Judy Collins Talks 50 Years of Music

Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll? Judy was there

By Susan Toepfer
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Wildflower Records

At age 71, Judy Collins still packs her lunch…and breakfast…and dinner. “I travel with food because I don’t want to be stuck somewhere where all I can get is stuff loaded with sugar,” she says. “I can’t afford to eat crap.”

Today she’s driving from Manhattan with her husband of 14 years (and partner of 32 years), industrial designer Louis Nelson, to a book-signing in Princeton, N.J.  The book is a children’s story, Over the Rainbow, with illustrations of Yip Harburg’s magical lyrics to the song. A Peter Yarrow project, the book includes a CD of Judy singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," which is also the first track on her new album, Paradise, which goes on sale next month. Surprisingly, Collins, one of the signature voices of our time, has never recorded it before.

 “I did know Yip,” she says. “When I recorded ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime?’  [another Harburg song, which Collins included in an album during the seventies], I hung out with him. He kept saying, ‘You’ve got to sing “Over the Rainbow.”’  I said, I can’t, it’s Judy’s song…she’s still singing it…or maybe it was Liza singing it then. But everybody knows it as Judy Garland’s. Now, I feel like I’ve grown into it.”

Growth—it’s a driving force in Collins’s still-remarkable life. “I finally got around to reading Paradise Lost,” she says—as if the rest of us have all checked that off our To Do lists. “I have a quote from Milton on the Paradise liner notes: ‘The mind is its own place, and in it self/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.’”

With characteristic wit and honesty, Collins talked to More.com about her personal and musical projects, including the new CD,  which includes memorable duets with her long-ago lover Stephen Stills and her longtime friend Joan Baez.

On the new CD, the song you sing with Stephen Stills is so poignant—“Last Thing on My Mind.” A lot of people can relate to its message of regret: “I could have loved you better/Didn’t mean to be unkind/Don’t you know that was the last thing on my mind.”

Well, most people have broken up with somebody.

 How did you choose this song to sing together?

 He chose it. When I called him about singing on the CD, he said, “Oh, let’s do ‘Four Strong Winds.’” He always loved Ian and Sylvia—we did “Someday Soon” in 1968. But when he got to the recording session for Paradise—and it was really hard for him, he was rehearsing for the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame show, so he was very busy—but when he got there, he was humming “Last Thing on My Mind.” He had been trying to sell it to the other guys [in his group] for their album, and couldn’t, so he sold it to me.

It’s great that, considering your history, you are still friends.

We’ve seen each other off and on since the big breakup in 1968, talked over the years, spent time together. He and I had some things in common, certainly the music. That’s a big part of it.

How did the duet with Joan Baez come about? Is this the first time you’ve sung together?

We’ve performed in the same concerts, but we haven’t done duets. I’ve only done duets two times before this. One was a trio with Joan and her sister Mimi years ago, on the Women Strike for Peace album. But I called Joan to tell her I was singing “Diamonds and Rust” on the album. She said, “Oh my God, let’s do a duet.” We did it live last year at Newport—you can see it on YouTube. We were singing in the rain.

Who came up with the idea of an album themed to “paradise”?

What’s your reaction?

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