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“Speaking Freely” show recorded Oct. 2, 2001, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression and America. I’m Ken Paulson. We’re joined today by a singer with a great heart and a great voice, Judy Collins.
Judy Collins: Thank you. Thanks, Ken. Nice to see you.
Paulson: Nice to see you.
Collins: Thank you.
Paulson: I say a great heart because you are probably as well known for your commitment to social causes as your singing career. And you’ve been pretty successful at both. How many times have you been arrested?
Collins: I’ve actually been arrested three times, and two of them were for my civil rights. I was protesting the war in Vietnam. I was arrested on the steps of the Capitol and I went to jail for that. And there was another incident there in a protest against the war in Vietnam. I was also arrested on an airplane for using a cell phone. But —
Collins: … but I … we won’t talk about that. That was a terrible shock. I’ve considered it, in a sense, a freedom-of-expression issue.
Collins: But I don’t think that they did. But I have had incidents where I protested, where I’ve been involved with large protests ever since I was … I was a kid. My father was in the radio business and I’m not sure how he got away with saying a lot of the things that he said. He was very much not in favor of the blacklisting that went on during the McCarthy era and he spent a lot of time on the radio talking about it. So I was raised in a family where we talked about issues. We talked about the French in Indochina. We talked about McCarthy. And I was taken along to a lot of civic … situations and public situations where the issue of freedom of speech and the First Amendment were predominant and … and very much talked about in my home. So I was raised in that environment.
Paulson: And that instilled in you a social conscience where you felt you could make a difference?
Collins: Well, I think my father really felt that one person could make a difference. He was an amazing man. I always spend a moment to talk about him because he was blind from the age of four and he went on to graduate summa cum laude from the University of Idaho in Moscow. He became a pianist and entertainer, had a wonderful career in music, but also was a … a sort of a bit of a philosopher and loved good poetry and wrote good songs, and talked to us, all of us, all five of us, talked to us about life and about commitment and about the feeling that he had that one person can make a difference and does make a difference. So I was weaned on that. It was something that I always thought was true and still do.
Paulson: If your political consciousness was raised when you were a child, when did you discover that you had this amazing singing voice? Was that the same time?
Collins: It was about the same time. Freedom of speech meant freedom to think. And once I opened my mouth and started doing that, it seems that that perpetuated the whole thing. I think a day without singing is like a day without an apple, a day without a sunrise. So I always had that, and I … once I said to my mother, “Did you have to force me to practice the piano?” And she said … my mother’s 85 and she’s … she’s really, oh, we talk about her instigating problems because she is such a First Amendment person. But she said to me, “No, I didn’t have to force you. We didn’t force you. But I always had to remind you to wash your hands.”
Collins: Which I thought was so sweet, that she remembered. You know, God forbid I should put my dirty little hands on the beautiful Steinway piano. Recently — I had forgotten about this when you asked me — there were a couple of very interesting incidents regarding the freedom of speech. One thing I know is that people kind of … certain people in the community kind of watch you when they watch what you do, you know. They watch the songs you sing and the songs you write. And I remember singing a song about the freedom of choice for women. I wrote a song called “Mama, Mama,” which I put out on an album a few years ago, and I went to Roy Leonard’s show in Chicago and I sang it. And by the time I got to the other stations where I was singing it, the telephone lines had lighted up and they had all threatened to cut all the funding for these shows if I sang this song. So yes, it does happen. And you have to be courageous and go ahead and sing.
Paulson: That path you took professionally and politically began with a rented National guitar, is that right?
Collins: Yes. I had been a pianist and I studied piano seriously with a teacher who wanted me to become a great pianist. And she said she thought I had the stuff. And I had had a debut with the … with the symphony orchestra playing Mozart at 13, but by the time I was 14 I had heard things like (sings), “‘Twas in the merry month of May/When the green birds were swellin’/A young man on his deathbed lay/For the love of Barbara Allan.” And you know, I think Mozart and Debussy paled in comparison because I fell in love with folk music and I never looked back. And I had this National guitar from the rental joint and it cost … I don’t know what it cost, like seven dollars a week or something. And it came with jazz lessons. And so I went to the jazz lessons once and then I abandoned the jazz lessons and concentrated on learning to finger and learning to play “The Bluetail Fly” and other songs. And then, of course, graduated to “This Land Is Your Land” and the songs of Woody Guthrie, and … and the songs of … of what was becoming what my brother calls “the folk scare.” And I loved the songs, and I loved the literature in the music. It was so appealing to me.
