Judy Collins, From Both Sides Now

Grammy-award winning singer Judy Collins went from being a child prodigy to one of the most prolific folk musicians of our time. And after a five-decade career in music, she is still reinventing herself. Judy Collins performs live and talks about her music, social activism and the secret to her longevity.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Many of us feel like we've know Judy Collins our whole lives and most of us are right. Her glorious soprano soared to us from record players and transistor radios, from folk clubs and grand concert halls, over the public address system at rallies against the war in Vietnam and now through the ear buds of our iPods. Over a long career, the same artist has been described as a folk singer, a singer/songwriter and a pop star. She also introduced many of us to other artists as diverse as Joni Mitchell and Stephen Sondheim. She joins us here today in Studio 4A to perform and take your calls and emails.

Later in the program, President Obama's strategic vision or lack of same, according to Andrew Bacevich, who joins us to pose big questions about U.S. national strategy. But first, if you'd like to talk with Judy Collins about what you've shared with her over the years, whether she knows it or not, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. We'll also get questions from our audience here in Studio 4A. But Judy Collins, thank you so much for being with us today.

Ms. JUDY COLLINS (Singer): Oh, thank you so much. It's a privilege. I love it.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. COLLINS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: And let's wait no longer. How about a song?

Ms. COLLINS: Oh, good.

(Soundbite of song, "Mountain Girl")

Ms. COLLINS: (Singing) Out on the street it was raining today, homeless man stood in the cold. Gave him five dollars and went on my way, big city blues in my soul. Maybe like me that man chose to live here, where there are days your heart dies. Maybe he dreamed of a place far away, under the wide open skies. Went on my way feeling strange all that day, wondering what had gone wrong. And all along I could hear that voice call, haunting me all that day long. Mountain girl in the city, you've been gone far too long.

Find your way back to the mountains, where you know you belong, where your dreams can't go wrong. I've seen the world and it sights in my day, cities that blaze like the sun. I've had my share of their riches and fame, done things I never should have done. I've been broken-hearted and broken some hearts, I've tried running hard from my pain. And all along I could hear that voice call, come back to the mountains again. Mountain girl in the city, you've been gone far too long. Find your way back to the mountains, where you know you belong, where your dreams can't go wrong.

Bought a ticket back again, heading home once more. I feel that aching pain recede, like the waves on the shore. I feel the heart of the mountains again, beating inside my breast. Taking me back to the place I belong, bringing me home to the West. No pain or sorrow will keep me away, I'd even walk that last long mile. Here in the mountains, where every sunrise starts, I'll heal my heart for awhile. Mountain girl in the city, you've been gone far too long. Find your way back to the mountains, where you know you belong, where your dreams can't go wrong. Mountain girl, mountain girl, mountain girl in the city.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. COLLINS: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Judy Collins with us here in Studio 4A along with Russell Walden on piano and thank you both. That was - that seemed a little autobiographical, that tune.

Ms. COLLINS: Well, yes. You know, I'm a Colorado girl…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. COLLINS: …and love the mountains, but moved to the - to New York City, became a New Yorker in 1963. So I've been there ever since, but yes, your heart, once you've lived there, it's always in the mountains somehow, some part of the day anyway.

CONAN: You are performing tonight at the Rams Head in Annapolis, Maryland, and it is a room about the same size as the rooms you were playing back in 1963.

Ms. COLLINS: Well, I play every - every size, you know, big, wonderful concerts outdoors, big PACs, they call them, performing arts centers.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. COLLINS: Carnegie Hall, little rooms like the Carlyle, where I've had - which is smaller than this, really. It's a hundred seats. And -but each one counts, believe me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: And any size room, any - my father always said to me - you know, I grew up in a radio station. I know you probably know that…

CONAN: Yeah, your dad…

Ms. COLLINS: …live radio - wonderful, wonderful invention. And so I'm used to all kinds of different sizes of rooms.

CONAN: Why after all these years are you back on tour?

Ms. COLLINS: I'm not - it's - I never left.

CONAN: You never left?

Ms. COLLINS: No, I never left. So people don't really know where you are when you're in other towns, you know, and even my friends call me and say, are you going to the country this weekend? They don't know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: They can now go on the Web site, of course, and see all over the world where we are going and playing and showing up. So it's wonderful to have a Web site where you can tell people where you're going because it keeps your friends up-to-date, so that they don't think you're at home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: In live radio, they just keep up-to-date by listening to the program. They know what you're reading and who you've been talking to…

Ms. COLLINS: That's right.

