We traipsed to the packed hallway to hear a legend. I was grateful to be in the position to be writing about Judy Collins, a memorable voice from childhood and beyond. Collins, a piano virtuoso who, at 13, made her public debut performing Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos, but whose rendering of the folk genre’s songs of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell brought her the kind of fame to give credence to her career-span of more than 50 years. Her love of lyrics and stories grew like wildflowers from these early influences, and her melodic sense was brought to life with the purity of the effortless voice and guitar accompaniment she brought to us. Her first album A Maid of Constant Sorrow was released in 1961, and she has worked throughout these many years. Then her discography followed with so many lovely renditions of folk songs and originals, it would be hard to choose favorites, but when she sang “Someday Soon” I remembered my eight-year old self singing and playing it on the ukulele for my parents, but substituting, “he loved his DARNED old rodeo” for “damned” to clean it up a bit. It was really touching to hear the actual song coming out of her actual mouth, after all these many years.
So the lights went down and we were in darkness. Then came the sounds of a perfect and so-familiar voice singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, a cappella. I thought it was a recording, so flawless it was, and then the lights came up and there she was, the Folk Goddess, the Grande Dame herself, all in black with shining hair and pale skin, a vision, 12-string guitar in tow. From my seat behind the post, I could see her right elbow and the neck of her guitar, though my view of the piano player, her excellent accompanist Russell Walden, was spot on. However, rather than complain to the hand the fed me, I moved to the back and stood throughout the rest of the concert. I had to be able to see her move and sing and talk to be able to write about the experience.
So she sang. And sang. And talked. And sang. And she let us sing with her on many songs, which sounded like a choir of angels in this acoustically amazing place we are so fortunate to have. She moved seamlessly from Christmas songs to other things, all the while telling tales of her childhood Christmases and thoughts of her father and family from long ago. Her father, a blind radio broadcaster, a singer and musician as well, taught her the skills of “picking good songs”. She and her siblings were amazed that he could read Braille Christmas stories in the dark.
She ventured from the holiday to tell the story of meeting Joni Mitchell and recording “Both Sides Now”. I thought of when I first knew it and sang it myself. I remembered painting the words, “I’ve looked at clouds that way,” at the edge of a painting I’d done of a bird trying to stand on a cloud when I was
an artsy teenager running wild. I hadn’t thought of that for years…She recently re-recorded that song with none-other than Dolly Parton, for whom she had lovely accolades.
Miss Collins, as she prefers to be called, ventured into snippets of many songs, some Gaelic and ancient, “Lark in the Morning” and others, and talked about the origin of the yule log, to bring back the sun for those who doubted its return, and I felt like Old Christmas was part of my blood. Then “Amazing Grace” with all of us carried along by her soprano timbre, and we felt as if we were a part of it all.
Then she went into my least favorite period of her music, though Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” earned her the 1975 Grammy for “Song of the Year”, I guess I’d heard it done so many times, I am disillusioned by it. And “Pure Imagination” was a little too Disney-esque to real the dark parts of my soul, I supposed, but Miss Collins proved she could still hit those notes effortlessly in the high register, which actually seems to have gotten better in the ten years or so since I saw her last. At times, the high note at the end of the songs seemed slightly gratuitous, as if to say, “I can still do it,” but the fact remains that she CAN still do it, so she’s justified, if anyone ever was.
Her performance of an original “Mountain Girl” was bittersweet with the lyrics “I’ve had my share of their riches and fame, Done things I never should have done, Been broken hearted and broken some hearts, Tried running hard from my pain, And all along that voice calls in my soul, Come back to the mountains again.” Many of us have been there. “Where every sunrise starts
I’ll heal my heart for awhile, Mountain girl in the city, You’ve been gone far too long, Find your way back to the mountains Where you know you belong…”
Then intermission, and a costume change to a sparking white pantsuit, more suitable for the piano segment of the show, I suppose. She was a vision in white, to say the least, her hair piled high, her make-up flawless, looking exactly like Judy Collins. She sat at the Steinway, (an amazing lovely musical beast, that Steinway), and went right in to the song “My Father”, my almost favorite, her hands moving gracefully across the keys like wind and water and Paris dreams…Lovely and lyrical and just really perfect.
Then on to the most moving story/song I’ve heard her do, called “Blizzard”. Wow, just wow. It had to be true. “Colorado, Colorado, When the world leaves you shivering And the blizzard blows, When the snow flies and the night falls, There’s a light in the window and a place called home At the end of the storm.” It tells the tale of being stranded with strangers in a blizzard for the night, with the smallest details rendered tenderly, her voice soaring about the snow and wind, and we were with her, cold and watching the storm play out. “Me and the stranger, you know I don’t talk to strangers, I’m a private sort of person but a blizzard is a blizzard, And somehow I found myself saying you’d left me,Tellin’ him everything I wanted to say to you…” Sometimes it’s like that, you know. You pour your heart out when you know there’s a storm ahead, and you know you won’t see someone again.
So she left us with more Christmas songs and more memories and we felt rather honored to have spent the evening with this musical marvel, who exuded dignity and class and a certain regality. From her brief venture forth, down from her Folk Icon Pedestal to the Hall of Carnegie, Miss Collins, now in her 70s still inspired and uplifted a sold-out crowd.
She still knocks out about 80 to 100 shows a year. She has also authored several books including the inspirational memoir Sanity & Grace, which deals with coming to terms with the death of her only son, and it articulates much to all who have endured that kind of sorrow.
She also now has her own record label:
and you can visit the website:
So when Miss Collins comes to town, expecting limos and feather pillows, shyly ducking away on the stairway of her hotel, grant her these wishes. After all, who is more entitled to singing on her own terms than the divine spirit of folk history herself, the one and only Judy Collins. Because “there’s a light in the window and a place called home at the end of the storm”. Bravo.
= Susanna Robison-Kenga. LBSPY 23 (Dec 31-Jan 14)