Judy Collins v14
Judy: I think transitional moments in our lives are, it's very important to put them together like a string of beads for yourself so you'll remember a know where they are, if you can.
Helga: You know, I like to listen to and read a lot of philosophical things. Things that suggest, you know, if you just get out of the way, your life will unfold like it's some kind of magic thing. And you know what? Sometimes it is a magic thing.
You could sit next to someone whose work you've long admired. But who's always been a person on the TV. Someone you never, ever, ever thought you would meet.
And so you live your life. You go to the concert that your friend invites you to and you sit down and something says, "Turn your head." Which exactly what I did.
Helga: And there she was. Sitting there just beautiful and calm and relaxed. I'm Helga Davis and this is my conversation with Judy Collins.
Judy, let's even just start talking about...
Judy: Okay, let's just talk.
Helga: Because what I feel is interesting about our meeting and why it's so wonderful that you're here. It's like we've met in reverse. I had gone to the Beacon Theater for "God's Love We Deliver".
Helga: And it was very, very loud. And so, I went outside and I got some earplugs. And I came back to my seat and it's like something said turn your head. And I looked to my right, and there you were. And I said, "I'm going to offer Judy Collins, ear plugs."
And I offered you ear plugs, do you remember?
Judy: Oh yeah.
Helga: And then you said, "May I have a pair for my husband?" And I said, "Absolutely. Absolutely " And so we were able to protect our hearing during that concert.
The other thing that was interesting about that evening is that there was a woman behind me who said, "Would you mind if I had a pair also?" And I said, "Of course not." And she said, "I'll pay you for them. I'll pay, I'll pay." And I said, "It's, it's okay. You can have them." And then a couple minutes went by and then the person she was with said, "Give her the money." And she tapped me on the shoulder again and I said, "I really want your money." She wanted to give me $20.
But also said something to me about the time that we're in. And how we can be less than generous with one another.
And then I got the email inviting me to come to Joe's Pub and participate in your Vanguard Artists evening. And I was asked to sing "Wings of Angels".
You know, it's hard enough to cover someone else's music. But let's talk about when it's you. And then let's talk about when you're sitting there in the audience.
And so there I was with this song and I didn't know what it meant to you, like I knew, but I didn't know. And so aside from being nervous about singing it because you were in the audience. I wanted very much to get out of the way because there isn't anything you need to do to the song. And I wanted to be sure to connect my heart to your song.
Judy: Thank you. Well, of course the song that you sang is the song I wrote about in my son's just "Wings of Angels". And I even have trouble singing that song. I don't often sing it because I have to be very, very clear of any outside things that may get in the way of it.
And when I heard you do it, I just was so moved. So deeply moved. Not only by the song and the fact of what it is about, but your singing was gorgeous and transportive and it just sent me to a totally different place.
But I've never heard a singer. As you did, take such beauty and put it into the song and make it so transportive.
Helga: It was really my honor to give that back to you.
Judy: Well, we were, my husband and I were spellbound. You know, we said, "Oh my God. What an artist. What a great artist this is." And Helga, I'm now, I'm a fan. I now, you know, I've, you revealed a lot of things to me and, I treasure them.
Helga: As do I. Thank you so much. It reminds me then to ask you about being on a path being on your path. There's a wonderful, wonderful quote from Joseph Campbell. If I can share that please for a second. "
They thought that it would be a disgrace to go forth as a group. Each entered the forest at a point that he himself had chosen where it was darkest and there was no path. If there is a path, it is someone else's path and you are not on the adventure."
You know, you started out covering other people's songs. And one could say that that wasn't necessarily your path because eventually you went on to write your own.
Judy: It's all music is its own path. And, of course, interpretive musicians are what is all about because everybody who writes music. Including opera writers, et cetera. It depends on the people who are going to take this work and then transform the rest of the world with this work. This is true for, of course, every composer. Chopin, Debussy.
I've grew up playing those. I started playing the piano when I was about five and singing the songs that my father was making his living singing, which were Rodgers and Hart songs. But my life was engaged in performance, learning how to perform, learning how to take the instrument that I have that I was born with. Of course, take care of it.
That's the great center of the path. Is taking care of the instrument, because otherwise you have nowhere to go on the path. At least with what you want to do with singing.
So that was my path. To study, to perform. I was singing in public since I was five or six years old. Going on my father's radio show, learning.
To be 80 years old and have a career that's 60 long and still do 120 shows a year and write songs and try to focus always on getting some practice in every day. It's chop wood and carry water. That's the path.