CONAN: …and they don't feel the need to call.

Ms. COLLINS: They can - they don't call, right…

CONAN: They never call.

Ms. COLLINS: Right, we know what you are doing…

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. COLLINS: …so forget it.

CONAN: You'd like to call to talk to Judy Collins, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll also get questions from the room here in Washington. But lets begin with Darryl. And Darryl's calling from Scottsdale.

DARRYL (Caller): Oh, hello. Judy, I met you with my girlfriend when you were giving a performance in Washington State back in the mid '90s.

Ms. COLLINS: Yes.

DARRYL: Do you remember that little…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: Oh, of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DARRYL: Well, anyway, there was a song about masters that you sang that day that is on one of your albums…

Ms. COLLINS: Do you mean…

(Singing) Oh you masters of war…

(Speaking) That one?

DARRYL: Yes.

Ms. COLLINS: That's Dylan, you know.

Ms. COLLINS: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

(Speaking) That's Dylan, you know that? Is that what I was singing?

DARRYL: Yes, what's the name of it?

Ms. COLLINS: It's called "Masters of War," and I first recorded - you know, I first started recording Dylan very early. By the time I was making my third album, I think I was recording Dylan: "Masters of War," "Tambourine Man."

DARRYL: I don't think it was "Masters of War." It was more about (unintelligible) masters kind of thing.

Ms. COLLINS: About what?

DARRYL: Masters who are helping the universe.

Ms. COLLINS: Interesting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: Well, I'll try to remember that. I'll try to remember that. It doesn't come to mind right away.

DARRYL: Okay.

Ms. COLLINS: Oh, you know what you were thinking? Maybe you heard a song called - let me see if I can play a moment of it.

CONAN: Ms. Collins is moving over to the piano.

Ms. COLLINS: I'll bet, I'll bet that what you heard was…

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. COLLINS: This is the line you heard.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. COLLINS: (Singing) If you call him, your master will hear you.

(Speaking) That's it, right?

DARRYL: No.

CONAN: No?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DARRYL: It was actually about masters, I thought.

Ms. COLLINS: We're going to be kept busy, quite busy for quite some time.

CONAN: We're going to get the archivists working on this at this point.

Ms. COLLINS: That's right, that's right, but thank you for being there, and thank you for getting us to work.

DARRYL: Well, you're welcome, and thank you so much for coming out and meeting me and my girlfriend back in '94. It was wonderful.

Ms. COLLINS: Thank you, thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

DARRYL: Bye-bye.

CONAN: I meant to ask you. You mentioned your first two albums, most of the songwriters were those famous writers, Anon and Trad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: Yes, Anon and Trad.

CONAN: Was there any kind of criticism when you started - songwriters started being named B. Dylan and J. Mitchell?

Ms. COLLINS: I don't know. I don't think that - I don't know that anybody who changes their - or who thinks about expanding and becoming more curious and so on, I think people like that are always thought peculiar. So I don't mind being thought peculiar, and I do think that there were a lot of things we did in those early Electra years that were very risky. For instance not so much recording Dylan - and I recorded Randy Newman, one of the first people who did record his songs, and I found and recorded many, many of - well, Leonard Cohen came to me to find out whether I thought he was a songwriter, which I thought was peculiar for a monk not to know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: And then, of course, Joni Mitchell, whose music found its way to me through the good turn of a friend named Al Cooper(ph), who called me at four in the morning - I thought it was three, but he reminded me recently that it was four - you know how your memory is about the '60s - and he called me and put her on the line, and she played "Both Sides Now" for me on the phone.

CONAN: We'll talk more about songwriters, including one J. Collins when we come back after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. Judy Collins is with us today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, and we got this email from Julie. This is just to say that I am living right now in Judy Collins' childhood home in Denver, Colorado. That's 809 Humboldt Street, at least that's what it's been told. If so, I want her to know that three great kids - Benjamin, also a musician, age 11; Alice, age seven; and Lucy, almost two - are living here now with their parents, two writers and publishers, and we are very happy here.

