A singer's enduring love of performing

Interview / Judy Collins

Growing up in Denver, Judy Collins was going to be a classical pianist.

That was the master plan of her teacher, Antonia Brico, a pioneer among women orchestral conductors. "I studied with her for many years," Ms. Collins says. "I was her wunderkind."

But Collins's dad was a radio-show host, and she learned about Rodgers and Hart, and Cole Porter.

"Brico, my teacher, would say, 'All that jazz will ruin you.' She was fundamentally a classical snob."

Years later, when Collins had become a folk-music icon for the baby-boomer generation, she helped make a documentary about Brico's life.

"The night we finished filming the movie in her apartment, surrounded by busts of Toscanini, Sibelius, Mozart, Bach, letters from singers at the Metropolitan [Opera], and so on, she sat down at the Steinway and played hot jazz. I was so shocked.... I was appalled."

It turned out that Brico had earned money while in high school playing popular sheet music in the window of a music store.

In her teens, Collins discovered the guitar - and folk music. "There was a lot of fireworks when I announced I'd be singing 'Blue-Tail Fly' rather than playing Rachmaninoff," she says. Before long, she headed to New York to pursue her dreams.

More than four decades later, the singer identified with songs such as "Both Sides Now," "Chelsea Morning" (after which Bill and Hillary Clinton named their daughter), and "Send in the Clowns" is still going strong. She is writing, performing, and doing what she can for causes like the families of the firefighters lost at the World Trade Center.

She sang at memorial services for the Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died on Sept. 11 and for the anniversary this year. It wasn't easy. But having sung "Amazing Grace" in public countless times since 1971 helped.

"You have to get beyond your own emotional response," she says. "You can't be sobbing over a song to sing a song."

Last fall, she started visiting firehouses in New York. Many of the firefighters had "343" tattooed on their necks, the number of their comrades who died that day.

"I found myself very much drawn to the firefighters and their community," she says. "They had lost so many people.... That was so extreme and so unimaginably difficult emotionally, because they were pulling out their friends."

In April, she wrote "Kingdom Come," dedicated to the lost firefighters. The proceeds from sales of the song go to the Uniformed Fire Fighters Scholarship Association Fund for the children of firefighters.

Collins is talking at a table in a brick-lined second-floor restaurant tucked into a back street in Boston's financial district. Every now and then, she stops to sing a phrase to illustrate a point, a private Judy Collins concert.

At one point, she asks if the piped-in music could be turned off. "I don't play music for background," she says. "If I'm listening, I'm listening."

In recent years, with the turmoil in the record industry, she's become Judy Collins the Entrepreneur and Impresario. After ending a 35-year relationship with Elektra Records, she's recorded three CDs on her own label, Wildflower Records. And she's preparing for the third season of the Judy Collins Wildflower Festival, a tour where she performs with such artists as Richie Havens, Janice Ian, Roger McGuinn (a founding member of The Byrds), and Arlo Guthrie. In January, she'll spend a week performing off-Broadway in "The Exonerated," the story of innocent people sentenced to death row.

She also appears with symphony orchestras and has a dozen dates teamed with David Crosby ("We'd never worked together in all these years, which is strange," she says.)

What impresses her about these veteran folkies and rockers, she says, is how they have learned to do whatever it takes to entertain an audience, including injecting plenty of humor.

In fact, the Wildflower singers often crack up backstage watching one another perform. "It's like having your own traveling vaudeville show," she says.

Her voice, with its famous clarity and three-octave range, has never been better, she says. "The singing is easy and clear," she says. "The instrument is there."

Performing live is her greatest joy. "It's heaven. Everyone has made an effort to get there. People have to get a baby sitter.... They've done all these things to get there, and then there they are. And they're yours!"

When people go to a performance of any kind - music, theater, or whatever - they want to be changed, she says. "We want to have something shown to us that we didn't know about, or revealed to us about ourselves.

"I think once in a while, if you stay in it long enough, you hit that mark. And that's what I'm interested in."

• 'A Judy Collins Christmas' will be touring in 20 cities through Dec. 20. For dates, see www.judycollins.com.

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