Paulson: What timing, for a young woman who had a … a social heart, who had a great voice, who had a National guitar, right?
Paulson: And at a time when this country was changing dramatically and the kind of music you loved was emerging. I mean, you joined literally a movement driven in part by young women like … like you. Do you remember those early days and some of those early alliances and friendships? You … you had to meet a young Joan Baez, certainly. You certainly ran into Bob Dylan.
Collins: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.
Paulson: What were those days like?
Collins: Well, they were very exciting. It was very … it was very fast and … and very … now, in retrospect, it all went so quickly. But in the time that it was happening, it seemed to be a slow process. My own work was growing. I was going to the clubs that I was working in. I had to make a living and it turned out that I … the only thing I really knew how to do was to sing and to play the guitar. So consequently I made my living in the clubs in the early ’60s and eventually got to Newport where I met all kinds of singers. But all along the way, I’d be … been meeting people like Tom Paxton and Eric Anderson and … and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Mimi Farina and Dick Farina, who became a very good buddy of mine. And Peter, Paul, and Mary, before they were Peter, Paul, and Mary — when they were Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers and Paul Stookey. But we all felt, as I did at that early time, that we could make a difference and that music would change the world. And I believe it did. Mary always says, “Yes, we thought it would change the world and it did change the world.” Certainly there were a lot of taboos that were broken, a lot of things from the ’50s that changed. The illusions about America’s invulnerability. The war went on for far too long. But perhaps if there hadn’t been all those voices behind the peace movement, it would have gone on longer. Who knows? I can only say that … the passion and the music were … were a great and driving force. And I’ve always felt that it was a privilege to be a part of that journey, even though it was difficult to make at the time.
Paulson: You never made a conscious decision to be an artist versus being an activist. You were both from the beginning of your career, really. What was your first kind of public political move? Picketing, were you marching? What did … when did you enter that arena?
Collins: You know, I … I’m just … I’ve started my own … my own label called Wildflower Records, and this past few months I’ve just released my third record and … and what it is, is the first two albums I made on Elektra Records. I made them in 1961 and 1962, and they’re called “Maid of Constant Sorrow” and “Golden Apples of the Sun.” And on that … on those two albums, there was material already in which I found my heart and soul, songs about … songs against war, songs against capital punishment. There’s a song called “Tim Evans,” “The Ballad of Tim Evans,” which was written by Ewan MacColl. It’s as fresh today as it was in 1961. When I learned “This Land Is Your Land,” I felt passionate about it. And there was always … an undercurrent which … was becoming an overcurrent of … of political positions to take. There were rallies to go to. There were songs to sing at the rallies. I didn’t always sing political songs, by the way. It might be … you might find me singing “Turn, Turn, Turn” even as likely as singing a song like the wonderful “It Isn’t Nice,” which was … was written by Malvena Reynolds about protesting. (Sings.) “It isn’t nice to block the doorway/It isn’t nice to go to jail/There are nicer ways to do it …” This was a gray-haired 62-year-old woman who wrote this song, Malvena Reynolds. (Sings:) “But the nice ways always fail.” So we had sometimes songs that had a … a passionate stance. But quite often there were songs which had a spiritual stance, and of course the whole movement to voter registration among the African-American community I was quite involved with. And I went to Mississippi in 1964, and one of my most extraordinary memories is singing “We Shall Overcome” with Fanny Lou Hamer in the voter registration times. And of course that was a time of severe threat to many people in the communities in the South because it could be dangerous for them to go out and vote.
Paulson: Did you ever feel any danger?
Collins: Oh, yes.
Paulson: It was a —
Collins: Yes, I … I have. I think … I think life … life is … I often say, you know, it’s … it’s not for the … amateurs. I think we all experience fears at times and … and I think when we take actions in our lives that might appear to be courageous at some other time, I’ve heard it said that courage is just fear that has said its prayers.
Collins: So I think a lot of us experience some trepidation. But you have to go ahead and do things.
Paulson: You mentioned “We Shall Overcome,” an amazing and powerful song. “Amazing Grace,” another song that can be transforming. What are the most powerful songs you … you’ve sung in your lifetime?