Ms. COLLINS: Oh, we left good karma in that house. My room was the top room, and it was three stories, and it was quite close to Cheesman Park, and I think I might have been - not a junior yet, a sophomore. That comes after freshman, yes?

CONAN: Yes.

Ms. COLLINS: And I think I was a sophomore in high school, and I remember that summer I was in the chorus of the "South Pacific" and singing along with the people who were singing the major, major solos. But I…

CONAN: Hope there ain't nothing like a dame.

Ms. COLLINS: Yeah.

Ms. COLLINS: (Singing) I'm gonna wash that man right out of my hair.

(Speaking) I had a summer of Broadway fun that year, and I loved that room up at the top in the eaves, under the eaves. It was a great house.

CONAN: If you'd like to talk with Judy Collins about the things you've shared with her over the years, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. We're also taking questions from the audience here in Studio 4A, and there's somebody there now.

Mr. KEANU ROSKERBER(ph): Hi, I'm Keanu Roskerber. I'm here from D.C. I was wondering what type of guitar you are using and if you always use the same guitar. I noticed it had - I'm sorry - it doesn't have six strings.

Ms. COLLINS: No, it doesn't have six strings anymore. It has 12 now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: I have played a lot of different guitars, but always in the last 40 years I've played Martins, and I did play six-string Martins when I could finger-pick in the old days, but I can't do that anymore. And I started playing the 12-string guitar after really hearing Pete Seeger play and recording things like "Tambourine Man" with Jim McGuinn(ph), Roger McGuinn(ph), and so this guitar - I'm so glad you asked about this guitar because this is patterned after a D-40, a Martin D-35 that I played for years, and it's my signature Judy Collins Martin guitar.

So you can get it. You can actually buy it, and it's made in a six-string version and a 12-string version, and the proceeds from that guitar go to Amnesty International and UNICEF. So it's a good deed as well as a good instrument.

CONAN: And she wasn't confused about Mr. McGuinn's name. He changed it.

Ms. COLLINS: He did change it, right. It was him, not me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's go to Don. Don's on the line with us from Buffalo.

DON (Caller): Thank you, Neal. Ms. Collins, it's a thrill to talk to you. I grew up in Storrs, Connecticut, where you spent a little time before going to New York, as I recall, and I think you drove the Coventry Day School bus.

Ms. COLLINS: Oh, yes I did that. I did. We had a big - we might have called it that, but it was our big Chevy Carryall, which I also used to bring down to New York when I was singing at Gertie's. I'd make that drive, you know, bumping into the railings along…

CONAN: Gertie's Folk City.

Ms. COLLINS: Gertie's Folk City, West 4th Street, in Greenwich Village. started there. I started singing there in the '60s, I mean early '60s, like '61, '62, and then after we moved to Storrs, Connecticut, my ex-husband was a Blake - studying to be a Blake scholar, and he was getting his degree at the University of Connecticut, and our son was in the Coventry Day School, and we drove all the kids around when we could.

Mostly it was Peter who did the driving because I was usually on the road, but when I was home, I did drive as well.

DON: My best friend's brother remembers - was on the bus and remembers you singing to the kids on the bus and going forward.

CONAN: Something about the wheels going round and round?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DON: Well, maybe, but I do have a question too. I just wondered how you connect with - how the audience is these days in terms of younger people in the audience and how - are they following you as we all did, kids that are high school and college age?

Ms. COLLINS: They are, and if they aren't, they're catching up, but you know, since I haven't ever stopped touring, I have, I think, kept my audiences growing, also because of the Internet. Richie Havens said to me once recently, he said, you know, it used to be that everybody was our age, and now they're every age. They're kids, they're babies. You know, spending your time doing things like "Sesame Street" ensures that some people in the audiences will know who you are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Don, thanks very much for the call.

Ms. COLLINS: Thanks, Don.

DON: Thank you.

CONAN: And I will get yelled at if I don't ask you to play another tune.

Ms. COLLINS: Oh, okay. Well, I think it's - I didn't write any songs in the old days, but after I met Leonard, he said why aren't you writing your own songs. So this is my very first song.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. COLLINS: (Singing) What I'll give you since you asked is all my time together. Take the rugged sunny days, the warm and rocky weather. Take the roads that I have walked along, looking for tomorrow's time, peace of mind.

