Judy Collins, one of the most celebrated folk singers to emerge from the coffee house days of the early 1960s, has finally been given the reissue treatment she deserves. Collector’s Choice (a real music fan’s label) has digitally remastered nine of her best albums (some of which had fallen out of print) and commissioned extensive liner notes for each by music scribe and folk music expert Ritchie Unterberger. Of these nine releases, PopMatters has had the chance to listen to the first four: Fifth Album, In My Life, Whales & Nightingales and True Stories & Other Dreams. (The other five are: Bread & Roses, Running for My Life, Times of Our Lives, Home Again and Christmas at the Biltmore.)
Fifth Album is a relic of its era in the finest possible sense. A pure mid-60s folk recording, Collins’ first masterpiece collected songs by some of the top writers in the business (including Bob Dylan, Eric Andersen, Phil Ochs, Melvina Reynolds and Gordon Lightfoot) and seamlessly interwove them with traditional numbers, imbuing all with her own signature delivery and bell-clear soprano. Featuring spare, acoustic production and typically reverent attention to performance — for Collins was one of the greatest interpreters in the folk music world, always seeming to understand the songs she sang as if they had been her very own — this record stands up as a terrific document of the best that a mostly-forgotten genre had to offer. Indeed, it is a sound that, by late 1965 when it was released, was already beginning to feel dated. In many ways, this record represents the apotheosis of the coffee house folky’s approach to studio recording.
As if to make this point as clearly as possible, Collins followed Fifth Album by re-imagining the folk record, and crafting one of the most innovative and influential albums of the decade. In My Life, released a mere six months after Fifth Album, remains a fascinating and challenging listen today. A mingling of traditional folk forms, classical music, torch balladry, theatrical numbers, and cutting edge approaches to songcraft, this Joshua Rifkin-arranged masterwork is ground zero for anyone wishing to understand the genesis of, say, Joanna Newsom, Rufus Wainwright or Owen Pallett. From the soft-toned re-working of Dylan’s “Tom Thumb’s Blues” to the string-washed cover of Randy Newman’s aching “I Think it’s Going to Rain Today”, to the stunning take on the Lennon-penned title track, to the definitive vision of the as-yet unknown Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, Collins’ choices of contemporary material had never been better. But, it was her audacious choices for the other tracks — from Brecht (“Pirate Jenny”) to Brel (“La Colombe”) to a song from Richard Peaslee’s 1964 French Revolution musical Marat/Sade — Collins was stretching the concept of the folk record far past its breaking point. This was simply nothing like anything she had done before; it was a daring bit of artistry, and a wild about-face. Arriving at the onset of the psychedelic era, it feels both prescient and timeless, as weird today as it must have felt back then. Absolutely indelible.
Many people regard her next two records, the far more conventional Wildflowers and Who Knows Where the Time Goes, as her definitive works. Certainly they were her most popular records, and they garnered her biggest hits (especially the career-making cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”). But by the time Whales and Nightingales came along in 1970, amid the strains of Stephen Stills’ “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, Collins was already becoming a bit of an anachronism. Though the record boasted a few clever covers (especially a glowing re-working of Dylan’s minor effort “Time Passes Slowly”), and though it charted fairly highly, it is generally forgotten today. Its sole hit was a big one, but it happened to be an a capella version of the spiritual “Amazing Grace” — a cover which feels slight and unnecessary today. Worse are the numbers where she sings either in poorly-accented French (“Marieke”) or with the accompaniment of humpback whales (“Farewell to Tarwathie”). In many ways, this record represents the end of the era for Collins, and a turning point in her approach to her career.
In 1973, following a live record (Living) and a hastily-compiled “Best Of” collection, Collins returned with True Love and Other Dreams. Though it featured a drab, even gloomy, cover image of the artist in thoughtful repose, this album actually represented a kind of rebirth for Collins who, for the first time in her career, had written most of the material herself. Reflecting the southern California singer-songwriter moment from whence it came, this is among her most straightforward records, demanding little of the listener with its calming production values, pedal steel guitars, groovy percussion, and layered vocals. It’s not slick, exactly, but it certainly sounds different from the adventurous and even experimental stuff on Whales and Nightingales. Paradoxically, the first record in which she emerged as a songwriter was also the first album on which she sounded less than singular, and more like one of the crowd. It’s still gorgeous stuff, but it must be said that here, Collins sounds far more like a follower than the leader she once was.
Kudos to Collector’s Choice for continuing to seek out such important releases and getting them out to us.