Too much smoking has reduced Joni Mitchell’s voice to a bray. Bob Dylan sounds as if his lungs could use a chimneysweep. Joan Baez’s silvery soprano is tarnished with age. Among the great folksingers of the 1960s, only Judy Collins has kept her pipes intact (she headlined at Wolf Trap in September).
For my money, Collins’s was and is the best voice of them all — limpid and lyrical while at the same time full and rich. At first, she excelled in performing the songs of others: the anonymous composers of folk ballads (what Collins looks back on as “long, sorrowful songs about drowned maidens and silver daggers”) and such contemporaries as Leonard Cohen, Dylan and Mitchell, whose “Both Sides Now” became an international hit for Collins in 1968. Over time, though, she has written more of her own material. She also inspired a song that became a ’60s anthem: Stephen Stills’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” which received a memorable performance from Crosby, Stills and Nash in the movie “Woodstock” and has supplied Collins with the title of her new memoir.
Music came to her naturally. Her father hosted and sang on radio shows. The family moved often, emulating the “gypsy rovers” of a song she came to love, but she speaks more warmly of Colorado than of anywhere else. While growing up in Denver, she took piano lessons from the pioneering female conductor Antonia Brico. (Brico was furious when Collins gravitated from classical music to pop, but Collins eventually honored her old teacher by making a documentary film about her.) It was Collins’s first husband who suggested that she sing at bars to supplement their meager income.
By the early ’60s, Collins was packing them in at clubs and recording for Elektra, beginning a relationship that was to last more than three decades. “The right record label meant the world to a recording artist,” she explains. “They put promotional muscle behind each new release, and they had the heart to stay with an artist through the ups and downs of a recording career. In that era, before so many record labels were gobbled up by huge media conglomerates, each label had a distinct personality and direction.”
She made her best albums back-to-back for Elektra: “Wildflowers” (1967) and “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (1968). But I have a special fondness for “Whales & Nightingales” (1970), with its version of “Farewell to Tarwathie,” a duet for soprano and whales that is surprisingly moving.
Although Collins has been sober for decades and faithful to her second husband, Louis Nelson, in these pages you’ll read a lot about her years of boozing and sleeping around.
The most interesting stuff, however, consists of vignettes featuring her peers. She praises Baez for including Dylan in her early concert performances, giving his career a much-needed boost, but notes that after making it big, Dylan failed to return the favor. Collins cattily mentions that years later, “Joan would admit that when she first heard him singing . . . she thought Dylan looked like a toad.” Of Tim Buckley, a singer whose career ended when he overdosed on heroin in 1975, Collins writes, “Tim’s pure, haunting voice, sometimes with the hint of a scream in it, was both electrifying and full of beauty. We didn’t know it was the sound of his heart breaking.” And she recounts a blunt prediction made by Janis Joplin at a time when Collins thought she was successfully hiding her own alcoholism. Able to “spot a fellow drunk a mile away,” Joplin whispered, “You know, one of us is going to make it. And it’s not going to be me.”
Collins might have stepped back from the ups and downs of her life to give us more analysis of the music biz (that comment about the lost loyalty of record labels is a rarity) and the toll that constant traveling takes on performers (she does mention that Nelson almost always accompanies her on tour these days). But “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes” displays enough self-knowledge and dishes out enough gossip to grip any reader who cares about that interlude when folk music was a breath of fresh chords, before it was all but crushed under the juggernaut of rock.
Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.
SWEET JUDY BLUE EYES
My Life in Music
By Judy Collins
354 pp. $26