A conversation with the legendary Judy Collins

Live at Wolf Trap August 9 Photo: Judy Collins

WASHINGTON, August 2, 2013-Judy Collins is a force of nature.  Performing since the age of 13, she has recorded almost 50 albums, written nine books, directed a documentary, founded her own record label, and defined an era. She has a myriad of talents, strikingly beautiful eyes, and a no-nonsense personality.     

A remarkable woman with an easy disposition and open mind, her charm comes through in conversation as clearly as it does in her music and books. 

Collins is incredibly active at 74 years young, still performing up to 125 annual shows around the world, recording music, writing books, helping musicians who are staring out, and sharing her life with her family and friends.

When asked how she finds the time to do everything, she says hard work is part of her early training and what keeps her mind clear and mood upbeat. 

“And thank goodness that I have a few things to talk about,” she says.  “I just never stop.” 

Raised surrounded by music—Collins’ father was a singer, piano player, songwriter, and had a popular radio show for 30 years—she studied classical piano with Dr. Antonia Brico, the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Collins made her public debut at age 13, performing Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos. 

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With a brilliant classical career in front of her, Collins instead fell in love with folk music and began learning to play traditional songs.  She remembers hearing “The Gypsy Rover” and knowing that it was the kind of music she wanted to play.

Collins was 14, already singing and playing the piano with a group of girls around Denver. She says it was the story that appealed to her. She was also drawn by the history in the Irish, Scottish, and American folk songs.

 “I was deeply into my classical music. At that point I had just finished memorizing Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto,” she remembers.  “But I was just bawled over by this song [The Gypsy Rover], I made great efforts to learn it and to get my friends to dance to it to tell the story.”

In her book, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes (a reference to the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” which Stephen Stills wrote about Collins and their storied love affair) Collins describes how she saved up her babysitting money to buy the record. Sadly, before she was able to play it, she accidentally sat on it, shattering it and forcing her and her friends to listen for it on the radio in order to learn the music and words.   

“I started to hear more folk songs on the radio, it wasn’t Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie yet, but songs like ‘Barbara Allen,’” she says. “Fundamentally I think that the appeal of the music was that there were stories to tell.”

She plunged into folk music wholeheartedly, enrolling in the Denver Folklore Society, where she expanded her repertoire. Her father rented her a guitar (not wanting to spend too much money in case she did not decide to take up playing), and she learned about Seeger, Guthrie and other folk greats. 

“It was a great way to add on a layer of American and then Irish history,” she remembers.  “That was very appealing.”

Collins went on to become a world-renowned artist, winning a Grammy Award for her song, “Both Sides Now,” a Academy Award nomination for her documentary about Anita Brico, and countless other honors. Many believe that Judy Collins defined the 1960s. 

In concert

Despite her larger than life persona, however, Collins is remarkably down to earth, speaking passionately about women who have inspired her and her commitment to help young artists who are staring out.

She is open and friendly, easy to talk to, with a contagious laugh and a spunky personality. 

She has always been an activist, lending her name and time to several causes throughout her career.

Her commitment to helping others has always been part of her life, starting when she volunteered to demonstrate the workings of an iron lung for the Salk Foundation at a fundraiser when she was age 10.

“I thought it was quite exciting; my mother thought it was dreadful,” she says with a laugh. “I was always up for an adventure.”

Her commitment to social causes has only grown through the years and she continues to be very active in several areas.

A born storyteller, reading and writing have always been an important part of Collins’ life.  She has written nine books, including several memoirs, a novel and a children’s book.

When asked about which four people she would like to have dinner with (Amelia Earhart, Gustave Flaubert, Emily Dickinson, and Mark Twain), surprisingly, she named three writers and no musicians.

Having rubbed elbows with the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Leonard Cohen—before they were famous—Collins has probably had dinner with her fair share of famous musical people.

She is currently on tour, with an upcoming show at Wolf Trap on August 9th with good friend Don McLean.  She is also writing a new book, releasing her new Live DVD At the Metropolitan Museum of Art—which is also a PBS special—and preparing for a live concert in Ireland on September 29th.  She has played Wolf Trap dozens of times, the first in 1979 where she was accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra. 

“I’m interested in women who have done interesting things,” she says. However, “I don’t believe in women’s music; I believe in art, period.” 


Judy Collins


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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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