Before heading to the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York City, folk singer Judy Collins stopped by a meeting of audio engineers to talk about the music of the 60s and her 50 years in the business of recording records.
“It was 50 years ago that Jac Holzman walked up to me at the Village Gate where I was making a television show,” she recalled. “He said you're now ready to make an album. So I started recording in 1961.”
Now, at 71, she has published a new memoir on the era of the 60s and recorded a new CD, titled Bohemian. “I wanted to call this book "Sex, Drugs, Rock ’n Roll and the Music that Changed a Generation,” she said, but her publisher liked the title of a song written for her in 1968 by Stephen Stills—Sweet Judy Blue Eyes.
“In 1968, we were having this riotous love affair and the song was written by Stephen to get me back. Well, the song didn't get me back. But he is one of the most exciting musicians I have ever met or worked with. We've remained friends through the years. He has always been an important influence on my music. I think there's a resonance of his ideas about songs in many that I've written.
“In like ‘Born to the Breed,’ I hear his ideas about harmonics in that song. In my writing, there's a reflection there. I have great respect for him and his durability,” Collins said.
“Getting the right sound on a record has been a lifetime concern for me. It has produced heartache, heartbreak and anxiety. I was awake at three o'clock in the morning with my eyes wide open asking what I'm going to do? How I'm I going to get through this? It was a struggle for years. In the beginning, I was recording with great engineers. But there was always that kind of difficult argument. I want my records to sound a certain way.”
In 1984, Collins said she finally found her perfect engineer and co-producer, Alan Silverman. “Finally, I have met someone who is brilliant, sensitive and has the same aesthetic ideas that I had. My anxiety level dropped. The artistic level has increased because we have been able to do quite incredible work.”
During much of the 1970s, Collins said, it was not fashionable to emphasize the human voice in recordings—something that caused her deep distress. “You have to hang on to it like it was life and death,” she said. “It is life and death to me. That was the struggle I wrote about in the book. I wanted to kill people for that problem not being solved. But I didn't ever do that. It was good for me and good for them.”
As for her early days in folk music, she has written about the people and times they lived. “It's about the stress, the strain and the love affairs—what the 60s were all about,” she said. “We were living in kind of a dream. There was no AIDS or restrictions on any kind of behavior then. We were also changing the world and breaking the rules. We eventually stopped the war.”
She recalled meeting Janis Joplin for a drink at the Troubadour club in LA in 1968. Both Collins and Joplin were drinking heavily at the time, but Joplin was already well known for her alcohol and drug abuse. “She turned to me and said ‘You know, one of us is going to make it, and it's not going to be me.’ I've thought about that quite often. We all knew even then about Janis's problems…that she was a heavy drinker and really out there. She had a kind of in-your-face bravado that came through every place that she went.”
After playing in Michael’s Pub in Boulder and The Exodus in Denver, and the Gilded Garter in Central City, Colorado in 1960, where she first met Robert Zimmerman in his pre-Bob Dylan days, she headed to New York in 1961. The whole folk music scene arrived at once, which she described in this audio clip:
It was a combination of the night club owners; newspaper writers like Robert Shelton; and record companies like Electra headed by Jac Holzman that created the folk music movement, she said.
That music, though now absent from the radio and mass media, is not gone, Collins said. It lives on as the music of protest and it keeps coming back.
“I think Occupy Wall street is a wonderful sign. Look, we see a lot of things that are extremely noisy and divisive. But that's not what's going on at a deeper level. People are saying I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore. I like that feeling of energized points of view and things coming together. They are saying let's take care of people. Let's not say if you don't have health care you should die. Let's stop clapping because Texas has more executions than any other place in the country. These are not things to celebrate. And I like it that they’re bringing music into it too.”
She was questioned about the power of music to cause change today. “When you say music can change the world, taking piano lessons can change a person's life. Learning to play the flute can change a person's life. Painting can change a life,” she said. “We've taken the arts out of the schools and taken the hearts out of peoples' lives. It's important for education to understand it's a multifaceted package. It not only takes the arts, but having a decent diet available for lunches that doesn't include a whole bunch of junk. It's all part of a package. Nothing really exists separately from this.”
When asked about her interpretation of lyrics, she cited her late teacher of 32 years, Max Margulis. “It's all very automatic. I don't analyze it. Max had two ideas: clarity and phrasing. Period. End of story. Pay attention to the lyrics. If you understand the lyrics, you are singing well. If you don’t, you aren't. I'm attracted to things that I will sing and I'm not attracted to things I won't sing. That's a kind of emotional default position.”
When asked about the freedom to record what she liked in her career, she said she always had complete freedom. But one regret, she said, was recorded early in her career. It was a song Bob Dylan wrote for her.