Gary James' Interview With
Judy Collins

She's a singer. She's a songwriter. She's a musician. She is Judy Collins. What a life she's had! After more than 50 years of performing, touring, and recording she is still going strong. P.B.S. (Public Broadcasting System) recently televised Judy Collins live at the Metropolitan Museum of art celebrating 50 years of timeless music. Judy Collins spoke with us about her life and career.

Q - Judy, I don't know how you do it. You are on the road and you are also running a record company, Wildflower Records. That's like having two full-time jobs, isn't it?

A - Well, sure. I always call my life not 24/7 but 48/14. (laughs) That's the way it goes today. I think many of us are under that pressure. Anyway, I love it. I love what I do. I enjoy every minute of it.

Q - With Wildflower Records, are you searching for new talent and how are you doing it? Are you scouting talent in clubs? Going through demo tapes?

A - A little of everything.

Q - How big of a hassle is it to be on the road in 2012? Do you normally drive? Do you fly?

A - You know, I've been doing this now since 1959. I have developed all kinds of tricks. I know where I am at the moment, pretty much wherever I am, which is a good thing. (laughs) There were times when I didn't, but now I do. And I love it. It's part of the job, but it's just fine.

Q - Your voice has been described as being as good as ever.

A - I'm very lucky.

Q - There was a time when you were a smoker, correct?

A - Oh, yeah. I've had a lot of issues with various health things. I certainly did smoke. In fact, we were just talking about that. Giving up smoking was one of the hardest things I ever did, but it was extremely important and that was in 1970. I've had other issues with voice problems. I think being a singer you can't really avoid it. Things happen. As of today, knock wood, things are great, doing well, no problems. Going along very well.

Q - I always thought it was strange that a singer, whether it's Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin or Judy Collins, would smoke at all. Your voice is how you make your living.

A - (laughs) 'Cause it's so romantic and satisfying and we're addicts. That's why we smoke. (laughs) That's the answer to that.

Q - I'm glad you gave it up.

A - Me too.

Q - Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia of Rock described you as an interpretive singer. Is that how you see it?

A - I don't really care what they say. (laughs) I do what I do and they can say what they want. That's about it. They never paid enough attention to me to figure out what it is I really do and I have a feeling it's a little late in the game for them to start. So, let's just say it's water under the dam, shall we?

Q - Sure. Was there ever a time in your career when a manager, or an agent, or a record company executive said "Judy, we want you to sing this type of song?"

A - No, no, no, no, never! Never. Never. It's all my own fault. I have nobody else to blame. So, that's both a strength and a calculated risk, I suppose. Nobody ever told me what to sing. I have a very strong idea what fits me and when I hear it, I know it, which is lucky. Certainly people can make a suggestion. Arif Mardin, who produced a couple of my albums, his widow, she's gone now, suggested that I sing "Salt Of The Earth", the wonderful Rolling Stones' song. And she also suggested I sing "Buddy Can You Spare A Dime." I thought those were two of the best suggestions for songs I ever heard. I did both of them. I still sing "Buddy Can You Spare A Dime" . I also do "Over The Rainbow" because of course, like everybody, I grew up with the song. Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary) started a book imprint and he asked me if I would sing "Over The Rainbow". I never intended to sing it professionally. We grew up with it. We all know it. We have our relationships with it, but he asked me to sing it for a children's book. I said "you know, that's great!" And now, I love singing it. I think it's a wonderful suggestion. I just got a batch of new songs by my friend Hugh Prestwood. I haven't heard them yet, but I'm sure they are good. I first heard him years ago. "Hard Times For Lovers" was his song and also the song about Dorothy. I think he calls it "Dorothy". So, I like that very much. I sang a couple of other songs of his. And of course when any great songwriter comes out and approaches me with songs, I mean I discovered Leonard Cohen before anybody had recorded his songs, including him. He just came and sang them to me. I thought, Oh gosh! They were wonderful! Just wonderful songs. So this is kind of a hunt and peck career. You look and try. If you're right, you get lucky. It's kind of wonderful. If you're lucky, the song lasts 50 years.

Q - Right. What was Greenwich Village like when you were performing there? Did you know all the other singers?

