I’m about to blow your mind with a music quiz:
Long ago, what woman convinced millions of mainstream Americans to listen to the music of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen for the first time?
Judy Collins, that’s who.
Collins was popular in the mid-1960s, and they weren’t. She covered Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (it won a Grammy) and “Chelsea Morning,” plus Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
Her covers of her friends’ songs were their first hits as songwriters. Mitchell and Cohen went on to secure big audiences, influence and, eventually, fame.
Oh, and Bob Dylan finished writing “Mr. Tambourine Man” at Collins’ house, and she immediately covered that song, too.
I’m about to blow your mind again.
Back in 1969, Collins was called to testify at the trial of the Chicago Seven. She supported their anti-war protests.
When she got on the stand, she sang, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” The whole song. In court!
The prosecution was furious.
So naturally, the impetuous question I pose to Collins while recalling her histories is: “Are you a badass or what?”
“I’m a badass, you’re so right! Also, I’m a rule-breaker. I’m a rebel,” she says.
The funny thing about Judy Collins The Badass is: It goes against the grain — she’s a folk singer with an impossibly good voice and a tender tone. And she’s a badass.
But the stereotype is wrong about folk music being just soft and floaty. Folk is angry about inequalities. Folk music is punk in a blanket.
Anyway, Collins, a classically trained pianist, blossomed in that era when pop music was not just lyrically poetic, but it was also tonally empathetic. The biggest stars in the world were the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens — musicians with brains and bleeding hearts.
Sophisticated music does exist now, especially from the piano-singer-songwriters Rufus Wainwright, Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor. But you have to go find it in a pop world of thump-thump. It’s not viral in the public consciousness.
That’s my theory. Collins agrees.
“There’s a powerful destructive element afoot in music, as well as every place else on the planet,” she says.
“Popular culture at large is being cheated by forces that like the quick and easy, the down and dirty, the fast and furious, the sexy and sinister.”
Nevertheless, she retains hope in music and in humanity. She’s not one of those classic acts who look down upon young musicians.
“When you go to some of these festivals and hear some of these young people, you have a lot of hope, because there are some great songs being written,” she says.
And thanks to the Internet, she says, “people can discover music that has more lyrical and musical healing power, and good music.”
Furthermore, people such as her and Cohen still do quite well on tour.
“We all have very strong audiences, and they come to our concerts.”
But this is what I tell her: If the Judy Collins of 1972 could foresee the corporate-war world of 2011, wouldn’t 1972 Judy Collins think, “What in the hell are we working toward with our protests and words?”
She laughs again and straightens me out.
“My job is to stay healthy and to keep doing what I’m doing, and to keep growing as an artist. The rest of the world can keep on swirling in whatever manner it likes.”
OK, so let’s get back to the music. On Collins’ new CD, “Bohemian,” her voice sounds shockingly as pretty and clear as it did four decades ago, certainly on her new cover of “Pure Imagination,” the song from the old “Willy Wonka” movie.
She attributes her voice to many things: She doesn’t drink or do drugs anymore. She doesn’t smoke, scream or binge on food. And she laughs a lot.
“You have to laugh a lot,” she says.
More voice aid: She exercises, meditates and sleeps well in her and her husband’s home in New York. She gets acupuncture and sees a homeopathy practitioner.
“The royal family uses homeopathy, why shouldn’t we?”
Twenty years ago, allergies debilitated her singing. Doctors put her on steroids and pump sprays, but that didn’t cure her. She’s not anti-doctor now. She just tackled her asthma naturally and keeps doing so.
“Most of what ails us, even the issue of food, has to do with allergies,” she says.
So with all this attention she pays to being a fit and socially conscious human, she is, as I tell her, a sweet and silky badass.
“I like that!” she says.
Then she lets out another laugh. It’s good for her.
Doug Elfman’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.Preview
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