And whatever your instruments are, you must learn to do them. Being able to sing somebody else's music is a privilege, but also, it's a work in progress. Falling in love with a piece of music was always the key.
When I was first starting was studying with Dr. Brico, her process, she was this monumental woman who came into my life at the age of 11. My age. She was startling, extraordinary Dutch Italian woman born out of wedlock and transported to the States from Holland when she was about four and a half, five years old, and made her way to become one of the great conductors in the world.
Helga: What was she like with you as a teacher?
Judy: Oh, she was wonderful and she grabbed me at 11 years old and said," Little Judy. have you cut your nails?"
Judy: And I of course, stayed close to her. It broke her heart course that I stopped playing. I had to tell her I was going to play that. She wanted me to play that with the orchestra. But then I said, "No thanks. I'm getting a guitar." And so on.
So of course, but I knew her story. I had sat as a student of hers on Saturday afternoons after we had lunch together and I played all my pieces, and then we listened to the opera from New York City. From The Metropolitan.
And then I would, she would sometimes, or her assistant would ask me if I would help her file her press clippings from all over the world. And I would sit there looking at photographs of her with Toscanini and with Casals. I had met Casals. I felt I knew him personally. He came to play for one of our sessions.
Helga: So you saw all of that and you saw the success she had, and yet you say you turned yourself into a folk singer? And tell me how, how that was transformative for you to cultivate activism, and to make yourself into the Judy who is sitting here with us today?
Judy: Oh, I go back and talk more about my childhood. My father was an activist. Born activist. He was born blind, practically blind, and by the age of four, he couldn't see squat.
And he was incredibly talented. Of course, he was musically driven. He wanted me to have the right kind of training. And he was an activist.
He had a radio show for 30 years, and he used to talk about all the things that were taboo. You know he used to say, "How could I be prejudice? I'm a blind man. I can't even see what you look like in the first place."
He would talk about McCarthy. He would talk about the war in Vietnam. So we'd sit at the table in the kitchen for dinner or for breakfast and talk politics and in fighting fights that needed to be fought. And so then you get the music coming at you, which is consisting of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and "This Land is Your Land" and "We Shall Overcome". And I don't believe that one can write a song about issues, which is not heartfelt and beautiful and forever lasting.
I think lot of people who try to write songs about issues of the moment get lost in the technicality of who, what, where, and when, and forget about the art as a melody and the poetry. But rarely when one is written and lasts forever, I do think it changes the world.
Helga: So here's a piece that seems to have lasted forever. "Amazing Grace".
Helga: How do you navigate knowing the history and having it still be something that is important to you. That you must sing.
Judy: Well, first of all, it's one of the great songs ever written by anybody. And when I learned it, when I had it in my head, because my grandmother would sing it, I don't think she knew a thing about John Newton or whoever it came from or who he really was, or what happened in his life. But she knew it and she taught it to me.
And I was, by the time it happened, that is my recording of it. I had been desperately trying to figure out from the time I was in my teens, what the hell was the matter with me, because I couldn't stop drinking.
And, I went one night to a dinner party with my friend Tom Hoving and his wife. And there was a guy there, African-American, tall, beautiful looking man named Kandy Latson. And he had just escaped from a place called Synanon in California. That was Chuck Dietrich's drug rehab. community. And you are not allowed to escape from Synanon. Once you were in, you're supposed to stay for life.
And this, after all was 1969, and Kandy got himself to New York and got involved with the Phoenix House and started leading encounter groups. And he, I was introduced to him that night at this cocktail party. And I told him that if a bunch of friends and I were going to go up to Vermont and look for property, and he said to me, "Until you encounter one another you can't live together in Vermont in any property."
Helga: You encountered Kandy?
Judy: I encountered Kandy. He encountered a bunch of us. And we never looked for land. And this group went on. We'd meet at each other's house and Kandy Latson brought in a man, I swear to God, named Sandy Jackson. And Sandy Jackson and Kandy Latson led us, these upper West side, middle-class, mixed race, mixed religions, mixed interests, led us in encounter groups.
And one day my producer was in that group. And one day in '69 my producer said, "I think you better sing a song because everybody's trying to kill each other in this group tonight. Everybody's at each other's throat, so why don't you sing a song?" So I sang "Amazing Grace" and just everybody just went, "Oh."