A - I knew everybody. It's like a small town. It was wonderful. It was easy. Nobody had any money. It was simple. Everybody wrote songs, sang songs. It was divine, really. Just perfect.

Q - What happened to the Folk movement? Why didn't it last longer than it did?

A - Oh, I think it's still going. You just don't listen to the right places. You probably don't go to all these festivals where these young singer / songwriters show up. You have to dig, but of course it's still there. The singer / songwriter never went away. Never, never, never. And never will. It's a wonderful thing.

Q - There used to be a TV show on every Saturday night called Hootenanny. You don't see anything like that on TV today.

A - The problem is radio. Radio doesn't play us. So, don't blame us. (laughs) Blame the radio business for a lot of things., It's happening! I discover songs all the time. I was listening to Peter Paul and Mary on PBS. So, I'm listening to the Peter Paul and Mary Special in a hotel someplace upstate and I'm sort of watching it with half an ear and listening to it with half an ear. Suddenly I hear this song called "Jesus On The Wire". I never heard it. I don't know if it's a new recording. I saw Mary singing it on the show. So, I look into it and find out it's written by somebody named Thea Hopkins. So I go online and find it's a wonderful song. Very touching. You know, songs find you all over the place. It's a great song and I intend to learn it. So, you never know when something is going to peak around the corner and say "Hi. Here I am."

Q - Had your father not being a radio show host, do you think you would have pursued a musical career?

A - Well, he was the real deal. He had the old-fashioned golden radio show where he played all the songs, sang all the songs, wrote all the commercials. He was a very, very special gifted musician. I studied music for years and played piano. He wanted me to have a proper career as a musician and have the right kind of training, which I got. So it was very exciting. But I didn't think of it as a career. I didn't think of it that way at all. It was a love affair. That's what it was. Always. From the beginning. But I didn't know that anybody got paid to do that, I mean as far as Folk music went. I was in my teens when I found the Folk songs. It was mostly moon, June, spoon and Rodgers and Hart. The people I knew were Bing Crosby and Jo Stafford. Then Jo Stafford made a record with her husband, of Scottish folk songs, and that's where I heard my first for real folksongs that I knew were folksongs.

Q - So, you never had any idea of pursuing something else if the Folk singing didn't work out?

A - No, no, no. I just fell in love with this and it was fabulous and that's what happened to me.

Q - Why did you sign with Jac Holzman's Elektra Records label?

A - 'Cause Jac Holzman came to me and said "you're ready to make a record." I said "really?" And he said "yes." So I did. I love what I do. I didn't realize when I first started singing in the clubs that people got paid to do this. I thought it was an avocation and I met a lot of singers, but I didn't think what I would call careers. Maybe they went to Folk music festivals, things like that. So, it was kind of a handmade career right from the beginning. The Weavers had been around for a number of years of course. And there was a Folk music industry which I didn't know anything about. When Jac Holzman came to see me at the Village Gate in 1961, by that time I'd been all over the country in all kinds of clubs and I had a pretty thriving career.

Q - You performed for President Clinton at his 1993 inauguration.

A - I did.

Q - Was that the first time you ever performed in front of a President of the United States?

A - He (President Clinton) came to see me perform in 1964 in Washington DC and came to see me in 1991 when I was up in Chautauqua. So that's the first time I had performed 'live' for a President of the United States. No, it wasn't the first time. I performed for Kennedy, JFK, 'live'. I sang for Kennedy in 1963 in February at a big dinner called Dinner With The President. He was getting an award from B'nai Brith. Josh Wright was on it. Lynn Gold. The Clancy Brothers. My friend Will Holt. So, that was my experience with presidents. Of course, I have not sang in front of (President) Obama, but I hope to. I raised a lot of money for him. (laughs) I raised $360,000 for him in Minnesota.

Q - Did you get to meet President Kennedy?

A - I did.

Q - Was he familiar with your music?

A - Of course. That was very, very exciting.

Q - Did you meet Bobby Kennedy?

A - Of course. He was there.

Q - You got to meet some legends in the political world.

A - I certainly did.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

Judy Collins
Photo from Gary James' Press Kit Collection