Judy Collins’ interpretive singing skills are perhaps matched only by her impeccable taste. She was the first to cover songs by Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman, and her version of “Early Morning Rain” preceded Gordon Lightfoot’s by almost a year. Though others recorded Joni Mitchell before her, it was Collins’ take of “Both Sides Now” that became a Top 10 hit.
Her latest release, Paradise, is a trip back to those halcyon days. She duets with Stephen Stills (who wrote “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” about her) on Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind,” a song that also appeared on the 1964 Judy Collins Concert Album. Former Mitchell Trio member Michael Johnson contributed “Emilio,” also singing on the track. “Ghost Riders In The Sky” features a chorus with Paxton, songwriter and Dylan confidante Bob Neuwirth, Collins’ son Denver and Jimmy Webb, who also contributed “Gauguin” to the album.
Despite a career that’s included covers of Jacques Brel, Stephen Sondheim and “Pirate Jenny,” Collins found Webb’s song particularly difficult. “It’s sort of his ‘MacArthur Park’ for today, I think,” she said by telephone from a recent book tour stop in Detroit. “I don’t think I’ve ever done anything that was as challenging, but somehow it had to be shaped and dealt with and approached in a way that took a lot more. I think it taught me a lot about a lot of things — about singing, about phrasing, about sustaining the intent of the song.”
On Paradise, Joan Baez joined Collins to sing her 1974 hit “Diamonds and Rust” — it’s the second time the two friends have recorded together. “In 1968, we did a Pete Seeger song with her sister Mimi for an organization called Women Strike for Peace, when there used to be a peace movement. There was still a draft, which is why there was a peace movement.”
The longtime activist earned a place in history for breaking into song during the Chicago Seven trial in 1968, an episode she covers at length in her upcoming biography, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes (due in fall 2011). “It was a very interesting legal moment, fodder for a CSI episode, I’m sure,” she says with a laugh. Collins testified because of her participation in the founding press conference for the Youth International Party (“Yippie”) movement. “We had done a lot of singing and carrying on, so the question was, ‘What did you do at the press conference?’ The answer was, ‘Well, we sang!’”
She then began “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” managing to sing half a line before Judge Julius Hoffman angrily admonished her. Later in the trial, Phil Ochs recited the words to his song, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” Following his testimony, Ochs sang it for a crowd gathered outside the courthouse. “Walter Cronkite was there and saw to it that recorded version got on television,” says Collins. “Maybe the jury didn’t see it, but everybody else in the world did.”
The ’60s spirit continues on the new album; Collins covers Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was” and “Way of the World,” written by newcomer Amy Speace — also an artist on Collins’ Wildflower record label. “I just love that song,” says Collins of the Speace contribution. “I think it’s the best antiwar song I’ve ever heard, and you probably know that I’ve heard a lot of them over the years and sung a lot of them.”
Collins has a deserved reputation for performing the work of others — how many singers could turn a hymn like “Amazing Grace” into a hit? But Collins is herself an exceptionally talented songwriter, though her first self-penned song didn’t appear until her seventh album. She told a New York City concert crowd in 2009 that her decision to write came after a conversation with Leonard Cohen. “He came down from Canada with some songs that he wrote and asked me if I thought he was a songwriter. Can you imagine a monk asking such a question? He sang me ‘Suzanne’ and I said, ‘yes — and I’m recording it tomorrow.’”
Cohen then asked Collins why she wasn’t writing songs herself. The following year, “Since You Asked,” “Sky Fell” and “Albatross” all appeared on Wildflowers. She wasn’t trying to emulate other songwriters. “I just took all the things that I knew about,” says Collins. “I don’t say things like ‘Oh, that’s got to be as good as, that’s worse than’ — I don’t do that. I apply the same standards to my own writing that I apply to anything that I might sing. Which means that a lot of things that I write don’t get performed.”
In 2009, Chrissie Hynde told Collins that “My Father,” which appeared on Who Knows Where the Time Goes, was on her list of the 10 best songs ever written. That conversation formed the genesis for Born to the Breed: A Tribute to Judy Collins, a retrospective of Collins’ songs sung by Hynde, Shawn Colvin, Dolly Parton, Dar Williams, Rufus Wainwright and others.
Interestingly, the singer supervised the project. Says Collins, “I did kind of curate that because I thought, ‘What song would fit this or that performer?’ I tried to submit them to people that were eager to sing one of my songs and try to encourage them to sing the one that I had chosen for them. Sort of backwards sliding producer sneaking in the door. Sometimes that’s successful and sometimes it isn’t, but I think it’s worked out well on the album.”
For Paradise, she wrote the 9/11-themed “Kingdom Come” after attending an event honoring first responders and noticing a fireman with the number 343 tattooed on his neck — the number of firemen who died that day. “It evolved out of having heard the statistic … I was just haunted by that,” she says.
When it comes to choosing a song to cover, Collins says, “I don’t look for anything. If I decide the song is something that I can do, then I do it. It’s already made its point with me, so the only challenge is to get it to sound like Judy Collins. And I know a lot about how to do that.”