Judy Collins Talks Resolutions, War, and Keeping It All Together
It’s been 58 years since Leonard Cohen told Judy Collins that he did not understand why she wasn’t writing her own songs. Just 27 years old at the time, she was on the way to recording some of his—popularizing “Suzanne,” “Priests,” “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” and others along the way—but until that moment, she’d never thought to do it.
So Collins went home, sat at her Steinway, and wrote “Since You’ve Asked” in 40 minutes. The tune appeared on the first side of her 1967 album, Wildflowers, sandwiched between Joni Mitchell’s “Michael from Mountains” and Cohen’s “Sisters Of Mercy.” The album is Collins’ highest charting collection of songs to date, but in early-2022 she finally released her first album of all-original music, Spellbound, which earned the 84-year-old her seventh Grammy nomination.
In recent years, Collins has been writing nearly one song every week, and she thinks Cohen, who died in 2016 at the age of 82, would’ve loved her latest record.
“I would send him songs when I wrote them, and he would send me notes and tell me how wonderful they were. So I was always grateful,” Collins told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “His friendship helped me out. He inspired me with that first question. He got me going. And then after that, it was up to me, of course.”
And after a Christmas holiday where she received books, a couple ornaments (fireman Santa Claus, microphone), a candle in a butterfly container (“I love butterflies”) and scarves (“They cozy me up on the road and they help me get through things”), Collins—whose voice soundtracked the highs and lows of an entire generation—is looking ahead. She kicks off a 20-date winter tour next week in Orlando, and brings it to Tampa Bay later this month.
Collins even has a few resolutions for the new year.
Some of them, in her own words: Work harder. Keep on the edge. Forgive, forgive, forgive. Delight in the present. Keep your weight steady. Do your exercises and your bone strengthening. Take care to think of all your relatives and friends every day; try to pray for them in this difficult time.
“It’s always a difficult time on this planet. I don’t know how we get by, or what we’re supposed to do, but hang in here and try to exist and survive,” she said.
Art, she added, can help to that end. Oftentimes art has also chronicled her own survival.
“Mama Mama,” born in the wake of Roe v. Wade, followed Collins’ signing of an open letter where she and 52 other American women including Nora Ephron and Billie Jean King wrote, “We Have Had Abortions.” A year after Roe was overturned, Collins doesn’t have an answer for why men remain so obsessed with telling women what to do.
“Why does it have to be so hard?,” she asked. Working through the answer, Collins noted that maybe war, and fighting, and anger and ferocity is part of our planet and life.
While forgiveness is doable for her, one of the hardest things for Collins—a leading activist voice in folk music—is expressing how vehemently she is opposed to war. She usually deploys a Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie song to help and regularly sings “Masters Of War,” but the Bob Dylan track that Collins recorded for her 1964 album Judy Collins 3, won’t be in the setlist at The Cap this time around.
“Since this disaster in the Middle East, I’m not singing it. I just can’t even bear it. It’s too painful. I don’t want to take people to that place in the moment,” she explained. Instead, she said that “Amazing Grace” or “Imagine” by John Lennon might help.
"We need a song that transcends the moment instead of leaving us to have to live in that feeling of despair and horror and hunger and human suffering. We don’t have to live that through a concert,” Collins said.” We have to be given something to lift us over that and through that.”
Overcoming is not a new concept for Collins. After quitting cigarettes in the ‘70s, she developed an eating disorder. Like her father, alcohol was her drug of choice for a long time. She’s even chronicled those struggles in books, and has been sober since April 20, 1978. Like her dad—a blind singer, pianist, and radio show host—Collins remained disciplined and happy through it all. To this day, her own family calls Collins a cockeyed optimist, but in her view there aren’t many choices outside of looking forward.
Even among all the chaos and destruction, there has to be something beyond today that will turn out well. She offered the aftermath of a forest fire as an example.
“The next spring, all the wildflowers come bursting out dancing around in their colors and their shapes and their shifts,” Collins said. “We have to look beyond the depths into what can be the brightness of the outcome.”
So as she marches towards her 85th birthday this summer, Collins offered thoughts on how to survive the year and life in general.
“I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, except that I do know that it’s one day at a time,” she said. Getting through your own battles and your own struggles with a degree of kindness, gentleness, and understanding is the ideal.
“If you can’t see that on the planet, you have to do it in your life,” Collins added. “To show gentleness, to show respect, to show forgiveness, to be an even handed neighbor and friend—the kindness to one another is essential."
Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The Daily Beast.
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