This past June, folk icon and activist Judy Collins, 71, played the Glastonbury Festival in England for the first time. It is the summer's biggest music festival on either side of the Atlantic, and thousands of people camp in rain, mud and shine to see everyone from Jay-Z to Vampire Weekend to Lily Allen on multiple stages. It's no small gathering, but Collins found it a total thrill. "I followed Keane [a popular alternative rock band] and the audience went crazy. They were just great," she recalls. "You go wherever you can and find the audience you can, and then you sing to them."
While Glastonbury was a huge event, it was also just another show for this performer with the clear, piercing voice who shows no signs of slowing down professionally. An indefatigable trouper, she is out on the road for up to 110 shows a year, but today she is in her kitchen at home in New York City, taking a rare break from her busy schedule. She'll go back to the U.K. in early September, and then kick off a tour of the U.S. and Canada that will find her at AARP's Orlando @50+ event on October 2.
Friends and lovers
In her 50-year career, Collins has collaborated with the best and brightest in the rock and folk arena, from singing "Will You Go Lassie, Go" with Pete Seeger on his short-lived television show, Rainbow Quest, to performing with other artists on her latest album Paradise, her 27th release. She duets with Joan Baez and with her former flame, Stephen Stills, of Crosby, Stills and Nash, who wrote the now-classic "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" about her while they were dating.
On the new album, Stills and Collins sing the Tom Paxton song "The Last Thing on My Mind." "These are historic duets. Originally we were supposed to sing something else, and Stephen wanted to put this on a CSN album," she says. "But we both know it and love it, and we did this song instead."
Paradise is Collins' first appearance on the Billboard charts in 20 years, something that she believes comes partly from the material and partly from her being on her own label, Wildflower Records. "Long-term artists are getting thrown away like trash — they are not appreciated," Collins states. "I've had my label for 10 years and I have other artists on it as well."
Judy does Judy
Also on the album is Collins' new rendition of an old favorite, "Over the Rainbow." Born in 1939, she says her mother always told her she was named for Judy Garland, and although she has covered a multitude of other songs and standards, she only performed the classic once before, in the early 1980s.
But last year, Peter Yarrow, an old friend, asked her to do a children's book based on the lyrics of the song. His Puff, the Magic Dragon book and CD had been a runaway success and Collins jumped in with both feet. "Peter and the publisher and I worked very hard with the illustrator to get it right," Collins says. "It was a wonderful process and the book is so gorgeous."
Collins has written other books, including a novel and the memoir Sanity & Grace, about her grief and recovery following the suicide of her son, Clark Taylor, in 1992. She now is an advocate for suicide prevention. Her next book is also a personal journey — an autobiography titled Sweet Judy Blue Eyes and she says, "I'm having great fun writing it."
A singer of songs
Collins is a classically trained pianist who made her public debut performing Mozart at age 13, before the folk movement swept her away. She still writes all of her songs on the piano and rarely uses the guitar when composing. "The song dictates everything — it is the master," she explains. "It's up to the song itself and it says what will happen with people's feelings." She looks for that great melody and that great story to tell when creating her music. On the ballad "Dens of Yarrow" that she recorded for her new album, she used a keyboard in her apartment. "It has weird tones on it and I used it to create a haunting Celtic sound."
Collins is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and has written songs about Sarajevo and 9/11, and performs many benefit concerts still. "I think if that's what you are, then that's what you do," she declares. "What your make-up is — that doesn't end when you are 50."