And the next day, and you know, everything calmed down. It was fine. Everything was love and joy and peace once again. And the next day he called me up and he said, "Well, we have to record it." And I had no knowledge about where it come from. So it immediately became, and you know, my record label Eletkra was, "What do you mean? Acapella? Hymn that everybody is now singing everywhere? It's a huge hit. How did this happen?"
And they were smart enough to do all the things that they should do with it, with the song? And that was excellent.
Helga: And you made it again part of the American imagination.
Judy: Exactly. Which I had no idea I was doing because all I knew was that it was a great song and that it had a power. When I sang it in public at any kind of occasion in a church, at a gathering of people of very mixed backgrounds. Some of them are religious, some of them not. Some are Atheists. Some of them Hippies. Everybody responds to this song.
Helga: And was it for you though?
Judy: I think that it comes from what happened to john Newton. I think it's- his shipwreck. He was a slave ship captain and he was, you know, he was a renegade. He was a bad guy. He was doing something that was really looked down upon and he had a shipwreck in which he survived. Some people died. And it was in Derry in Ireland. The shipwreck was on the coast of Derry.
Anyway, he came out of the shipwreck alive and not dead and said, Okay, I've got to change my life."
Helga: And was that a message for you also?
Judy: Oh yes. I think transitional moments in our lives are, it's very important just to put them together like a string of beads for yourself. So you'll remember and know where they are, if you can.
But to look at them in something in some other person. He then changed his life entirely. He went to a place called Olney and wrote Amazing Grace, and a lot of other songs was a fellow named Calper. And there are many hymns in many hymnbooks books that are credited by Calper and, Newton.
Helga: And how did it change your life?
Oh, I dunno. It probably kept me, kept me alive long enough to get sober.
And also his influence on a many Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a Parliamentarian in England who had been trying to pass a bill against the slave trade for decades. It took him 20 years to pass it, but he kept going to only in talking to John Newton who kept saying to him, "Keep at it. Keep at it. Just keep at it. Don't give up." And I think that's probably the message that "Amazing Grace" also has for me. Don't give up.
Was there anyone around you who understood that you were struggling with alcoholism? Did they try to intervene at all or was that just a thing of the times for everyone? And they say, "Okay, well, Judy drinks."
Judy: I don't even think that there was any question of talking about it. I was a very well put together drunk. I blacked out almost every night of my life, but Iwas, I had a certain style about the whole thing that led people to say, "How could she be an alcoholic?" You're successful. You look great. I worked my ass off to look great. I would do anything not to get fat. I would do anything not to fall apart.
My mother was a wonderful woman who didn't really drink much, but my father, who was a complete workaholic and a brilliant man and drank. And would also get up in the morning and be happy and smiling no matter how much, no matter that he'd passed out and been in despair the night before. But he was up and happy and joyous. And my sister and I were talking about it recently and she said he would always be singing. Happy.
But the depression was definitely chemical. I know that about depression now. There's no question in my mind that is, that's a chemical issue. That it has to do with DNA. And if you add liquor to that fire, which I did pretty quickly, by 15 I was drinking a lot. And so, by the time I was 19 I knew I was an alcoholic because I could feel that hole in my chest that I knew my father had. And the despair, which I would feel from time to time
Helga: What's the hole in your chest?
Judy: Oh, it's just a term for what looked to me like the end of the world hen I'd see him staggering in at the end of a drinking bout. And I knew I had it. And it was terrifying.
On the other hand, I thought to myself, well, if I'm an alcoholic, well let me do this right. And I did it right as far as I could. Until the last couple of years, and then it just about killed me. But before that, I had the balance of the perfectionism, the workaholism and the alcoholism, and they all allowed me to have an extraordinary career. Where i did not show- I did not break dates. I did not screw up. I showed up on time. I was responsible. I was creative, and I was surrounded by creative and positive people. So I was very lucky in that sense.
It's possible to have a big career when you're drinking. I've done it. I did it for 20 years almost. But, I was fortunate because I was almost dying, so. And I was intervened by a doctor in New York and sent to treatment in 19 78. And I was ready and I got it. And I'm one of the lucky ones.
And by the way, there are a lot of lucky ones. The 12 step programs and alcoholics anonymous work. I always go to meetings. I will never not go to meetings. And at 41 years, I love them more and more. I mean, they are the basis of my being on the planet. And I had also completely trashed my career.
Helga: What happened?
Judy: I was a drunk and it caught up with me.
Helga: And so where did the bulimia come in? So, you would do anything not to gain weight?
