Judy Collins: From both sides now
By Rita Papazian
Posted: May 6, 2010

By Rita Papazian, Special to the Times

One middle-aged gentleman noted during a recent Judy Collins appearance in Connecticut: “You discover Judy Collins when you’re young, but don’t realize how deep the passion of her songs are until you get older.”

Those older fans certainly relate to that passion, judging by those who came out April 17 to see and hear the singer-songwriter who has been bringing passion to songs for five decades now.

Dressed in black pants, top and jacket, accenting her 5’ 4” inch, 115 pound frame, with her signature long dark hair, now white blonde, cascading past her shoulders, Collins performed on stage in Hubley Hall in Madison to promote her new children’s book “Over The Rainbow.”

The event which drew over a hundred fans, with a sprinkling of young children, accompanied by parents or grandparents, was sponsored by the R.J. Julia Booksellers. The picture book which offers the lyrics of the classic song written by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, who wrote the songs for the “Wizard of Oz,” starring Judy Garland, is brilliantly illustrated by Eric Puybaret. The book is accompanied by a three-song CD of Collins singing Over the Rainbow and a couple of classic: ”camp songs,” including “I See the Moon.”

Collins has a special affinity for the song and film. She was born in 1939, the year the film debuted and she is named for Judy Garland, she said during a telephone interview days before her local appearance.

Immediately upon taking the stage, Collins offered a very brief introduction. “Let’s get this over with” and began her signature song, “Both Sides Now,” In fact, Collins has many signature songs as was evident during her nearly hour performance in which she offered a brief narrative of her career spanning 50 years with a score of songs that her fans keep sequestered in their treasure trove of memories.

While Collins came to Madison to promote her children’s book, it is obvious by the turnout that she is still held in high esteem among her fans, mostly middle-aged who marched and sang along with Collins protesting inequality and the war in Viet Nam. She marched and sang along with the best of the singer/songwriters of those protest years, including her close friend Joan Baez, along with Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. While in her early 20s, she got a record contract and started singing Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie songs and then she met Leonard Cohen, whom she described as “a poet” and told him she would be the one to record his song, “Suzanne,” which began her long love affair with Cohen’s lyrics.

“I’m her biggest fan,” said Liz Drouin, 51 of Madison. “I have followed her career for years and I’ve been to about 12 of her concerts. She is a musician, a composer. I am just truly delighted to be here,” said Drouin who attended the event with Eileen Schiess, also of Madison. The two women perform as “The Music Makers” singing for children, senior citizens and for parties. Drouin said she is especially drawn to how Collins interprets her songs. “She is the yardstick for which we measure all music.”

When Drouin finally got to meet Collins after standing on a long line of admirers waiting to get their copies of “Over The Rainbow” signed, she handed the singer an envelope, containing a letter expressing how much her music has impacted he own life as a singer and musician.

“She’s the best of the best,” said Drouin, who told the singer, she was her mentor and inspiration. “She can still hit those high notes.” said Drouin, commenting upon her performance Sunday.

Before she took the stage, George Huffman of Shelton, 53, sat in the last row holding two books; “Over The Rainbow” and “Sanity and Grace.” He’s been a fan, “ever since I can remember.” He described her music as “the definition of beauty.”

What did he mean by that?’

“It’s how ever you envision beauty. It can be a meadow, a summer day, like today. That’s her music,” said Huffman who is going to get his books signed and give the children’s book to a 2-year-old relative.

As she spoke the narrative of her life and sang snippets of songs that have become the catalog of her songbook, Collins made a point of individually acknowledging the children in the room including Abigail, 10, who was there with her mother Susan, and her grandmother Emogene Slosek, a librarian at the Children’s Community School in Waterbury. Slosek held two copies of Collins’ book, one for her granddaughter and the other for her school’s library.

“I can’t get over how beautiful she still sings and such beautiful songs,” Slosek said later waiting to have her books signed. Abigail, a fourth grader at Island Avenue Elementary School, said she “liked her singing.”

