Culture Cafe on RTE 2XM: Interview with Judy Collins


Culture Cafe on RTE 2XM: Interview with Judy Collins

As part of Show 99, in conjunction with, I had the opportunity to speak to a true legend, Judy Collins. Judy is playing in The Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire on June 18th.

Listen to The Interview with Judy Collins

This is the full unedited interview, along with an intro from the show itself. I met Judy in The Four Seasons hotel in Dublin, the room was empty apart from two chairs and a small round table. Judy was sitting on the chair to the left, I sat on the one on the right. Judy was loving her afternoon tea, so you’ll hear the clinking of cups during the interview, I preferred to have it like that, the recording device being less ‘in your face’, I believe, makes for a more relaxed chat.

She has some fantastic stories to tell, and I loved listening to her. Stick on the kettle, make a cuppa and enjoy.

Judy will also be inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame this year as well as recording a television show for PBS in America which will feature Irish songs.

Read The Interview with Judy Collins

Judy Collins has had a music career which has spanned seven decades. As a child she studied classical piano before picking up guitar to play covers of well known folk songs. As her career progressed Collins then started covering songs of then unknown writers, including Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. She also won a Grammy award for her original rendition of the Joni Mitchell song Both Sides Now. Vanessa Monaghan caught up with Judy Collins, to chat about her musical career. As a kid, I remember watching old western films on the television. There was an actress who was always the mother of the family, always in soft focus and who always looked so regal. Meeting Judy Collins, she immediately reminds me of this lady. She’s having afternoon tea which she calls “the most important of the day” and a great “pick me up“.

At 74 years young, Collins is still touring, still doing press days and still telling stories about her life. As our chat begins, it’s clear that is what Judy Collins is – a story teller. She doesn’t just give you the bare bones, she beautifully fills in the backstory, so you get a feeling that you have actually delved into her life a little. Collins grew up in a musical family, where her Irish father was a local radio DJ. She studied classical music under Antonia Brico, who was the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, but her life headed in the direction of folk music when she picked up the guitar.

When Collins was fourteen and a half, “you have to always count those halves when you’re 14“, she had a group called The Little Red Riding Hoods. She went to a forward thinking High School. “We had a Jewish Head Girl and a black Head Boy and we were semi upper middle class white folks, we were very well educated, a college education in high school, I like to say.” The group played the local Lions Club, the Elks Club, the Lowry Airforce Base, the school show. “I would sit at the piano“, says Collins, “make up the story and they would be the characters. And so we did this everywhere. We were going to take it to Las Vegas, it was very successful and everyone loved it.” But they needed more than one performance piece. Collins love of music is very apparent, and she sings the melodies of the pieces she describes. “I would get home from school, I had to practice two hours everyday, by now I was learning the big Rachmaninoff concertos.

One Saturday, she was home alone and put on the radio. ‘”We had a big Emerson console. I didn’t listen to much radio. I turned it on and they were playing a song The Gypsy Rover (sings). I thought Oh My God, That’s it.” Running to the local music shop, Judy took her prized piece of vinyl home and put it on a stool beside the piano to sit down and learn the piece later. “By mistake I sat on that record and I broke it into like 15 pieces. I had babysitting money, and Christmas Wreaths, I sold Christmas Wreaths at Christmas, so I didn’t have the money to go get another one.” She called her friends, told them to listen for the song on the radio and they learned the lyrics from there. “The good thing was that it was the soundtrack to a movie called The Black Knight, it was an Alan Ladd movie and this guy called Leo (Maguire), he was from Dublin and he was singing and playing The Gypsy Rover.

The Gypsy Rover was the first step to folk music. The same radio DJ played a second song which was to cement Judy’s love for folk, a song by Barbara Allen. “It wasn’t Woody Guthrie, it wasn’t Pete Seeger, it was Jo Stafford who made her living singing See The Pyramids Along The Nile and My Funny Valentine, She was Scottish and she loved singing Scottish songs, so she and her husband Paul Weston had made an album. It had been released in 1950, but they were playing them in 1954 for some reason and there I was at the radio and I heard it. And those were the two songs that swept everything else away.”

