There was a girl who grew up down the street from me in Atlanta who would cry every time she heard Judy Collins's version of "Send in the Clowns." She didn't know why. She said, "It's so sad and beautiful and lonely." The next summer, her brother fell from a magnolia tree and broke his neck. She played the song at his funeral. I remember her looking at me when it came on, and she mustered a smile. Man, did I ever cry.
At 75 years young, Judy Collins (a Seattle native, by the way) still has her sterling, American voice—graceful, earthly, and full of Grammy-winning range that can bring tears to your eyes whether or not you're at your neighbor's funeral. Since her first album in 1961, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, she's released and been a part of more than 50 albums, six of them certified gold. Though she found recognition in the '60s folk revival, you can't classify her solely as a folksinger. She's an author, an activist, a guitar designer, a filmmaker, and a record-label founder. She's battled tuberculosis, bulimia, and addiction, and remained professionally active for more than 50 years.
She spoke to me from her tour bus in Cold Spring, New York, on the edge of the Hudson River.
How many times would you say you've sung "Amazing Grace"? If you had to say. Five thousand? If I had a calculator, I guess I could do some math. It feels like a million. But a million just sounds like too many. Such a beautiful song.
You're originally from Seattle. What do you remember about living here? I get back to Seattle a lot because I have family that still lives there. We moved from Seattle to West LA. So we would drive up to Seattle. You can't beat those scenic drives—Mount Shasta and the views you get from a car on the highway. I remember the rain. My sister is there, she lives out on Bainbridge Island. Looking at the city in the summer from the ferryboat at night is always a sight. I remember it being a beautiful city. It still is. I love it.
You're in some good company with people who have signature Martin guitars: Johnny Cash, Buddy Guy, Peter Frampton, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Nancy Wilson. What can you tell me about the Judy Collins signature Martin 12-string guitar? Well, they based it on the Martin T45 that I'd played for years. I talked to them about the wood and what I wanted it to look like. It's a dreadnought design with a center wedge of Pacific big-leaf maple against wings and sides of East Indian rosewood. The maple gives a definition and tone. The top is Sitka spruce. There's a wildflower, a columbine, inlaid in green abalone and bordered with mother-of-pearl. I've played 12-string for decades. It's a gorgeous guitar. I've been playing it for so long, what's hard now is playing a six-string.
Let's clear up the busking thing. Did you or did you not busk in Greenwich Village?
I never busked. I always worked in clubs. I never stood on the street corner holding out a hand [laughs]. Someone needs to take that off the Wikipedia page because it's not true. I never busked. I've been doing this for more than 50 years. I never thought I'd be doing this that long. I never thought I'd live long enough to get my cataracts done.
What do you remember about recording your first album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow? The name of the album is the name of one of the songs. It's a traditional song, very much a part of many people's repertoires. I spent the first few years of my career recording traditional music. Then I picked up on and discovered singer-songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, and Stephen Sondheim. I liked a mixture of things and always tried to keep my palette varied. That album was the beginning of my career with Elektra Records. My first go-round with Elektra was for 25 years. After that, we did some additional projects. I still get a royalty, on time, from them twice a year, which is really remarkable [laughs].
When people ask you what you sing, what do you say? When people ask me what I sing, I say, "Judy Collins." Because that's the stamp of identification. It's no longer a category like folk music or pop music or singer-songwriter. I became a writer thanks to my friend Leonard Cohen. After I started recording all of his songs in 1966, he said to me, "Why aren't you writing your own songs?" That's when I started writing my own material.
How did you get to know Leonard Cohen? He came to see me in 1966. We were introduced by a mutual friend. He was unknown then. He was a poet and had published a few poems in Canada. And he'd started writing songs and wanted to come see me.
What does your set consist of now? It's the old and the new and the surprising. A mixture of songs off the newest Irish CD Live in Ireland, which is on PBS at the moment, and some of the classics. I don't do all the hits every show. You have to go to multiple shows if you want to hear all the hits [laughs].
What's a song you've written that just came out of nowhere? Like, you were staring into the toaster, watching the heating coils glow oranger and oranger, and a song just came to you. My latest song was written for the Irish show. It's called "New Moon over the Hudson." It didn't happen from staring into the toaster [laughs]. Songs do seem to happen sometimes out of nowhere. I wrote a song for 9/11, and all that surrounds it. I was also commissioned by NASA in 1999 to write a song for Eileen Collins, who was the first female commander of a space shuttle mission. It's called "Beyond the Sky." I write books as well as songs. My last memoir is called Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, and it tells the whole story, if people are interested in finding out what really happened.
Were you surprised when you got that call from NASA to do a song for them? Or were you hanging out with them? Are you a space person? I wasn't surprised. It was sort of a natural thing. I had met Sally Ride in Washington, DC, at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. And I'd met other people from NASA, so I was slightly involved with them. We were socializing at an event, and someone said, "Would you like to write a song for astronaut Eileen Collins?" And I said, "Of course." So we went down to Florida and sang the song at her launch.
Would you ever want to make an alternate ending for "Send in the Clowns"? I know Stephen Sondheim wrote it for the play A Little Night Music. The character Desiree is rejected by Fredrik, the lawyer, and she's crushed. The way you sing the song is so powerful and timeless. Maybe we could lighten it up and make it "Send in the Nouns"? If Stephen Sondheim ever needs to change the words, I'll let him know. If the plot of the play ever changes, but I don't see that happening. Maybe there will be a sequel [laughs] about an editor telling his writers to send in their material.
Nouns that come in all shapes and sizes. Like water bed. And teardrop window. And heating coil. Sorry, Stephen Sondheim, the play's changed. You're really onto something there. Tony Award–worthy for sure. Stephen will be overjoyed.