As my life spills into yours, changing with the hours, filling up the world with time, turning time to flowers. I can show you all the songs that I never sang to one man before.

We have seen a million stones lying by the water. You have climbed the hills with me to the mountain shelter, taken off the days one by one, setting them to breathe in the sun.

Take the lilies and the lace from the days of childhood, all the willow winding paths leading up and outward. This is what I give. This is what I ask you for, nothing more.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. COLLINS: Thank you. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Judy Collins. You mentioned Richie Havens a moment ago. Of course he's famous for being the opening act at Woodstock.

Ms. COLLINS: Oh, yes.

CONAN: Yeah. And I just read recently that you too were at Woodstock, but you're not in the movie.

Ms. COLLINS: No, and I wasn't there. I mean, I went but I wasn't there. You know, doesn't that sound like a '60s story anyway?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: Nobody who was on the production team seemed interested in having me there, and Bill Graham said, well, you could, you know, come by, but you're not going to be on the show. So I did go by, actually. I went by because I was interested in all that fracas and mud and the thing, whatever it was that was going on there.

CONAN: I hope you stayed away from that brown acid.

Ms. COLLINS: Oh yes. I didn't get that far. I didn't get far enough to find out until later. In fact, I'm one of those people. I took it once, you know, took acid once, and with Michelle, actually Michelle and John Phillips, in a little tiny apartment down in the Village.

It was still legal then, by the way, acid. I didn't know if it was illegal or legal. I just knew I was taking it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: And I had a terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible time, really terrible, terrible, terrible.

CONAN: As did many.

Ms. COLLINS: It was so horrible that I did it again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: But only twice. But anyway, I said, well, I'll come - so I drove. I was in a play that summer. I was in "Peer Gynt" in New York, 1969.

CONAN: With Stacy Keach.

Ms. COLLINS: With Stacy Keach and Olympia Dukakis, and so I was in the park and doing this show, and I think we came up on the night that was our day off, I guess, and Stacy and I drove up with my sister and another friend, and we got to the office. I had passes and various things, and Bill said, well, you know, you could go to the stage if you want, but you're not going on, and I said, no thanks, and got back in the car and drove to Williamstown, where I heard Olympia Dukakis in "The Cherry Orchard," and I thought that was a very good way to spend the weekend.

Also, I thought on that, on the way to Williamstown, of what I would do with the singing whales. It is sort of like a Woodstock story, anyway, even though it was not really about Woodstock, but on the way from Woodstock to Williamstown, I thought of what to do with the singing whales, which I had in possession, my possession, the first recording of the whales given to me by Roger Payne.

CONAN: These had just come out.

Ms. COLLINS: And it had just - he had just brought it to me, and it was a raw piece of tape, which I played for friends and thought, what would I - and I decided to put…

(Singing) Farewell Tarwathie, adieu Mormond Hill…

(Speaking) …over the whales singing. So that was, for me, Woodstock became a brilliant experience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Susan(ph). Susan with us from Cedar Rapids in Iowa.

SUSAN (Caller): Yes. Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

SUSAN: What a great program today. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Well, it's our pleasure.

SUSAN: Okay. I am - I really remember Judy Collins' music back in the protest days. And I've been an activist since I was probably about 12. And one of my favorite songs of all times is "Bread and Roses"…

Ms. COLLINS: Oh.

SUSAN: …so I'm hoping if you could get her to sing a couple of lines from that…

Ms. COLLINS: Oh, yes.

SUSAN: …because that's been such an encourager to me for my entire life.

Ms. COLLINS: Oh, yes.

SUSAN: So…

Ms. COLLINS: It's a very special song. It was written - the melody was written by Mimi Farina and the words were written by a John Oppenheim in 1920s to support the suffrage movement. And the chorus, of course…

(Soundbite of song, "Bread and Roses")

Ms. COLLINS: (Singing) As we go marching, marching in the beauty of the day, a million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray, are touched with all the radiance as a sudden sun discloses, for the people hear us singing: bread and roses, bread and roses.

SUSAN: Wow. Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. COLLINS: You're so welcome.

SUSAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Susan.

SUSAN: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Just a comment writes - who is this - Steve in Hillsboro, Oregon. I saw Judy Collins in Portland several years ago. The thing that I liked best was that she stopped the concert because the sound system was too loud. She had them turn it down. And the concert was one of the best I have ever been to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks, Judy. That would be the first performer ever to tell them to turn it down.

