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Arts & Entertainment

Judy Collins Brings Holiday Cheer, Hits and New Album—Spellbound—to The Tarrytown Music Hall

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November 16, 2022

 

By W.B. King—

While busy learning Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2,” a 15-year-old Judy Collins found herself home alone one Saturday afternoon—her parents and four siblings were out and about. Needing a break, the burgeoning piano prodigy, who gained notice two years earlier with her take on Mozart’s “Concerto for Two Pianos,” tuned the radio dial to a station located near the family’s home in Denver, Colorado.

“The guy [deejay] playing songs on this particular show was very eclectic. You would hear Bach, unaccompanied cello sonata, and then you would hear ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ and at this time he was playing a song from a movie called The Black Knight, an Alan Ladd film,” Collins told The Hudson Independent. “It was ‘The Gypsy Rover’ and I was just so bowled over by this song.”

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As the last lyric — And he won the heart of the lady — emanated from the speaker, the deejay explained that the song was a traditional number reworked by an Irish musician, Leo Desmond. “I raced down to the music store in Denver and bought a copy of this record,” she said. The fact that Collins could race anywhere was miraculous as she had contracted polio at age 11, spending two months in isolation at a hospital.

Her dad, Charles, a blind man with a beautiful singing voice and talent for playing the piano, also had a penchant for Celtic songs like “Danny Boy,” which didn’t escape his daughter’s notice. “My father was very fond of those traditional melodies and the lyrics to them, but I certainly didn’t know about the folk revival,” Collins said, adding that she began tuning into the same radio station each weekend, yearning to learn more about this genre of music.

“The following Saturday, the guy was playing other songs including ‘Barbara Allen’ sung by one of my favorite singers, Jo Stafford,” she reflected. Stafford, who performed from the 1930s through the 1980s, had many hits, including “You Belong to Me.” The accomplished singer, celebrated for interpreting the “American songbook” of the day as well as ditties from across the pond, served as an inspirational figure. “So, two weeks in a row, this guy [deejay] played songs that actually started my career.”

And so it was that the piano quickly took a backseat to Collins’ new musical pursuit: learning to play folk music on the acoustic guitar. “My classical teacher was great but I had to go and tell her I wasn’t going to play Rachmaninoff anymore, but [instead] was going to learn folk music—she was not very happy about that,” Collins said with a knowing laugh.

While her family wasn’t considered “rich,” Collins’ father spent more than 30-years as a successful radio personality, which required moving the family from Seattle, Washington to Denver. His hard work and talents kept the family in “clothes, food and piano lessons.” Watching him succeed in his creative pursuits, she noted, served as inspiration. “I taught myself the chords. That’s how it started. I joined the folk music club in Denver—went to meetings, learned songs,” she said, adding that her ever-supportive father bought her an acoustic guitar. “I focused on getting together a bunch of songs and learning how to keep my calluses from bleeding all over the place.”

It’s Not a Matter of Choice

Launching her folk career in 1959, Collins began woodshedding (repeatedly rehearsing), performing small gigs and building her chops—all in an effort to better understand the folk revival movement, which was gaining traction in cities across America.

By 1962, she had released her debut album A Maid of Constant Sorrow, which was followed later that year by Golden Apples of the Sun. The songs were mostly traditional and arranged by Collins, but she also covered tunes like “Twelve Gates to the City” by Reverend Gary Davis.

“The first couple of albums I made were basically traditional and then I moved to New York City where I was managed by Harold Leventhal who also managed Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and a lot of different artists,” said Collins, who has called Manhattan home for nearly 60 years. “My take on folk music happened to gel around a handful of really superior writers, including Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton, and others from that period.”

In the ensuing years, Collins continued to release albums on the regular, including Fifth Album and In My Life, which featured her interpretations of songs by artists such as Lennon- McCartney, Bob Dylan, Richard Farina, Eric Andersen and Gordon Lightfoot. On the latter album, she also covered two songwriters who were then unknown, Leonard Cohen (“Suzanne,” “Dress Rehearsal Rag”) and Randy Newman (“I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”).

“Randy Newman got wind of the fact that I was recording it and he decided he was [also] going to record it,” Collins said of her lifelong friend who went on to have hits like “You’ve Got A Friend in Me” and “Short People.” “That was the decision he made—to become a songwriter instead of someone who wrote music for films, which a lot of his relatives did.”

As was the case with Newman’s material, Collins said the music she interprets “lands in her psyche” at the opportune time. “It’s not a matter of choice but being ready to hear something that is right for you and you know when it is—it really is magic.”

Yoko Ono once told Collins that she believed songs have their own direction—they know where they are supposed to go. “I tend to agree with her because there is no rhyme or reason to it, and by the way, not everyone chooses the same songs to do, thank goodness.”

Collins counts herself lucky that certain songwriters have fulfilled a niche artistic yearning that dwells within. This was the case when she first heard Leonard Cohen’s songs. “He landed in my life completely synchronistically. I have a friend, Mary Martin, who grew up with Leonard Cohen. She was working for Warner Brothers. Leonard trusted her and asked where he could go with his songs,” Collins recalled. “Mary responded, ‘Judy Collins keeps recording other people’s songs. She is probably the person to go to rather than trying to play your songs for Bob Dylan because he’s not going to record them—most of the people in the Village were recording their own songs.’”