Debbie Carley of Madison said listening to Collins “far exceeded her expectations. I didn’t expect her to perform so much. She seemed to rejuvenate us all. I loved the way she recognized all the kids.”

And well Collins did.

While offering her narrative with singing excerpts from her popular songs, Collins acknowledged children in the audience asking their names and commenting upon the lyrical sounding Lila, Tessa, Amber, Grace, and Riley among others.

During an interview earlier in the week, Collins talked about how the children’s book has come about. Her friend of 50 years, Peter Yarrow, a member of the famed Peter, Paul and Mary folk group had called her. Usually, she said, he would call periodically for her to participate in a fund raiser, but this time he called to ask her to record a song for his Peter Yarrow Books, an imprint of Imagine Publishing, which is dedicated to bringing music and magic to children all over the world.

In the telephone interview, Collins reminisced about how her friendship with Yarrow was based on their common ground of protesting the war and other inequities that fueled their passion for singing out in song.

“Over the Rainbow” weaves a charming spell of music and visual imagery with renowned painter Eric Puybaret’s wonderful, colorful, magical art work which transports children from a little red farmhouse on a stormy gray day to castles high in the clouds and a dream-come-true escape, complete with star beams, chuckling moons, and glorious rainbows than span pages. Collins completed her local performances standing on the stage amid large silver stars and singing “Over The Rainbow.”

In addition to her new children’s book, come June, Collins will release her new CD, ”Paradise” from her own record company, Wildflower Records. “Paradise” is described as a “collection of songs with universal themes, desires, and cries of a human being searching for paradise here on earth. These 10 heartfelt songs, drawn from great sources such as Jimmy Webb, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Tim Buckley and Stan Jones, among others, offers a duet of Collins and Baez singing “Diamonds and Rust,” the 1975 Baez single about Bob Dylan.

“He was terrible, terrible to her but we can’t go there because he’s a saint,” said Collins to her audience.

The CD also includes a duet with Stephen Stills singing Tom Paxton’s song “Last Thing on My Mind” and “The Weight of the World” by emerging artist Amy Speace.

At age 70, Collins shows no signs of slowing down. She performs 100 concerts a year and is currently reviewing her inventory of her own songs in various stages of completion in order to prepare them for a new publisher. During the interview this reporter asked Collins how as she ages she continues to fuel her creativity which has taken many forms including classical pianist, songwriter, guitarist, performer, and author. Her memoir, “Sanity and Grace, A Journey of Suicide, Survival and Strength,” focuses on the death of her only son. Clark who committed suicide in 1992 at the age of 33, which catapulted the singer into extreme depression.

Collins said her creativity is fueled through the journals and notebooks she has kept since she is a child. “I carry a notebook with me. No matter who you are or what you do, you should keep a notebook or journal. It keeps you focused and it’s very creative. You do a little every day and it adds up.”

Collins complements her creative work with physical activity as well. She maintains her 5’ 4” 115 frame by doing stretching exercises, running and working on the treadmill at least five days a week.

Collins has been married to Louis Nelson, a designer for the past 14 years, although the couple have been together for 32 years. Nelson, who attended his wife’s event Sunday, is the designer of the Korean War Veterans memorial’s mural wall in Washington and is currently working on the information systems at Logan Airport. During a brief interview Sunday, he said his work at the airport deals with the signage by making sure it is readable and understandable.

The couple met in 1978 during an equal rights amendment fund raiser. In a New York Times article about their wedding, Nelson is quoted as saying that he was “flabbergasted” Collins woUld be interested in him. “She was a star. I owned all of her records.”

When asked Sunday if he had a favorite among her songs, he said, “all of them.”

David Norwood, a social worker from West Hartford, summed up the feelings of many in attendance at Hubley Hall: “It’s a rare opportunity to see someone of her stature,” he said.