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Judy Collins Revives Her Historic 1964 Concert at Age 81

Singer-songwriter has prevailed over remarkable hardship and shares her reflections

Singer-songwriter Judy Collins

Per Ole Hagen/Redferns

En español | In my eight years of knowing Judy Collins, I've been struck by her generosity, kindness and unstoppable work ethic — at 81, after 55 albums, she still tours the world for a third of each year, her calm, plaintive, bell-pure soprano seemingly unaged. Her world tour starts in April, and on Feb. 12, she recreates her historic 1964 show at New York's Town Hall with a benefit concert for MultiFaith Alliance, which helps Syrian refugees (you can stream it here).

Collins’ rugged road

Collins has accomplished all of this while battling serious demons. She suffered a deep depression while growing up as the oldest of five children (her father was an inspiring, can-do blind pianist and radio personality). She attempted suicide at 14; developed a drinking habit stanched by 43 years in the recovery community; experienced eating disorders (discussed in her 2003 memoir Cravings); and mourned the 1992 suicide of her only son, Clark (discussed in her 2017 book Sanity and Grace). Collins is life-weathered.


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A life-changing concert

When she did her life-changing 1964 Town Hall concert, she was 24, just divorced, with big troubles. “I had just spent five months in the hospital with tuberculosis and I was dangling,” she says, “trying to pick up the pieces of my career. Clark had been snatched up by his father.” Her ex-husband, an English professor she'd followed from college town to college town for years, got custody of their boy. “He was 4. He said, ‘Why can't I be with you?’ My lawyers said, ‘You can't lose custody! A woman never does.’ It was a troubled, very emotionally mixed time, for me as a single mother.” After years of heartache and struggle — “It felt like forever!” — she won custody of Clark in 1967.

Judy Collins’ Town Hall Songs 2021

Here is the set list for the concert:

1. Winter Sky
Words and music by Billy Edd Wheeler

2. Ramblin’ Boy
Words and music by Tom Paxton

3. Anathea
Words and music by Lydia Wood & Neil Rock

4. Me and My Uncle
Words and music by John Phillips

5. Wild Rippling Water
Traditional song

6. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Words and music by Bob Dylan

7. Mr. Tambourine Man
Words and music by Bob Dylan

8. Bottle of Wine
Words and music by Tom Paxton

9. Cruel Mother
Traditional song arranged and adapted by Judy Collins

10. Coal Tattoo
Words and music by Billy Edd Wheeler

11. The Last Thing On My Mind
Words and music by Tom Paxton

12. John Riley
Traditional song arranged and adapted by Judy Collins

BREAK/ENCORE

13. Both Sides, Now
Words and music by Joni Mitchell

14. Highwayman
Words and music by Jimmy Webb

15. Someday Soon
Words and music by Ian Tyson

But when she chose her Town Hall set list, it was the nation's traumas that preoccupied her: the Vietnam War, the killing of President John F. Kennedy, for whom she'd sung at a “Dinner With the President” event in January 1963, and the bloody battle for Black voting rights, which Collins supported by singing and speaking out. “I definitely knew I wanted to sing ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,’ a great Dylan song about the murder of a Black waitress at a Baltimore hotel [by an elite racist]; ‘The Battle of Medgar Evers’ [the slain civil rights leader]; and ‘Hey, Nellie, Nellie,’ about Lincoln and racism over the centuries.”

She sang tunes including “Coal Tattoo,” by the West Virginia mining-town runaway Billy Edd Wheeler; Tom Paxton's “The Last Thing on My Mind,” “Bottle of Wine” and “Ramblin’ Boy"; and the stirring English folk ballad “The Cruel Mother,” about 17th-century prejudice against “illegitimate” children.

The recording of that show was nominated for a Grammy, and The New York Times raved, “Judy Collins made her New York concert debut Saturday and established herself without delay in the front rank of American balladeers. By the evening's end she had moved her large audience to cheers, whistles and bravos — all heartily deserved.”

A revived concert for a new tumultuous time

Collins says that the 1964 period of pain and rumination was not unlike the tumults of today. “I was able to use the pandemic time doing a lot of thinking, writing and reflecting,” she says. So it made sense to reprise her Town Hall show with a slightly different group of songs.

What viewers and listeners will enjoy Feb. 12 is a 15-song mix of the politically activist gems from 1964 — accompanied by her stories about that time — and some of her most beloved signature hits, including Dylan's “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” two Paxton tunes, and “Coal Tattoo.”

Her songs will all be freighted with personal emotional resonance as well as historic importance. She'll sing Ian Tyson's “Someday Soon,” whose lilting warmth and irresistible melancholy, and its reference to her home state of Colorado, are close to her heart, and her best-known recording, her rendition of Joni Mitchell's “Both Sides, Now.” Collins told me that the struggle for a woman to be an artist and the pain of losing a child — something she shared with Mitchell, who in youth gave her baby up for adoption — is something she deeply felt animated her attachment to “Both Sides, Now."

If anyone has seen life from both sides now, it's Collins. Here is a teaser snippet of her performance of it nowadays:

Judy Collins Sings 'Someday Soon'

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