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Send in the crowds
by Bob Margolis
April 30, 2009 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Like Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins started out as a folksinger in the 1960s and became so much more: activist, Muse (Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"), mother, hitmaker, chanteuse, author, suicide-prevention crusader, icon. She takes a breather from her stand at Manhattan's storied Café Carlyle to play UPAC in Kingston this Sunday, May 3 at 7 p.m.

After studying classical piano with respected area teacher Antonia Brico (the first woman to conduct the Berlin and New York Philharmonic orchestras), Collins made her own public musical debut at the tender age of 13 performing Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos. However, as she grew older, Collins became more and more intrigued with both her instrument-of-choice (the guitar) and the lyrics and vocals of the emerging blossoming folk artists of the 1960s, social "poets" who wrote and played their own material: Seeger, Guthrie, Paxton, Dylan.

She continued to be influenced by other eclectic songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen. But throughout her career, Collins has never limited herself either as a composing artist or as a performer of other people's songs that she resonates with and admires - no matter what their style. So although she was initially lauded as a folk artist with guitar-based material, she broke that mold back in 1966 when she first included compositions from many diverse writers whose work appealed to her, including Kurt Weill, Jacques Brel and the Beatles. Produced with rich orchestrations, her In My Life album set the tone for her future releases.

Already standing out from other female vocal contemporaries with the unmistakable sound of her crystal-clear soprano, Collins' innate versatility as a singer enabled her to switch smoothly back and forth from folk to pop to show tunes to some mellow country, as well as some infectious rock 'n' roll. No matter what she sang, her ever-widening circle of fans embraced it.

She honed her craft in clubs in New York's Greenwich Village, and by 1961, at the age of 22, had her first album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, released on Elektra Records. Her cover songs during that period included Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and Pete Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn." Her 1966 album Who Knows Where the Time Goes gained her favorable attention, but her breakthrough came in 1967, when her Wildflowers album was released. Her hit single from that album, "Both Sides Now" (written by one of her favorite composers, Mitchell), not only reached Number Eight on Billboard's Top 100, but also won her a prestigious Grammy Award as Best Folk Performance or Folk Recording in 1968.

In addition to her own notable songs, such as "My Father" and "Born to the Breed," she has also performed a variety of songs (by other writers) that she has made famous, such as Cohen's "Bird on a Wire" and "Suzanne," Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans" and Joan Baez's "Song for David." Collins had two signature Top 20 hit singles: John Newton's traditional hymn "Amazing Grace" and Stephen Sondheim's ironic, beautiful ballad "Send in the Clowns" from Broadway's A Little Night Music. Sondheim won his own Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1975, thanks (many think) to Collin's stunning performance of it on her Judith album.

Collins has herself been the inspiration for two classic compositions by one-time romantic partner Steven Stills (of Crosby, Stills & Nash): CSN's "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" and Buffalo Springfield's "Bluebird." However, what has inspired Collins over the years (along with her music) has been social activism, such as her support for international organizations that fight for humanitarian causes, like UNICEF. She also speaks out for the abolition of land mines, and due to the death of her son, has become a strong advocate for suicide prevention.

Working to overcome her own subsequent depression and personal problems to help others, Collins turned to sharing her thoughts through writing a book in 2003, titled Sanity and Grace. She wrote it to chronicle her recovery from her son's loss, and "to provide some comfort and guidance to other families dealing with the loss of a loved one to suicide" by giving them a means to help them go through a "process of recovery." She also wrote the poignant song "Wings of Angels" to honor her son's memory.

Collin's unmistakable empathy and compassion with the human condition has always rung true in every emotional note she plays and every word she sings. She unselfishly shares her loves, her losses, her joys, her life. That's why she makes musical magic that moves us.

A Judy-related side note: On the just-released tribute Born to the Breed, a range of artists covers songs written by Collins. An audio smörgasbord of arrangements, the first track features Shawn Colvin, followed by the likes of Rufus Wainwright, Dolly Parton, Joan Baez and Chrissie Hynde. The last track showcases the timbre of Leonard Cohen speaking the achingly lovely lyrics to "Since You've Asked," proving that the very best songs hold up as poetry without a lick of music.

Tickets range from $35 to $60. Purchase them in person at the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072; at the UPAC box office at 601 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088; or at TicketMaster, (845) 454-3388.

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