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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Happy birthday, Judy Collins

When my mother was 7 years old, Judy Collins was born in Seattle. 

I noticed this factoid yesterday, and thought to myself, For almost as long as I've paid attention to popular music, Judy Collins has been one of my favorite singers, songwriters, and interpreters of song. Through her, I was introduced to Stephen Sondheim, Bob Dylan, Jacques Brel, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Richard and Mimi Fariña, Kurt Weill, and I'm pretty sure "Amazing Grace." This woman may be one of the greatest populist singers of any time. Her eclectic taste has stood her well, and now for over four decades she has been making music to delight us. This past summer, I listened to her read her "latest" autobiography, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, felt an even stronger connection to this wild girl whose personal demons have not been able to overcome what music has wanted to do through her. 
Her album "Wildflowers" (1967) is one of my favorites of all time, and I remember wearing it out when I had it in vinyl. It remains amazingly fresh sounding to this day.
Judy, then - the back cover of Wildflowers
Judy Collins was moving away even then from the folk sound in which she had grown up (though she was an accomplished concert pianist by the age of 13), and Wildflowers has amazing arrangements by Joshua Rifkin, a noted musicologist who specialized in Baroque and renaissance music, and who has taught at Yale and Harvard. (On a side note, Wikipedia reports that Rifkin was the arranger responsible for the redoubtable Baroque Beatles Book recording of the late 1960s, in which he arranged and recorded the some of the great Beatles classics in the style of the Baroque composers.) The thing is, on this album, in addition to her own "Since You Asked" and the autobiographical reverie "Albatross," there were arrangements of songs by Joni Mitchell ("Both Sides Now"), Leonard Cohen (the lovely "Suzanne," "Priests," "Sisters of Mercy," and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye"), Jacques Brel ("La chanson des vieux amants"), and a 14th century ballade by Orlando di Lasso. The breadth and scope of her repertoire was typical of later albums, when she would cover the Beatles (notably "In My Life" and "Here, There, and Everywhere", but she has an entire album of Lennon/McCartney covers), Bob Dylan, Donovan, and Stephen Sondheim (her famous, if naive, recording of "Send in the Clowns").
Judy also made famously accessible the venerable hymn "Amazing Grace" on her recording Whales and Nightingales. It was, I believe, the first number one song that was completely a capella, and the only one until Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy." On the same recording, she popularized the Shaker Hymn "Simple Gifts," which had started to gain popularity again partly because it shared the tune with Sydney Carter's "Lord of the Dance," in turn used in concerts around the world by the Makem and Clancy.
My favorite song by Judy Collins? Hm. I've always loved the country-flavored "Someday Soon," because it's one Terry and I used to have fun singing together. And I love her covers of Jacques Brel, not just "Chanson des vieux amants," but also her later recording of "Sons of" and "Marieke," which I believe were both in the musical Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. I love her playful, haunting take on "Pirate Jenny" from Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera, and her sweet original song "Since You Asked," which was later covered by Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg on their Twin Sons of DIfferent Mothers. Then there's her version of "Marat/Sade" from the Peter Weiss play, with music by Richard Peaslee, and her lovely reminiscence in the song "My Father." How can I pick a favorite?
Judy now
Well, it's this one: "Secret Gardens," from the album True Stories. I hope you'll download it from iTunes if you don't know it. I'll end with the lyrics, but I just want to say again what a wonderful musician Judy Collins is, and how many songwriters I have first experienced interpreted by her craft. Happy birthday, Judy, and many happy returns.
Secret Gardens
Words and Music by Judy Collins
Universal Music Corp. (ASCAP)/ Rocky Mountain National Park Music, Inc.  (ASCAP)
(Administered by Universal Music Corp.)


My grandmother's house is still there

But it isn't the same

A plain wooden cottage

A patch of brown lawn

And a fence that hangs standing
And sighing in the Seattle rain


I drive by with strangers

And wish they could see what I see

A tangle of summer birds 

Flying in sunlight

A forest of lilies
An orchard of apricot trees

Secret Gardens of the heart
Where the flowers bloom forever
I see you shining through the night
In the ice and snow of winter

Great grandfather's farm is still there
But it isn't the same
The barn is torn down 
And the fences are gone
The Idaho wind blows 
The topsoil away every Spring

I still see the ghosts
Of the people I knew long ago
Inside the old kitchen
They bend and sigh
My life passed them up 
And the world passed them by

Secret Gardens of the heart
Where the old stay young forever
I see you shining through the night
In the ice and snow of winter

But most of all
It is me that has changed
And yet I'm still the same
That's me at the weddings
That's me at the graves
Dressed like the people 
Who once looked so grown-up and brave

I look in the mirror
Throught the eyes of the child that was me
I see willows bending
The season is Spring
And the silver blue sailing birds 
Fly with the sun on their wings

Secret Gardens of the heart
Where dreams live on forever
I see you shining through the night
In the ice and snow of winter