Ms. COLLINS: Turn it down, yes. Yes.

CONAN: We're talking with Judy Collins today, the Grammy Award-winning folksinger and songwriter, author and social activist whose career in music spans longer than I care to think about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Also, with us is Russell Walden, who sometimes she lets play the piano.

Ms. COLLINS: Yes.

CONAN: And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And there's a question at the mic here in Studio 4A.

TOM(ph) (Audience): Well, Ms. Collins, my name is Tom from here in D.C. Thank you so much for your music and for the way that you've raised our consciousness and keep raising it. We think differently, I think, because of you.

I'm the father of three daughters. They all sing. They all love music. And I guess I'd want to invite you to speak to them and other young women who are just, I guess, beginning to know what it means to love music really deeply and for a lifetime. Thank you.

Ms. COLLINS: Well, it's such an amazing adventure, really, to be - I think everybody needs to have music in their lives, and part of the thing I think about my traveling. And I travel all year and I travel - I do 60 to 80 shows a year. I think we did 110 last year, we have a great - I consider it a great privilege.

I consider it a calling, because I think people need live music. And in order for them to have full lives, they need to have live music. And I'm the same way. I need live music. I need to go and hear it. I need to participate. I need to be an audience. I need what happens to an audience when they're listening to music. And it's an essential ingredient. It doesn't matter whether you wind up in a career of music. What matters is that you have it in your life, that you successfully find out what it is you like.

And nowadays, you can go in the Internet and pull off Rachmaninoff and Joan Baez and Sheryl Crow and, you know, U2 and do listen to all the kinds of music that are possible. What an extreme, extreme wealth there is now and how easy it is. And I think that's very important. It's probably why so many people are so aware of different kinds of music now. There were little pockets for us. And it was a little bit harder to find that kind of music and to be eclectic, you know, to find - to go to the symphony one week and go to a club the next.

And, you know, it's terribly important - it's the richness and the tapestry of the life that I think needs music as its underpinning.

CONAN: Here's an email from Lloyd in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I met a minister who at that time was living in La Crescent, Minnesota, who claimed that he was the originator of the idea that you, Judy Collins, should record "Amazing Grace." He had a letter from you framed on his wall, but I can't recall the details. Is this true? And can you talk about how that song came to pass. It's wonderful, and thank you for it.

Ms. COLLINS: Thank you. That sounds like the beginning of the song. There was a minister in - what's the name of the town?

CONAN: La Crosse.

Ms. COLLINS: La Crosse. A minister in La Crosse. No, actually, I'll tell you, I record - I always knew the song. My grandmother taught me this song. And I had known it, but I was in an encounter group in New York with a bunch of people, some of whom were friends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: At least for a short while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: And at the end of one particularly raucous encounter group. This was an encounter group run by the guys who had started the encounter groups at the Phoenix House in New York. This was the real deal.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. COLLINS: Raw courage, so to speak. And my producer, who was in the room - this was in 1970s - said to me, you've got to sing a song. We're just falling apart here. Everybody's at each other's throats and tearing their own hair out. So he said you have to sing a song.

And I saw - the only thing I could think of that everybody would know was "Amazing Grace." So I sang "Amazing Grace" and everybody sort of healed their wounds and everybody's hugging and kissing at the end of the night. So when the next morning he called me and he said, we have to record that song. That's how that happened.

CONAN: We're going to take you back to your days in live radio when you were growing up. We've got a minute, 28.

Ms. COLLINS: Ooh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Can you play us something?

Ms. COLLINS: Sure.

(Soundbite of song, "Born to the Breed")

Ms. COLLINS: (Singing) I was only 19 the morning you were born, with your hair fine and red, your eyes like my own. Barely a woman with only a song, I sang to keep you smiling and held you all night long. Home through the streets with you in my arms, cold winter mornings in a Colorado town, you've seen me stumble and watched you fall. You know we've got nothing. You know we've got it all.

CONAN: Judy Collins is on a nationwide tour of the United States until the end of the year. She was kind enough to stop over in Studio 4A today with Russell Walden on piano. Her latest CD is in stores now. It's called "Born to the Breed: A Tribute to Judy Collins." Thank you so much for being with us today.

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