Irish American Writers & Artists

September 11, 2012

Judy Collins, in Conversation…

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by Charles Hale

TODAY’S SONG/BOTH SIDES NOW: Performed by JUDY COLLINS and written by JONI MITCHELL

I recently had the opportunity to sit down for an hour with music legend Judy Collins in preparation for a short film I’m  producing for the Irish American Writers & Artists’ Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award Benefit. Judy is this year’s recipient of the award. Here are a few highlights from our talk:

Charles: You’ve said that Jo Stafford’s recording of “Barbara Allen” changed your life. How was that?

Judy: I had been playing the piano, performing Mozart, Debussy and singing Rodgers and Hart songs at clubs all over Denver…but I was desperate for new material. My father was a great fan of Jo Stafford so I’d heard her all my life. I was fourteen the morning I heard this extraordinary recording, a gorgeous recording. It was my introduction to folk music, which absolutely did change my life. 

Charles: Your father was blind but he didn’t seem to let it get in his way.

Judy: He had problems with his sight from the time he was born. My father was completely blind by the time he was four, but he had some very effective, powerful tools, such as music, and poetry. And he was always reading to us—in Braille—from some huge books that were stacked up against the walls. He was very involved in the literature of Dylan Thomas, Melville, and Dostoyevsky. 

Charles: There’s a great story of how your mother felt that your father drove a wedge between your mother and you. And then, you and your mother got together and had a rip-roaring drunken lunch and there was a healing. Talk about that.

Judy: My father was more communicative with me than he was with my mother. My mother, who was an amazing, intelligent woman, wrote me a letter when I was nineteen saying my father had been trying to separate us emotionally. So my mother initiated that drunken luncheon where we poured our hearts out. From that point, we talked all the time. We were always as close as could be. We were never separated.

Charles: You seem quite conscious of the idea that memories connect and heal. Your music has an essence of that. Are you conscious of healing when you’re singing and writing?

Judy: Music is a function of the need to remember. It’s a tonic for remembering, it helps us remember, it stimulates memory and the emotions.  When you can tell a story in a new song it’s a new way of looking at something, it expresses something in a way that’d never come out before, so, yes, it is very healing. Music is a part of my mental and emotional health.

Charles: Has your Irish heritage influenced your stories and music?

Judy: Ireland and the Irish have always had in their music a yearning…something that calls to them over the ages…that comes out in Irish singing. I think of Yeats and “The Song of  Wandering Aengus.” It’s a kind of deeply wounded place that needs to be healed by music. The Irish do that all the time for themselves.

Charles: You mentioned that your father read from Melville’s Moby Dick when you were a child. In the opening of the book Melville wrote “I’d get to the sea as soon as I could. It’s my substitute for pistol and ball.” What’s yours?

Judy: It’s music. It’s writing.  It’s art. It’s doing something. My concerts are very healing and serene and yet I’m totally connected. It’s a very important place for me to be. 

Charles: Talk about your involvement in the Vietnam, anti-war movement.

Judy: So much rage and anger. It made no sense, there was no logic to it….We knew we were being lied to….Hadn’t we learned our lesson…everyone had their go at the Vietnamese.  None of this made sense to me. Why were we listening to these people who were lying to us?

And there was much more. Join Judy and me, and many of the IAW&A’s wonderful writers and artists, at the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award event on October 15. For more information on the event, please to go to the Irish American Writers & Artists website.

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