A lot of elements – a lot of thought – go into a Judy Collins concert.
“There’s the element of surprise – something new, something different,” she says. “It has to have some well-known songs. But I never sing all of my hits.”
If each song is a story – woven with poetic lyrics, a haunting melody and limpid vocals – then a concert “stresses the arc of the songs selected. There has to be a beginning, middle and end. I tell many stories along the way. And it always ends with me at the piano.”
For her Oct. 25 gig at Manhattan’s Town Hall, she says she’ll probably include “New Moon Over the Hudson,’’ which she wrote for a concert taped in Ireland a year ago that’s become a popular feature of PBS’ pledge drives. Collins’ Irish ancestors fought in the American Revolution and the Civil War. “New Moon” is her way of keeping faith with those who live to see me born and in their dreams…saw the Irish morn.
This being autumn with the dreaded “w” season approaching, she’s planning on singing “The Blizzard” and a song that should hearten all those who despise the winter, “The Fallow Way”:
I’ll learn to love the fallow way
And listen for the blossoming
Of my own heart once more in spring
As sure as time, as sure as snow
As sure as moonlight, wind and stars
The fallow time will fall away
The sun will bring an April day
And I will yield to summer’s way
“I can get into it in many different ways,” she says of her creative process. “The Fallow Way” came to her as a poem when she was in the country, watching it snow. She called up a friend, the novelist Erica Jong, who said, “Oh, that’s not a poem. Those are lyrics to a song.” So off Collins went to the keyboard.
“Sometimes the music comes first and finally the lyrics.” Some songs are in pieces, waiting for Collins to get into the studio to weave them together. It isn’t easy to find that time.
“You have to earn a living,” she says. And that means going out on the road as she has for five decades, putting a stamp not only on her own unique songbook but on the songs of others. Indeed, such are her gifts as an interpretive artist that many of the songs we think of as Judy Collins songs were written by others. Is there a more poignant arrangement/interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” or a more powerful one of “Amazing Grace”? Can you remember anyone else singing Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”? Or Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”? Some or all of these might turn up on the Oct. 25 concert, with one or two selected for encores – codas to the aria that is the night.
There are other, less well-known renditions that get some play, deservedly so. A reading of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust” – her tough, tender account of her love affair with Bob Dylan – turns up on Collins’ PBS concert set against the dramatic backdrop of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur, complete with her recollections of the young Baez and Dylan. And her rollicking version of “City of New Orleans,” on the double-CD “Forever: An Anthology,” is sure to set toes to tapping and heads to bobbing.
Songs are not all that dance in Collins’ fertile mind. She’s written nine books, with a 10th manuscript – which she can’t discuss yet – now with her agent. Most of these are nonfiction, including memoirs like last year’s “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes,” in which she dealt with her alcoholism and suicide attempt and her son’s suicide. “Shameless,” a mystery set in the music world, provided an escape. “It was so much nicer to be let out of one’s own story for a change,” Collins says with a laugh. She has an idea for a new novel, drawing on some of the characters in “Shameless.”
As to when she finds time to practice, compose, record, tour, write and do speaking engagements, well, credit the discipline of her upbringing and her classical music education.
“I grew up in a family in which you had to do your homework. You had to do your practicing,” she says.
Seattle-born and Denver-raised, Collins was the oldest of five children. She describes her father, the blind singer/DJ Chuck Collins, and her mother as liberated. So was her classical piano teacher, Antonia Brico, who became a conductor at a time when few women dreamed of such a musical career.
Collins’ classical background “grounded me in organizing my time and putting in the hours practicing the piano.”
And while the East Coast folk revival in the 1960s called to her, setting her on her path, she never forgot Brico. Collins and Jill Godmilow made a documentary about her in 1974 for PBS. “Antonia: A Portrait of a Woman” was also released in commercial theaters and nominated for an Academy Award. Collins says it will return to PBS this year in honor of the film’s 40th anniversary. She has had a long relationship with public television, with another PBS special planned for 2016.
“I love it. PBS has been very good to me.”
A friend of the late Jim Henson, Collins appeared with The Muppets on “Sesame Street” three or four times, performing 16 different songs. Despite Miss Piggy’s reputation, Collins says there was no diva-dom on the set: “They play well with others.”
Given all that she’s accomplished, it’s hard to imagine downtime for Collins. But she makes downtime – reconnecting with her far-flung family on the road, going to the movies and heading off with husband Louis Nelson – a designer who created the mural wall for the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. – to their Connecticut hideaway. WAG can’t resist asking if it’s true that she and Nelson actually maintain separate households – an arrangement we know some wives wish they had. Collins laughs her throaty laugh.
He maintains the Connecticut place. She maintains the Manhattan apartment. “And it works out that way.”