Judy lived in Denver, Colorado from the age of ten and lovingly refers to the folk music scene there as “the folk music coven.” It included “The oddballs, the kids who had long hair and played banjos and guitars and were part of the great folk movement and pretty soon I was right there. I was playing guitar, going to school, sitting on the mall singing This Land Is Your Land for credit because my sociology teacher was so understanding, and going up to the mountain to hear all these incredible singers sing The Silver Dagger Songs and all the songs about Ten Thousand Goddamn Cattle and The Lavender Cowboy.

Although The Gypsy Rover and Barbara Allen’s song had catapulted Judy to the folk scene she didn’t sing the song “for decades.” Collins recalls that it was probably in 2003 at ‘The Wolf Trap Concert’, where she sang a selection of Irish songs. “My father sang Danny Boy, If You Ever Go Across The Sea To Ireland and The Kerry Dancers. He had a lot of Irish songs in his repertoire. He was Irish, he bragged about it all the time and neglected to talk about England ever except to say he never wanted to hear about England. The big change with the guitar, my father got me a guitar, he rented it, I always say, optimistically, but he didn’t want to pay a whole lot of money for something I wasn’t going to use. That was the beginning.” In 1956, Collins won a Four State Contest in Colorado, which meant she went to Atlantic City to sing for what she says were “probably ten thousand people in that building” alongside The U.S. Marine band and The Naval Cadet Choir. “Then they had me singing with my little guitar, Old Irish Folk Songs.”

Collins started “collecting” songs to sing, building up her repertoire. She signed to Elektra Records and started recording other people’s original songs, including Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne and Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man. “I knew Dylan before he became brilliant. I knew him when he was a little schlubby, badly dressed and with very bad taste, singing these terrible Woody Guthrie songs. You know Woody sang 3000 songs but this guy managed to find the worst of the songs and sing them badly.” Collins doesn’t pull any punches, she speaks openly, which is refreshing. “He was really an embarrassment and he was always following Woody Guthrie around, and Rambling Jack Elliot. They called him Rambling Jack Elliot’s kid because he followed them around like a puppy dog, went out to visit Woody with him, followed him on the road, he was really quite pathetic, I thought.” That all changed when Judy heard Blowin’ in The Wind. “He started writing these songs, the first one Blowin’ in the Wind just blew my mind. My opinion of him changed dramatically. When I was singing in Colorado, the first summer I was singing at The Guilded Garter, he was singing in Cripple Creek under the name of Robert Zimmerman but he has always said ‘I used to sit at your feet’ because he would come over to hear me at The Guilded Garter in Central City. He was desperately trying to get a job singing somewhere with anyone, doing anything, but when he started to write those songs it was another day, it’s incredible.

Judy was introduced to Leonard Cohen by a friend. “He came down to my apartment in New York to find out if I thought he had written songs“, she explains. “I heard them and said ‘Oh Boy have you ever written songs, I haven’t heard anything like this!’ ever and started recording them right away.”

In 1968, Collins won a Grammy for her rendition of Both Sides Now, the Joni Mitchell track which she first heard sang by Mitchell down a telephone line. Collins’ recollection of the time, gives an amazing insight into how close knit the folk community in New York was at the time. “I knew of her song. I didn’t know it in the sense of knowing how to sing it, but I had heard ‘Yesterday a child went out to wander’ because of Tom Rush, who was a friend of mine, I knew all these people in the Village. You couldn’t walk out the street without running into Tom Paxton or Dave Van Ronk or John Philips, who is a good friend of mine from The Mamas and The Papas, Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul and Mary). you couldn’t help it, they were everywhere and they were all trying to make a living singing in the little basket, some of them in the basket clubs and some of them starting to sign contracts, certainly Peter Paul and Mary, they were everywhere. When I saw the world was filled with songwriters, I was after them, like crazy. I got to know Al Cooper (Blood Sweat and Tears) very well. Blood Sweat and Tears was probably playing at The Village Gate when I heard them first and I was crazy about them, crazy about their music and I loved the players and Jim was on Elektra then. I knew them very well, Jim Morrison was on Elektra and The Doors were playing in the Village. Al and I were buddys and he called me up at three in the morning and he said ‘I’ve got this girl here (Joni Mitchell) and she said she could write songs’, which is why I followed her home and guess what? She can!

