By Dave Thompson
It was 1976, the last time Judy Collins received a Grammy nomination for anything other than longevity, when “Send in the Clowns” was nominated for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. “Forty years later,” she said with a laugh, she’s back among the nominees, this time for “Silver Skies Blue,” her 2016 album with guitarist and singer Ari Hest (Best Folk Album).
It’s a remarkable album in so many ways, the same exquisite pairing of voices as highlighted the title track from Collins’ last album, “Strangers Again,” and an exhilarating blending of songwriting talents as well. In a career she launched in 1961, “Silver Skies Blue” rates among Collins’ finest offerings — while reminding her of just how hard she once had to fight for singer-songwriters to even be accepted within the American folk scene.
“One of the things that happened after I discovered both Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell was, I was on the board of the Newport Folk Festival, for all that was worth, and I told the other people I wanted to have a singer-songwriter workshop in the afternoon,” Collins recalled.
“I wanted to put it together especially for Joni and Leonard, but Janis Ian was involved as well, and I think Tom Paxton came. But I met a huge amount of resistance from the others... George Wein, who was the man who started the Festival, Pete Seeger, Harold Leventhal, Peter Yarrow, and although Ronnie Gilbert was on it, I don’t think she came to many meetings.
“So it was sort of the guys against the girl, the traditionalists against the populist, because even though Pete Seeger had been writing songs for decades, I had a very hard time pushing that through. Eventually I did, and it was a huge success ... but it was a struggle.”
Fifty years on, we forget just how polarized the American folk scene once was. Singer-songwriters had, of course, been a part of it for decades — Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan were simply the tip of the iceberg even then.
But then we recall that it was only a couple of years since Dylan went electric, and outraged great swathes of the community; and not much longer since he abandoned the protest polemic of his breakthrough songs (which were, by their very nature, deemed acceptable additions to the folk canon), and began concentrating on more personal, apolitical compositions. He did not simply break with tradition. He shattered it. But still the old guard fought on.
Collins never regarded herself as a songwriter in her earliest days.
“I started by recording traditional songs, or mostly traditional songs,” she recalled.
In fact, it was her performance of the ballad “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry,” a supernatural Scottish ballad today numbered among the Child Ballads of immortal repute, that first brought her to the attention of Elektra Records.
“That’s probably the reason why Jac (Holzman) signed me to Elektra in 1961,” she recalled. “He was very smitten with that and felt strongly that I should sing it.” “A Maid of Constant Sorrow,” her debut album, appeared that same year, bursting with her own unique interpretations of the traditional repertoire.
However, by her second, “Golden Apples of the Sun,” she recalled,“ I was recording W.B. Yeats in his famous poem (“The Song of Wandering Aengus”) and that was a leap. Then, for the third album (“Judy Collins #3”), I started recording songs that were written by city singers, of course Dylan, of course Pete Seeger, and Woody.” By the time she reached “In My Life,” in 1966, she was completely shaking things up.
“That one was a real departure,” Collins said. “It included (Bertolt) Brecht and (Kurt) Weill, it included something I put together from the “Marat/Sade” play, the Peter Brook production music that was put together for the play, and I stitched it together into something resembling a song. I had The Beatles on that album, which was a real departure, Donovan and Dylan, and of course an orchestra, and people probably didn’t expect I’d be doing that.”
For Collins, tracing her own evolution through the folk tradition, it was only natural that modern songwriters should be welcomed. Folk, by its very nature, is an evolving tradition, and every one of the songs that the purists held so precious was, at some time or another, considered “a new song,” by “a new songwriter.” It was time to open the door to some more.
She was fortunate to have Holzman behind her.
“Elektra supported me all the way, I never had a fight ... well, I had lots of arguments with Jac, and I still do, but they’re friendly and they have to do with art and artistic motives and aesthetics, and intellectual property,” Collins said. “But, fundamentally, he let me do what I wanted, and he was encouraging.
“He was the first person to send me the Jacques Brel material; he took me to the Bob Dylan concerts; he was enthusiastic about me working with Josh Rifkin. (And) when I was making “In My Life,” it was Jac who said to me ‘I’m missing something. I don’t know what it is but I’m missing something.’ And that was when I got a call from my friend Mary, saying ‘guess who’s coming to see you? Leonard Cohen’s written some songs and he wants to see you.’”
Collins’ versions of “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag” on that album established her among “the first people to record him in America.” He was friendly with Mary; she always used to talk about him; she and I had talked about him a lot as a poet, and she said he writes these wonderful books, and then she called me one day and said he’s decided he wants to come to New York and meet you, and he wants to play you these songs, his new creations, and you can tell him whether you think they’re songs.
“I’m sure he had no idea that I’d turn out to be a Leonard Cohen girl for a long time. I’ve recorded pretty much everything he’s written apart from ‘Hallelujah,’ and I’ve always just been wild about him.”
Her traditional folk canon, on the other hand, ebbs and flows in her thoughts. Mention of “The Great Silkie,” for example, reminds her that “It has dropped out of my repertoire and I should definitely bring it back. It’s a gorgeous song and the funny thing is, I have no idea where I learned that song ... whose version I learned. And that ignites another memory of those earliest days; how all of us who were in the folk movement at that point were influenced by each other.
“If you went to visit Izzy Young’s shop in New York, you’d find copies of the Child Ballads, copies of the records that were being made by other people, collections on Folkways and Topic, and all kinds of lore and interesting collections.
“Also, there was an awful lot of traditionalists around in those days, a lot of them on the Newport Festival board, and they were always guiding you to traditional songs and original sources.”
With such vintage, however, there came problems. A lot of old ballads, including many of those immortalized by Harvard Professor Francis James Child in the late 19th century, have reached us as lyrics alone.
Collins explains. “Child the collector did not consider the melody to be essential to the lyric and, quite frankly, I think that was one of the things that led (the folk scene) astray a little bit because we look at this work without the music and consider it in some kind of odd way as literature. But a lyric is not a poem and a poem is not a lyric, and I think it put us off on the wrong foot. A big piece of what tradition is about was missed.”
New melodies have been written, of course, or transplanted from other songs, and the majority of the Child Ballads today do have a tune of some sort — as Jefferson Hamer and Anaïs Mitchell reminded us with their award-winning “Child Ballads” album recorded in 2012 and released in February, 2013. But while “Willie O’Winsbury,” the performance that won them the gong for “Best Traditional Song” at the 2014 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, certainly employs a traditional melody, it’s not the one it originally had.
According to Johnny Moynihan of the band Sweeney’s Men, when singer Andy Irvine came to record the lyrics he’d found, sure enough, among the Child Ballads, “he got his numbers confused and emerged with the wrong air. By chance it suited the song very well.” And nobody seems ever to have sought out the right one.
Collins: “The lyrics are important, the stories are important, but the original melodies are important, too. They carry information, they carry ancestral memory. When a person is singing ... I’m thinking of the Stanley Brothers singing a cappella, ‘Oh Death,’ that incredible song. There we are, sitting in the audience, it’s dark, we’re listening to this, and we’re all going through our ancestral memories and musings, and he is too when he is singing. The melody is carrying us into our subconscious ancestral memories, and that’s what a lot of the old ballads are missing for me, and for all of us.”
Her pursuit, and championing, of modern singer-songwriters, both back in the ‘60s and thereafter, too, is Collins’ way of not redressing the balance, because that cannot be done, but ensuring such losses will never happen again. Her relentlessness has brought us new songs, new stories and, for the folk traditionalists of generations hence, new ancestral memories to relish.
For that, she deserves even more than a Grammy.