‘Tears and Fears and Feeling Proud’

Sometime in 1967, Collins was awakened by a phone call at three in the morning. On the other end of the line was musician and producer Al Kooper, who had just finished a gig in Greenwich Village. By chance, he came across a captivating young songwriter, Joni Mitchell. After hearing Mitchell’s songs later that night, Kooper knew Collins had to hear them, too—pronto.

“He put Joni Mitchell on the phone and she sang me ‘Both Sides Now.’ I said, ‘I’ll be right over!’ There is a lot of mystery in all of this.” Collins said, adding that she recently received an unexpected phone call from Kooper after a long spell of silence—this time he was calling just to catch up with his old friend.

Collins would include “Both Sides Now” as well as another Mitchell tune “Michael from Mountains,” on her seventh album, Wildflowers. The former tune would earn her a top-10 hit and the 1969 Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance. “She is such a great artist,” she said of Mitchell. “I am so fortunate that over all these years I recorded some of her best songs, I think, but she has loads more—she really is quite amazing.”

While Collins is often inspired by other artists, she unknowingly became a muse for one of Stephen Stills’ most celebrated songs. A recent ex-boyfriend who had gained popularity with The Buffalo Springfield, Stills gave her a private performance of a then unknown tune that would forever lovingly tie their lives and careers together. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” would be the second single on the self-titled debut album, Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969).

“It’s an amazing song,” Collins reflected. And each time she hears the seven-plus minute, four-part opus, she said “The whole thing gets me—it’s just a great song. There is something about that group [Crosby, Stills & Nash] and how they came together and what they created together—what an honor to be a part of it.”

Collins was one of the first people outside of the band to hear the uniquely harmonious, insightful and expertly crafted tune. In her estimation, Stills is one of the greatest songwriters of all time. “We have managed to stay friends for decades now. We did 115 shows in 2016 and 2017 and it was one of the highlights of my career. I had a ball,” Collins said. “Every show was a pleasure. To be on stage with him for two hours each night and sing every song with him — what a privilege.”

Spellbound

During that tour with Stills, the duo made a stop at The Tarrytown Music Hall where Collins will return on December 9, 2022 to perform songs from her “Holiday and Hits” tour.

Collins enthusiasts may hear songs such as “Joy to the World,” “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night.” She will also be playing songs from her 55th, Grammy-nominated album, Spellbound, which holds a rare distinction in her vast catalog: all 13 tracks were written by Collins—no covers or interpretations. “I’m still searching for that song that is moving and evocative—that makes people think and feel,” she said.

While she has written and performed her own music over the years, including a song in honor of her dad, “My Father,” which was released in 1968 on the album, Who Knows Where The Time Goes, Spellbound marks a new songwriting direction for the seasoned artist.

“I imagine this was due to the pandemic. I was working on these songs and they came together much more quickly than they would have otherwise because I wasn’t on the road,” Collins said. “I could focus and spend the time.”

One track, “City of Awakening,” seemingly celebrates her loving and longstanding relationship with New York City as does “So Alive,” which places the audience in her shoes during the folk revival of the early 1960s.

Guitars over MacDougal Street, sandals in the snow, when I fell in love with you, I was the last to know,” she sings. “Down in Greenwich Village, we were scattered through the night, singing at the Bitter End under all those lights…”

The lyrical content for the songs, Collins explained, were born from poetry she began writing in 2016—reflecting on experiences that occurred throughout her life, including relationships, illnesses, accidents and overcoming addiction. “I gathered from that exercise the bones that would become Spellbound,” which was released on Cleopatra Records in early 2022.

Collins’ celebrated voice and approach to instrumentation, including wonderful piano accompaniment, is in top form on the album, which was produced by Alan Silverman and Russell Walden. Among the introspective and sometimes haunting tracks are nostalgic and hopeful songs like “When I Was a Girl in Colorado.” She sings, in part:

When I was a girl in Colorado. Rivers danced on canyon walls. Paint brush nodded in the springtime. I could hear the bluebirds’ calls. When I was a girl in Colorado. Winters held me in its arms. Summers rocked me like a lover. I could never come to harm.”

How Sweet the Sound

Among other notable songs on tap for the upcoming show in Tarrytown are Collins’ acclaimed versions of “Send in the Clowns” and “Amazing Grace.” Her rendition of the latter hymn, which her grandmother used to sing to her as a child, was first recorded in 1970. In 2017, it was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.”

The former song penned by Stephen Sondheim for the 1973 musical A Little Night Music has been recorded more than 200 times by artists including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Kenny Rodgers. The same friend who had connected Collins with Leonard Cohen suggested that she listen to the soundtrack of the musical. “At the time, I had no idea who Sondheim was and never heard of A Little Night Music. I didn’t know a lot about Broadway. My friend asked me to listen to ‘Send in the Clowns’ and call her after—this was 1973. It was a great song,” Collins said.

“The truth is ‘Send in the Clowns,’ as performed by me, was the only hit he ever had. It’s just very odd,” she said of the 1975 release, which appeared on her album Judith. The chart-topping song earned her a Grammy nomination and Sondheim the 1976 Grammy Award for Song of the Year. In 2017, Collins celebrated her dear friend with the album, A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim, which includes 10 of his compositions.

“And again, it [‘Send in The Clowns’] did come through my friendship and my relationship with the songs of Leonard Cohen—through that karmic line that exists between friends,” she offered.

Performing upwards of 100 shows per year, Collins, 83, says she has no intention of slowing down—quite the contrary.

“I’ve been working in this profession for 63 years and I’m never giving up. If you’re an artist, there is never an end to what can be done,” she continued. “I don’t keep these songs alive, these songs keep me alive.”

 

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