Winning a Grammy has always had prestige and previously was a showcase for artists, especially before the internet age. Did Collins see the impact of winning a Grammy on her career? She’s unsure. “I don’t really know because it came in the middle of a lot of successes that I was having and I was nominated for four Grammys during that time, in the space of five or six years, sometimes I would go, sometimes I wouldn’t.” Collins continues, “Things had already shifted quite dramatically by the time I had the Grammy. It does add lustre to an artist’s career and I think it was important to the general music business, perhaps more important than it was to me if you know what I mean. My life was so much about being in the music and singing the music and travelling all over the world, that I’m not sure I was really processing what it meant to win a Grammy for that song.” Judy continues her explanation. “For me it was another time to get my hair done and go down and sing. The Grammys moved around a lot, they were in New York a lot and they were in LA a lot and I think we went to LA, although I can’t really recall where I was when I got that but then I was having a big success with my movie which I had made about Dr Brico. I was nominated for an Academy award.” Collins, alongside Jill Godmillow, was nominated for directing ‘Antonia: A Portrait of The Woman’, a documentary about her piano teacher, Antonia Brico.

Her live show ‘Live at The Metropolitan Museum of Art at the Temple of Dendur’ which features guests such as Shawn Colvin and AniDiFranco was nominated for an Emmy and won the Bronze Prize at the new York Film Festival this year. “It was a good show, that’s the reason I’ve got the Irish special to do for PBS because that has raised so much money for PBS so that they want another, that I’ve been pushing them to give to me for a dozen years at least. So we’ll do ‘Songs Of  The Emerald Isle’ and we’ll try to keep that name going for the working title.” Collins got sober in 1978, she describes the ten years preceding that as “complicated by a lot of things and difficult to move through but there kept happening wonderful successes. If you were looking at the outside of the picture you would say ‘Well she hasn’t got any problems! What’s the matter with her? So she drinks, so what?’ But it was killing me actually so I had to do something about it.”

To date, Collins has written nine books, about her depression, her drink problems and the death of her son, but these real life problems never effected her relationship with music. “I don’t ever drift in and out, it’s so essential. You know you could think about that because of the way I grew up in the music business, because my father was  in the radio business, and always having to practice and always having to perform, always having play the piano for my teacher or play the Mozart piano concerto with the orchestra. There was always this constant combination of having a life, being a teenager, moving around in my world and practising music, music, music and helping mother clean the toilets on Saturday.” Collins continues, “It was always part of my life, so there was no way to separate them and anything that happened to me, I’ve dealt with in some way – either writing about it, or writing a song about it or processing it with some sort of artform. Mostly writing songs and making music and then always having to be ready to perform and being in the process, which I am now again, which I usually am of learning new songs and trying to get those to make sense to me so I could memorise them and sing them in public without sobbing my eyes out.

When GP mentions the fantastic fact that Judy has appeared on The Muppet Show, she shrieks “Oh God and what about Girls? And Sesame Street and ‘And Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest, ’63, ’77 2013!” With having such a fantastic and interesting career Collins has had, there are many things that she is glad to have done. “Chances that one takes. I’m glad I went to Chicago to testify for my friends, I’m glad I didn’t go to that convention, I probably would have been killed. I’m glad I went to Mississippi to register voters.

Collins sang at President Clinton’s inauguration and Chelsea Chilton was named after Judy’s recording of Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning. “I’m glad I sang for President Clinton’s inauguration. We wandered round the White House for eight years, we went in and out like we lived there. Louis (husband) and I went to the Inaugural Day, I was supposed to do an interview with Maria Shriver on the grounds of the White House so we were there moving around, seeing people, going to parties, seeing the inauguration, we had absolutely no I.D. With us we were staying at the Hay-Adams and just went out, walked up to the guard and said ‘I have to go in there because I have an interview’, and he said ‘Oh go ahead’. Nobody walks in, we had no ID, they just said ‘Oh, it’s Judy Collins’. I’m glad I sang for President Clinton, I’m glad he was a fan.”

