Judy Collins: Ready to Change the World

By Jordan Weinstein

May 7, 2012


Judy Collins performs at Joe's Pub's 10th Anniversary Gala and tribute to her at the Public Theater in New York, 2008. (AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams)

BOSTON — Judy Collins turned music on its head with her incomparable voice and those lyrics that draped our country during the turbulent 60's. But the turbulence was also personal. In her new memoir, she describes herself as "a working alcoholic."

Another turn was as an author who's completed six books including her latest, “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music.

The legendary folk artist  will be at Sanders Theatre this Tuesday night with authors Alice Hoffman, Sue Miller and Tom Perrotta, for a night of musical and literary performance. The event will benefit the Hoffman Breast Center at Mount Auburn Hospital.
WGBH Radio’s Jordan Weinstein caught up with Judy Collins and asked her to read a brief passage from her latest memoir.
COLLINS: ‘It was a time of undeniable destructiveness as the war raged and the young trashed their bodies and their lives, with the drugs many of us thought were so cool. I remember singing in the dusk of summer, the audience primed with wine, organic cheese and fruit for a long night of music.  I put fresh flowers in my hair and through the lace of my Mexican wedding dress. I’d bought a full length leather vest that had roses painted on it, and leather bottoms were stitched to my Levi’s. I wore my hair straight and threw my head back. We were all free, all of us, to be, to love, to live in a world different from the one our parents had inhabited. We were going full steam ahead and yet we floated like water lilies on a pond, dreaming of a billion suns.’
WEINSTEIN: That’s a beautiful passage. Do you feel in retrospect that the ‘60s and the whole anti-war movement and the other cultural movements that were going on were the primary influences in shaping your life and your songs?
COLLINS: I think my life was shaped when I was born in 1939 into a fantastic, complicated, dysfunctional, beautiful family of music and of challenge. You know, my father was blind from the age of 4 and he was an extraordinary man--very adventurous, very determined to do things his way. He was very determined to challenge the politics and the methods of the moment. We were raised to be activists in my family, so that’s where it all began.
Of course as I moved into the ‘60s, I was well prepared. It was like packing your lunch to go on a hike. I was packed and I was ready to change the world. Then I was primed by that combination of Rodgers and Hart and Dylan Thomas and folk music that I’d begun to hear in Denver and the Denver Folklore Center and up on Lookout Mountain sung by Lingo the Drifter. I also played classical music for a dozen years and performed with an orchestra. I was prepared for this job that I do and this life that I lead. And also to be an activist, that was certainly in my bones.
WEINSTEIN: In your memoir, you are very open about your life and you have been very open about your struggle with alcoholism.
COLLINS: I felt it was very important to describe and to illuminate, illustrate, the life of a working alcoholic, the life of an active, working, “showing up” alcoholic. Being successful is very, very difficult to do. Looking back, of course, upon it as I wrote, I couldn’t believe that I was able to do that for 23 years: make records, become a top Grammy and Billboard charting artist, and show up for my shows. I was not the crash-and-burn type. I was somehow given a psyche or physical stamina to hold up and do the work that I had to do in addition to struggling with that disease. And I wanted to show what that was like. It was very hard work.
WEINSTEIN: Your upcoming concert at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge is a benefit for the Hoffman Breast Center at Mount Auburn Hospital, and I’m wondering if you were taken up in the controversy surrounding the decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood that was made by the Susan B. Komen for the Cure organization.
COLLINS: I wasn’t taken up in it. I was appalled by their actions, and I think it spoke to an underlying problem with that organization which they quickly began to try to cover up in the ways that were open to them. I mean, they gave the money back and some people were fired. I don’t think it was news to many people that the Komen group was not, let’s say, of the same mind that many of the rest of us are. But I do think it turned out to be somewhat of a triumph for the women’s issues and for the things that we care deeply about, which are the freedom to make decisions about our own bodies, our own lives, and to get the kind of medical care that we all need.

Judy Collins appears at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge this Tuesday, May 8.

Support for WGBH is provided by:
Become a WGBH sponsor