Collins: I’ve had some experience with wonderful music throughout my life. I think the songs that I grew up in … at … going to church as a Methodist, which is how I was raised, in … in what I now realize must have been the Methodist Episcopal Church, there are great, powerful hymns there. And I always reach for that kind of spiritual reassurance, whether it’s reading the Psalms or singing the songs. “Amazing Grace” was very close to that, and “Amazing Grace” in all conditions seems to have a power to transcend whatever’s going on. In the terrible events after the tragedy of September 11, which of course we … none of us will forget, the experience of singing “Amazing Grace” at so many of the memorial services and so many of the ceremonies made me feel again that this is a song which can be sung anywhere at any time and gives people a great deal of hope. I think that’s been a powerful force, being able to sing that song and … and songs like “We Shall Overcome.” And … the kinds of songs that I was raised with and also recorded, things like “Simple Gifts” and … and Pete Seeger’s great song, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I’ve also made some … some friends of songwriters that I’ve been able to record, like “Both Sides Now” with Joni Mitchell and “Someday Soon” of Ian and Sylvia’s. So I’ve had very strong beautiful lyrics and music in my life from the very beginning.
Paulson: What process do you go through? How do you find songs that speak to you? How do you find songs that … that fit into what you believe and what you care about?
Collins: Well, they’re sort of like love affairs. And I was raised to be an interpretive singer, an … an interpretive musician. I mean, obviously playing Mozart and Debussy and … and the classics, and singing the songs my father sang like “My Funny Valentine” and “Grab Your Coat and Get Your Hat” and “The Sunny Side of the Street,” so that when I started to sing folk music with my … my National guitar, I listened and I learned and I kept my ears open for the thing that would repeat itself. My trick with songs is to play a tape or a record or a CD and if the song comes back to me in the coming days, then I know that it’s meant for me. This is still the way I hunt for songs. I … it’s kind of a … kind of a debt that I feel that I’m repaying to the great musicians of the past. I didn’t start writing songs until I was 27 and my songwriting is very important to me. Songs like “The Blizzard” and “Since You’ve Asked” and “Secret Gardens” have been songs that I’ve written that have meant a lot to me and meant a lot to other people. “My Father,” the song that I wrote about the … my dad and his very strong influence on me. But I’m always looking for a great song. You know, I was looking at the Rick Burns New York piece the other day, and in it he has the person who wrote … who … put together the music has gone back to an historically … a traditional song called “The Bold Fenian Men,” which also happens to be on this new album of mine, “Maids and Golden Apples.” And the melody is (sings), “Da-da-da-da-da …” I’m trying to think of the first line of the … (sings) “I spied an old woman/She was pluckin’ young nettles/She scarce heard me comin’/I listened a while to the song she was hummin’/Glory all, glory all, to our bold Fenian men.” Well, I heard that song when I was probably 20 and I just took my heart. And when I heard it in this … this beautiful piece about New York, you know, it’s haunting to hear that melody. I owe a debt to the traditional music that has informed my appreciation for music, that has … has influenced my songwriting, that has carried the voice of antiquity and the past into the present. It’s very important to me. I think also as a troubadour, which is really what I am, a modern-day troubadour, that part of my … part of my singing and my songwriting and the choice of songs has to do with the historical match that happens between political movements and social movements and … and expressions of the heart, which come through in lyrics. And I always pray that I stay very close to that source.
Paulson: In selecting songs and identifying songs that speak to you, have there been moments when a totally unknown songwriter has just knocked you out and you’ve … there’s been a moment of discovery? Can you talk about that?
Collins: Recently I’ve run into a wonderful writer named John Bucchino and I recorded one of his songs on an album of his called “Sweet Dreams.” A lot of other singers, performers recorded his songs — Jimmy Webb did one of his songs, and Liza Minnelli, Michael Feinstein. John Bucchino’s a superb writer. I’ve rediscovered and have fallen in love with the writing of Janis Ian. I think Janis Ian’s one of the great unsung writers of our time. Her song “On the Other Side” is a song that I really champion. The writing of Beth Nielsen Chapman, which you may remember from an issue … rather, an episode of “ER.” It’s a song called “Sand and Water,” I believe. Beautiful song. And through the years I have found Joni Mitchell at the right time when she didn’t have a recording contract and was able to sing her songs, and of course Leonard Cohen, who is one of the great all-time writers of all time. I think he’s a marvelous, marvelous poet, spiritual, social, poetic, political, searing writer of … of great songs.
Paulson: Now, you encouraged him to perform as well.
Collins: I did. In fact, we were doing a benefit for WBAI, the radio station here in New York which is still thriving, and I said, “Well, I want you to come and be on the show.” And I had sung his first two songs that he’d written, “Suzanne” and a song called “Dress Rehearsal Rag.” And he said, “Well, no, no. You know, I don’t … I don’t sing. I don’t sing. I don’t. I’m not. I don’t have a professional voice.” And I said, “Leonard, you have a wonderful voice. Come on!” So I brought him down to, was it Town Hall, I believe, and I kinda … pushed him on the stage and he stood up and started playing “Suzanne.” He got so scared in the middle of the song that he turned and stopped and walked offstage. And I said, “Oh, Leonard, I’ll go back with you and sing.” And so I did. It was the beginning of what I think is an illustrious and very fine musical career that he’s had. And I think he’s turned into a splendid singer.
