Folk diva Judy Collins’ life an open songbook

“Supporting things that I care about has always been part of my life,” singer Judy Collins says. (Photo courtesy of Judy Collins)

“Supporting things that I care about has always been part of my life,” singer Judy Collins says. (Photo courtesy of Judy Collins)

In the pantheon of musicians who emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s during the folk revival, holding a prominent place alongside Bob and Joan and Joni is clear-as-honey voiced Judy Blue Eyes.

Listening again to the five LPs she recorded during that era, I was transfixed by Collins and her songbook, her pristine clarity, the texture and warmth of her voice, and that thoughtful and intimate delivery that talks directly to you, the listener.

The way she renders such gems as Both Sides Now, Send in the Clowns, Chelsea Morning, and Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne is poignant and unforgettable.

Now 74, Collins retains these qualities and remains a remarkable guitarist and pianist. Her concert here June 9 at the refurbished and glorious Rialto Theatre on Park is a must-see event.

It is part of a steady series of tours—by her count about 120 shows a year in North America, Ireland, England, Australia, New Zealand and the Far East.

“I love it. I find it greatly interesting, challenging, a wonderful way to keep yourself moving,” she said exuberantly by phone from the Manhattan apartment she shares with husband Louis Nelson.

The Collins story might have been a lot different had she continued as a classical pianist—as a teenager in Denver, Colorado, she was considered a virtuoso.

As Collins explained the transition, “I just happened to be listening to the radio in 1954 when I heard Barbara Allen (Scottish ballad) and Gypsy Rover (Irish ballad) and that’s what sparked it.

“I joined the folk music clubs in Denver and started to learn songs and play the guitar.”

Like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Collins drifted to Greenwich Village in New York City, where Jac Holzman of Elektra Records signed her to a recording contract.

He heard the artist in her, and her range as a soprano that spans 3½ octaves.

Back then, she was surrounded by “songwriters and singers and a lot of great clubs, Gerde’s Folk City, the Bitter End, the Village Gate, where I did a concert in 1961 with Theodore Bikel and the Clancy Brothers. That’s where I met Jac Holzman, who said he was ready to sign me up for Elektra.

“It was a real melting pot for folk singers from across the countries and I met most of them. I started singing traditional folk songs then quickly moved to singing the songs I heard around the Village, by Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton, Ed McCurdy, a lot of Canadians of course, eventually Leonard and Joni and Gordon Lightfoot.”

It was a time of great political and social ferment in North America and Collins was part of it. She ventured to Mississippi to encourage blacks to overcome their fears and other obstacles and register to vote, marched in anti-war rallies, and “supported the movements of the era.”

“Supporting things that I care about has always been part of my life, and I try to do what I can, when I can.”

When Dylan went electric at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, many folk purists screamed “sellout,” but Collins said she was “quite thrilled.”

“It was a tempest in a teapot. What I thought was revolutionary was the songwriting. Who cared about the electric guitar, really? At that point I was about to launch into my own dramatic shift, which had to do with recording with orchestras instead of only guitars. It was a time of change and experiment.

“Everybody that was a purist thought all of us sold out who weren’t singing songs from the mountains of Kentucky.”

When it comes to Leonard Cohen, while some of us in Montreal heard Suzanne performed by the Rosewood Daydream in 1966, it was Collins’s cover that spread his renown.

It happened this way:

“I was privy to seeing them (Cohen’s songs) first,” she recalled. The story is not be confused with her hearing Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, when “a friend of mine, (guitarist) Al Kooper put her on the phone at 3 in the morning and she sang me Both Sides Now. Leonard was introduced to me by our mutual friend Mary Martin, who is Canadian.

“He came to New York, knocked on my door and said, ‘Here I am,’ and sang me Suzanne and Dress Rehearsal Rag, and the Stranger Song. I said quite quickly, ‘I’m recording Dress Rehearsal Rag and Suzanne’.”

As for Cohen’s resumed career after his former manager and lover, Kelley Lynch, allegedly stole his $5-million nest egg, Collins said Lynch “did him a favour”—he’s never been so popular and admired, and reportedly earned $9.5 million from his recent tours.

“It actually was supposed to happen, I guess. He signed over his power of attorney, and when you do that you don’t know what would happen. How much like a Leonard Cohen song is that?”

Collins has had her share of crises, including a battle to overcome alcoholism, and the suicide of her son. Her career was threatened in 1976 when her voice collapsed. She underwent successful laser surgery and began training with vocal coach Max Margulis.

Where has she found the strength to carry on and inspire others?

“I had a lot of friends who helped and supported me. The work that I do, the music that I make, is very healing to me, and others. I find a tremendous amount of support in the writing, books and songs. It’s what I do, so I do it. I really didn’t have much choice, such as just quit everything, and that was not a choice.

“When I’m performing, I get back probably more than anybody does. My audience is very healing to me, they’re supportive, and they’ve been at it for many decades, they follow me, come to my shows, write me letters.”

Collins not only performs, she is constantly writing. Her newest CD, Bohemian, includes four originals.

Her autobiography is titled Sweet Judy Blue Eyes—a reference to the song written about her by ex-lover Stephen Stills—and the book is described by one reviewer as a “story of demons and angels, darkness and light.”

At her Rialto concert, Collins will be playing guitar and sharing piano duties with her musical director, Russell Walden.

Reserved seats cost $35-$75; with dinner, including taxes and gratuities, an additional $35. Alcohol and other drinks and corresponding tips are not included. 514-770-7773; 514-790-1111; or

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