Judy: Yeah. I thought I'd invented it. I didn't even hear about it from my girlfriends who were in the sports world. I just said one day, "Ah, I get it. So I'll throw up."
I was always either under eating or I, you know, I cut this out. I was restricting with that. It was always to keep tracking. If I went on the Atkins and he said, "You could have a shot of whiskey and also just eat beef.” Let me, what a perfect diet for an anorexic, bulimic, alcoholic person.
Anyway, the vocal loss, which was I was dealing with in 1977 when I couldn't work at all. And I had to cancel I think like 45 shows or something that year. And, this was not good news for my record label. I mean, they were working hard on "Send In the Clowns”. Again, it was out again. It was already in the top 10.
And then I was lucky because I had the surgery, which took off the hemangioma from the vocal cord. And I was still drinking in October of that year of '77. But the voice was fine. It was coming back. It was fine.
It was a very unusual and new surgery. It was a laser surgery, and my doctor, whom I just adored, had said to me, You know, if you don't have it- if you do have it, you might have a chance. It's new. I don't know what could happen. It's laser. Everybody's over the moon about laser, but I don't know. Maybe it'll work. Maybe not because I haven't done it before." He said, "But I can tell you something if you do have it, we got a chance here, and if you don't, you're just not going to be able to sing anymore."
So I had it and I had it in October of '77 and slowly by January, February, I knew that I was okay.
Helga: Did you go back to singing lessons after?
Judy: I never stopped. I never ever stopped. I mean, my teacher and I were like this from 1965 t for 32 years. I studied with, so all through that he was there with me. And helping me to psychologically and practically get through this.
So of course what happened was it was, it was coming back. I was working on it. We were doing all the things. We always did. The clarity, the phrasing, and I wouldn't be here without having studied was Max all those years. That's for that. I know for sure.
And again, you know, he was a hard ass. He wasn't like Brico. He wasn't a pushover. He wasn't soft and sweet and cuddly and gracious. Even when I walked out on her. He was- and he was also adult, but he was fairly, you know, he, you'd go, "Okay, so sing me a few notes." You go, LA, LA, LA, LA, LA, LA, LA, LA, LA. And he'd say, "No."
I mean, the whole point of what he taught his Belcanto singing. And that's where you are able to bridge the break in the voice that everybody has. And be clear, clear from the, you know, cause you know this cause you're a beautiful, beautiful singer. I was blown away by your singing blown away. I don't say that to anybody.
Helga: know you don't. Thank you again because I'm learning to receive.
Judy: You're welcome. It's my privilege to tell you how good you are.
Helga: I'm thinking about my singing teacher who died a few years ago ay 101. And I was next to her and the people who were in the room said, "I think she would really like it if you would sing."
She had not been conscious for a long time and we were waiting. They couldn't pronounce her dead because the heart would not stop. And I think you have to not have a heartbeat for four minutes or something like that before they can pronounce you. And you know, at three and 50 it would go, "ba-boom."
And so I sat next to her and I started to sing a little bit. I was very sad though, if I may say one thing in my defense. And even from this place, she said, "No, darling, not like that."
Judy: Just like Max!
Helga: And I couldn't believe it. Even in death,
Judy: I love it.
Helga: Even here. You're going to correct me. And so I try it again and I don't know that I did anything differently. I don't know what I did. And she said, "Yes, darling. Yes." And that was it. That was my last moment with her.
Judy: Yeah, that's wonderful.
Helga: But like you, I also had to leave her. I think there's a thing about having to leave home many, many, many times. So that you can grow. When you're curious that you have a place to express that and these old teachers, it's like there's a book, there's a perfect sound. And my teacher was very, very much from that school.
That there's a, there's perfect placement. There's a perfect sound. And like your teacher, she was mortified that I didn't want to sing "Carmen" and that I didn't want to sing, and that I didn't want to sing, all these other things. And I would say to her, "Madam Federova, there are people all over the world who will always sing that music. I want you to help me learn who I am. Help me to learn about my instrument."
Helga: So that I can be of service to the world. And not just a particular part of the world. Yes. Right? Very true. Because I sat in her seats at the met that were eight rows from the stage center. And she had those seats for 20 something years, and that was not a small thing.
She sent me to hear Carmen hoping that I would fall in line and I was the only black person in the audience. And I just, I didn't want to do that.
Judy: I understand.
Helga: I didn't have that. And I don't have that thing to prove.
Helga: And I know that that's not all there is to that singing into that style, into that work, but that's what it was for me because her feelings were so strong about how I must rise above.
Some something and be the one.
