960s was a time of great discovery of Canadian songwriters. Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell received exposure for their soon-to-be classic songs as a result of their being recorded by American singers. When you look back at those years, it could be said that no-one did more for these young songwriters’ careers than Judy Collins. Starting as a singer of traditional folk songs, she soon established a reputation for highlighting the songs of new artists such as Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen and the aforementioned Canadians.
At this year’s Mariposa Folk Festival the legendary folk icon put on a stunning performance of some of her best known songs along with the stories behind them. She also sang selections from her latest album, Spellbound. Although her albums from the mid-60s onward have contained her own songs, the new album is Judy’s first containing all original material.
During her performance on the newly-christened “Lightfoot Stage” Judy reminisced about meeting Leonard Cohen in 1965. A friend had been telling her about Leonard’s poems and how he had started to write songs. Both the poems and songs had been described as “obscure” but Judy agreed to meet Leonard anyway. As she recalled the event, Judy took one look at how handsome Leonard was and decided it didn’t matter how obscure his songs were, they would “find something to do.”
Judy recorded Leonard’s 'Suzanne' and 'Dress Rehearsal Rag' for her 1966 album, In My Life, and soon convinced him he should be performing these songs himself. Following the successful reception for his songs, Leonard commented to Judy that she had made him famous and she should start writing her own songs. Judy went home and soon afterwards came up with 'Since You’ve Asked', one of her best-known compositions.
In 1967 Judy had begun hearing about a young songwriter by the name of Joni Mitchell. There were a number of women in the music scene around New York City’s Greenwich Village at that time but not many were writers. One night at 3 o’clock, Judy received a phone call from Al Kooper, who was a staff producer at Columbia Records and would later form Blood, Sweat & Tears. Joni was at his apartment, and he wanted Judy to hear 'Both Sides Now'. Judy loved it right away and recorded the song for her Wildflowers album. 'Both Sides Now' became Judy’s first top 10 hit.
At this year’s Mariposa Folk Festival, I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes talking with Judy. First of all, I asked her what it was about writers like Cohen and Mitchell, and their songs, that grabbed her attention all those years ago.
“I don’t know what it is because it’s very organic,” she replied. “It happens in an instant. It doesn’t take analysis; it doesn’t take months of time; it doesn’t take other people’s opinions. It just hits or it doesn’t.”
Judy’s approach to what makes a good song also applies to her own compositions. A friend of hers described the songs on Spellbound as the circle of her life. The autobiographic songs reach back to her days growing up in Colorado, to being part of the Greenwich Village folk scene, to life during the COVID-19 pandemic. When asked how you draw the line between writing an autobiographical song to revealing too much detail about your life, Judy replied, “I have no idea how you do that. I don’t analyze anything I do. If it comes out, and it sounds like a song, that’s a good start.”
There were two surprises about Judy Collins’ appearance at this year’s Mariposa. First of all was the fact it was her very first time at the festival.
“The first time in 63 years! What were they waiting for?” she said, laughing.
The second surprise was the quality of her voice. At 84 years old, Judy still has command of her singing ability and is still able to reach the high notes she’s been known for.
“In 1965, I was having a lot of problems, losing my voice and sounding hoarse from singing too much,” she recalled. “I asked two people who I should go to. They both gave me the same name and just a phone number. When I got back from Russia that year, I was in really bad shape. I called him up, told him who I was and who had recommended him to me.” At first reluctant to work with Judy, “because you people (folk singers) aren’t serious,” Max Margulis agreed to work with her. Amazingly Max lived only a couple of doors down from Judy’s apartment in New York City.
Over the many decades of her career, Judy Collins has continued to record albums and create award-winning television programs. She’s the author of several books, including her memoir, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life In Music along with running her own record label. And she’s still searching for new songs to sing.
“I just heard a song today. Don McLean has written an incredible song about George Floyd, and I’m already thinking about how I’m going to record it!”
For more on Judy Collins and Spellbound, go to: http://www.judycollins.com.