Chatting to Collins, it also becomes apparent how involved in social activism she was, and still is. “I’m glad I did the work for UNICEF and went to Vietnam and Former Yugoslavia, those trips were amazing. Eye opening, although while I was marching against the war in Vietnam and doing a lot of things, socially and politically. I went to Paris during the peace talks in 1970. There was a group of us, about 100 of us, various segments of the antiwar movement. We got to Paris, first we went to the American embassy where they didn’t want to hear from of course and gave us a short shrift, then we went to the South Vietnamese embassy where they gave us a cup of tea and very short shrift and then we went to the North Vietnamese embassy and they gave us a bang up party which lasted about a day and a half. When I went to Vietnam, I knew some of these people and I was meeting them for the second time. You know Vietnam is the only country in the world that has a children’s governmental division, to handle all things, their health, their education.”

Judy’s trip to Vietnam has had a lasting effect on her. “I visited a lot of places in Vietnam with children, I just loved it, loved it, I must say. The people are so forgiving, are so Buddhist. I suppose that explains a lot of it but they’ve been raped and pillaged and mauled and slaughtered by the very best, Genghis Khan right on through, everybody had a crack at them. But they just forgive it and they move right along. So that was a tremendously important moment being there, living in a country where, whatever you think of him, whatever he’s doing, we have a black President, that’s pretty awesome and you wouldn’t have taken bets on it at one time, I would think.” Even at 74 years young, Collins, doesn’t rest up. “I never stop, I need to write more songs, I need to write another novel if I can get my hands around it, certainly a couple of books that I have started. I have a television show I have to raise money for this Irish show coming up and I’ll get this. When it came upon me last year I thought ‘Oh My God, I don’t know how to do this’, but Eleanor Roosevelt said ‘You have to do what you cannot do’ and I have more books to write, more songs to write more records to make, more television specials to make.”

As a working artist, Collins does over 100 shows a year, tough going no matter what age you are. “It’s hard work but I do love it and I’m enthusiastic about areas that perplex others like, I love airports and I love flying. Nowadays you can get anything in an airport, you can get a fine meal, you can go to the bookstore, go online, you can get a massage, you know those little machines you sit in? They’re very good! I sat in one the day before yesterday coming out of Maine, I thought Oh My God, this is the best.” For Judy though, PBS is an important outlet. “The television specials on PBS in the States function in a way that the radio used to. It’s the only way to sell albums at a commercial level. Sirius XM doesn’t do it, no other TV show does it, nothing that will stimulate that wonderful up-sell of the records and CD’s and raise money for PBS, which is the closest we have to your state run television stations and your much better programming, as far as I’m concerned. It’s the only thing we really have so we have have to keep it going and keep it alive and as a working artist, it the equivalent of my Top 40 radio stations 25 years ago, which ain’t happening anymore.”

Just when you think she can’t be any more awesome, literally awesome – it’s hard not be be in awe of this wonderful lady – she goes all techy. “My compatriot who runs my businesses and I started our first website in 1996 when there were 8000 websites in the States, so I had to.” In 1984, a friend of Collins, Erich Kunzel, suggested that she “brush off that Rachmaninov Concerto and do it with the orchestra.”

She practised “like mad” and played her first movement for Gary Graffman who told her it would be possible but she would need to practice for a year. “I remember leaving Gary’s apartment and saying, ‘that’s not what I’m going to do, I’m going to write a book’. It was Christmas time and I was talking with my brother who was very savvy and he said ‘you have to get an Apple 2C’, if you remember these ancient devices. I went to Bloomingdales and I bought an Apple 2C. I got it working and I started working on my new book which wound up being called ‘Trust your heart’, my first big biography.” The Apple 2C wasn’t quite up to scratch though. Collins needed to be able to use bigger files. “I started buying tech books in the stores and found something called the ZRAM and I bought the ZRAM, it’s basically an enlarged chip. I found a way of dismantling the Apple 2C, putting in the Zram and it gave me the files that I wanted.” She had three of these machines, including one she brought on the road with her. “We were at some kind of a convention at Apple and the guy who headed up Apple at that time and I were talking. My husband said ‘well she has hooked up the ZRAM to her Apple 2C and she’s also printing out on a digital printer called the KISS’. The guy from Apple said ‘That’s impossible , you can’t do that with an Apple 2C’ so he said ‘I’m going to send someone up to your house and check it out.’ So they put me on the cover of Insider Magazine because I had found a way to crack this insulated system and get done what I wanted to do. My son used to say to me, ‘You’re a hacker, you’re a born hacker’