In spite of debilitating tragedy in her life, singer-songwriter Judy Collins still has something to sing about. And she’s doing it all over the world.
Sixteen years ago she lost her only son to suicide. She herself had suffered from an eating disorder and alcoholism. But Collins always had her music. And it still sustains her.
“Everybody has hard things to pull through, it’s not only me,” she says in her office here. “Believe me there are people who’ve gone through the same - it’s tough. It’s not for the weak or the faint of heart. I got strength from friends, family has a lot to do with it, and music that’s a help with healing.”
Collins, who’s best known for her versions of “Amazing Grace,” “Both Sides Now” and “Send in the Clowns,” began at the piano with classical music. She says music first fascinated her when she was 3 or 4. “Probably in the womb, performing and being able to play things and listening to music, be read to, my association with art and music is very strong. That link was emphasized in our family,” she says.
Though she has been sober for 30 years, it’s still a daily challenge. “It’s persistence, forbearance, good fortune and good genes, I guess,” she says. “I’m a great believer in treatment and a believer in treating yourself like you’re always in jeopardy. So I continue to do what I was taught in rehab.
“That means it’s a vigilance and taking care of oneself. If you had kidney failure you’d go and get your dialysis like a good girl. Having lost a son in relapse to suicide, I know what a hard taskmaster the disease of alcoholism is,” she says.
“Fortunately a lot of people know a lot more about it and there’s a lot more recovery access for people nowadays. It’s better now, the stigma is going - just as it is with suicide - so there’s more information around, more help and people are more willing. Even Oprah and Dr. Phil are talking about these things, so we must be making some kind of progress.”
Collins comes from a musical family. Her father was a singer and performer who hosted a radio show for 30 years. “You might say I inherited the whole thing,” she says. At 15 she became fascinated with the storytelling of folk music and took up the guitar (though she still plays and composes on the piano.) But, she says, she didn’t plan a music career.
“I didn’t know I wanted to do it but I knew I loved it, and I did it and was very lucky because I found a big, big education and got trained as a musician, and I got raised in a family that was politically active who believed in doing something for the world, and I had a lot of luck, in a sense. But I ate it up and certainly ate up all the music.”
Collins, 68, was influenced by all kinds of music. “From the Irish traditional songs to Rodgers and Hart to singing with a dance band when I was 16 - it all had its proper place in my education.”
She was a teen when she began performing with the Jack Blues Dance Band. “I wore this little Linda Ronstadt dress until they found out I was underage and I had to stop, I was singing in bars. Booze was served so they couldn’t have me stay. I could’ve been a pale version of Ella, who knows?”
Now she spends most of her time touring and heralding her latest CD, “Judy Collins Sings Lennon & McCartney.”
“My life’s a tour, that’s what I do,” she shrugs. “I would doubt that I chose this field - it chose me. I have a certain talent, and there it is. I could not make a living as an accountant, for instance. I could try but my education is in music, my background, my roots, my successes, my adventures have been in music so that’s a natural.”
On Saturday she’ll be performing in Woodstock, Conn.; on May 4 she’s in Seoul, South Korea; then back to the states on May 8 in Suffolk, Va., and then other venues across the U.S. The tour ends Nov. 15 in Westhampton Beach, N.Y.
Though she says she knows Paul McCartney, she never worked with the Beatles. “They sort of got out of the business early, didn’t travel much after `68,” she recalls. “They were so vulnerable, and their audiences were so crazy they didn’t want to go out and be involved in that. Who can blame them?
“They had life-threatening situations, the insanity of screaming crowds of hundreds of thousands of people, that’s dangerous. It’s very scary.”
Happily married to her second husband, industrial designer Louis Nelson, Collins remains disciplined utilizing meditation, church and a yoga format with her meditation.
“I’m doing what I love,” she smiles. “I have a wonderful life, a wonderful relationship with my husband, a fantastic group of friends. I go on vacations, go to museums, I make art, get paid for singing - what else could you want?”
// Notes from the Road
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