Judy: But you are the one. Enough is enough. But you are. You know the, there's some things so wonderfully unique and beautiful and you about what you do. I love you're sharing this story about your teacher. And what happened at that moment when she was gone. She was leaving.
And when mine was leaving, I was up to see him and he was dying and I leaned over and he said, he whispered, "It's going to be alright. All you have to do is think about clarity and phrasing." And then it was goodbye. Goodbye Max.
You know, we let the beauty pour through for more over that place in us, that is us. And we have to find that place that is us.
Judy: And, and then it allows whatever it is, who's you, to come out and we can hear you.
Helga: You've given our nation such a clear and forward moving forward thinking voice from which to choose how we treat each other, to choose the kind of people in the kind of society, the kind of people we want to be, and the kind of society we want to live in.
What more do you do you see yourself doing? In what other ways do you see yourself participating in that way? And is that still important to you or are you. Are you looking to do other kinds of things now. I know you're going to be on the road. But you gave us back Amazing Grace.
Judy: Yes. I do, as I said before, 120 shows a year for the most part, with the exception of those two years when I really was out of it and and shut down. I have been on the road and that's what I'm good at. That's what I do best.
I have done television shows. I've put together albums. I've put together probably 50 or so albums over the years. I'm making others. I have ones that are coming up in the future. But, so what I do is to make records of some sort and put them somewhere, either on iTunes or on the road we sell them.
But I'm good at what I do. And the concerts.
Helga: And you know that, which is a big, big thing.
Judy: Well, it's a responsibility because I think that it's a service to people. You know, I'm sitting up there singing and loving it. I love it. And I'm in my own dream of whatever it is that's going on. And so is that audience.
And they're sitting there in the dark for about an hour and a half, maybe two hours. And they're, they don't have a chance to do that very much. They don't sit in silence. People in general don't sit in silence. I mean, that's one of the powers of the 12 step programs. You don't usually sit around for one hour in silence, listening to someone else, share their stories with you.
Then you respond maybe for two minutes in the audience in a concert. You don't respond except to clap maybe, and while they're thinking they could be changing their lives completely. They could suddenly think of some solution that they hadn't thought of before. And it is a service. I know it's a service. I know that live certain live music and, and, and, performances that have depth and that have a little more than fireworks and fancy costumes.
I think that there is something dynamically that happens. And it's good for me. It's good for them. I don't ever intend to stop doing it for as long as I can do it. And for me that's the most of what I can contribute.
A lot of people do a lot of other things. Yes, I write a lot of poetry. I write a lot of books. I write song. And sometimes I get to record them and sing them for people.
And I have a moment at the piano in all my shows where I sit down by myself at the piano and I usually play some of the new things I'm working on. So that's terribly important. And the privilege of having an outlet for what you do in private. That's really pretty hot.
Helga: Judy Collins, it's half hour before the show. What are you doing?
Judy: I'm in my dressing room. I've turned myself into Judy Collins now.
Helga: What does that mean?
Judy: Well, I got my makeup on. My face is done. I'm ready to roll. I've done my practicing. Then my wonderful accompanist comes out and we play a few songs. Test the guitar, test the sound. And then we have some dinner. And then I go into isolation. And I might even take a nap.
And then I go on and when I'm done, I scamper out of there like a bunny rabbit and go to the hotel and goes to sleep.
Helga: All the more reason that I appreciate your speaking with me after. The Vanguard Gala because I knew that you must've been exhausted.
Judy: No, I was inspired. I was not exhausted. No.
Judy: It was very, the whole night was inspirational and wonderful.
Helga: It was beautiful for us, and I feel, again, so honored to have been asked to participate and to sing that particular song. And so I'm going to sing it again next Friday.
Oh beautiful. I want to hear it. And I will for sure be doing my best to make you proud.
Judy: I know I will beat proud. Already I am.
Helga: Thank you, Judy.
Judy: Thank you. God bless.
Helga: And you.
And that was my conversation with Judy Collins. I'm Helga Davis. If you want more of these conversations, subscribe for free wherever you get your podcasts, give us a rating and share with a friend. You can also leave a comment. It really helps us out.
Helga is produced by Krystal Hawes Dressler and myself. Our technical director, composer, and sound designer is Curtis Macdonald. Lukas Krohn-Grimberghe is our Executive Producer. Special thanks to WNYC's Program Director, Jacqueline Cincotta and Alex Ambrose.
Be sure to visit us online wnycstudios.org/Helga.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.”