Paulson: In recent times, you’ve been traveling with the Wildflower tour. And that’s something you’ve set up. You … you’re joined by Janis Ian and Roger McGuinn and Richie Havens.
Collins: And Tom Paxton and … Leon Redbone has been with us. I started this because I started my label called Wildflower Records, and I thought, what could I do that would be fun that would draw some artists together who have the same kind of take on … on … are dissimilar in the … in the sense that there’s a lot of contrast but who have done music or that music that pleases me, or songs that I knew before or hopefully will … next year we’ll start doing some singers and songwriters that people don’t know quite so well, a little younger, a little edgier perhaps. But this year, our first … our first year of the Wildflower Festival 2001-2002, we’ve done concerts all over the country with Janis and with Tom Paxton and with Roger McGuinn and Richie Havens and Leon Redbone. It’s great, you know. I get to sit backstage and listen to “The Hostage” and “Freedom” and “Seventeen” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” So it’s been very exciting for me to be able to do that.
Paulson: And how are the audiences responding?
Collins: Oh, they’re wonderful. Also, they’re audiences of all ages. They start way at the top and go way to the bottom. I think they’re, you know, everything from little babies to people who are becoming centennial celebrators.
Paulson: Now you’re still very involved in causes you care about, including … you do a lot of work with UNICEF. Can you talk about that?
Collins: Well, I had … such an honor was given to me in 1994. I was asked to be a special representative to the arts for UNICEF. And what that means is that people like Danny Kaye and Audrey Hepburn really started the … the work. Danny Kaye, in fact, I think was with UNICEF for 35 years, and every year he’d go out to a different country with a film crew. Now it takes hundreds of us around the world to do that work. And every country sends out representatives. And so Roger Moore and Liv Ullman and Harry Belafonte and many, many artists are UNICEF representatives. And so with my … the privilege of being a representative, I’ve traveled to Vietnam and to Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia.
Paulson: It’s one challenge after another. Does that journey leave you with the sense that … that we can fix the world’s problems? Or is it just a succession of challenges that we … we can never seem to clear the slate? It’s always something, something somewhere that Judy Collins needs to address.
Collins: Well, there’s something somewhere always that … that all of us have to address, and I think that’s probably at the root of our … of our efforts. And there always will be, because that’s what life is, is … is a series of evolving joys and evolving challenges. And to be a part of … of one’s culture and to be involved, I think many, many, many, many, many people, millions of people are involved in the process of saving the rainforest, of raising money for … in this recent tragedy. The outpouring of giving to the families of the firemen, the rescue workers, the families of those who have lost so many people. The work of organizations like the Red Cross, the … what they call nongovernment organizations around the world who are populated by people who are just, you know, regular guys and gals who are going out to volunteer and do good work. So I don’t think that the challenges in our lives ever really diminish. I think that we … we have to look at, always, the whole picture and what we can do. We can’t do everything. People can’t do everything. So they have to pick and choose what their own energies and their own gifts can be about. In my case, I … I sing. So my voice is … is something that I can give and … and something that is felt to be a gift by others. And to me that’s a great blessing.
Paulson: You wrote recently in The Boston Globe about women and the world that lies ahead. Your quote was, “Women are going to reshape the planet during this century. The only question is how quickly it will happen.”
Collins: (Laughs) I said that. Well, with a lot of help, I think that the women of the world have … have seen that this is holding up half the sky, which we do, has always meant there’s a partnership. I’m a feminist, always have been a feminist since my father told me that yes, I was a girl, and yes, I could do everything, and yes, I had to do everything. But I’m also a humanist and I think that together we reshape the world. In the … in the time that we’ve just come through, I’ve … once again been singing “America the Beautiful,” and what I sing in the last verse is (sings), “O beautiful for tapestry/Of every face and form/Of courage in adversity/And triumph in the storm/America, America, God shed all grace on thee/And crown thy good with brother and sisterhood/From sea to shining sea.”
Paulson: Thank you.
Collins: Thank you.
Paulson: Ladies and gentlemen, Judy Collins.
Collins: Thank you so much.
Paulson: Our guest has been Judy Collins. I’m Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about free expression, the arts, and America. I hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”
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