'I am a shameless liberal'

Folk legend Judy Collins on Leonard Cohen, Irish roots, and activism

Judy Collins.

Judy Collins.

IN 1961, a young singer-songwriter, originally from Seattle, but now part of the thriving folk community in New York's Greenwich Village, released her debut album, A Maid Of Constant Sorrow. The closing track was 'The Rising Of The Moon', an Irish ballad inspired by the 1798 Rebellion. The choice of that song was both a confirmation of deep Irish roots, and of a long association with Ireland that continues to this day.

"My father, who ran a radio show and played music, and sang, and wrote songs, was Irish-American, second, maybe third-generation," Judy tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview. "Our relatives came in the 1730s/40s, the Scots-Irish. I think they came from north of Belfast. They fought in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. They were all Irish on my father's side, and half on my mother's side, and they would sing these songs. I just picked it up without thinking about it. That's where it started. It's something I was born into. I'm just continuing the family business."

In a career stretching more than half a century, Judy has become one of the most iconic and best loved voices in American folk; her covers of songs by Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell gave both songwriters their start; and her rendition of Sondheim's 'Send In The Clowns' has become definitive; but while she could easily rest on her laurels, her place in the pantheon secure, Judy continues to be a restless creative. This month saw the release of her new album, Strangers Again, and next month she plays Galway's Town Hall Theatre. That drive and work ethic is another quality she attributes to her father.

"I inherited all the talent, it came all from him on the Irish side," she says. "I'm also hungry. I have a hunger about my work and as I get into that area where I have an album coming out, or a tour, I am more hungry than ever. I hope the audience love it, but the main thing is that I love it. That enthusiasm transmits itself to the audience. I have chosen songs with lasting power, but the enthusiasm comes through in the performance, and that's infectious, and makes the audience excited about their own lives. That's what art is for!"

Strangers Again finds Judy duetting with a host of old friends - "It was a very hot topic in the singer-songwriter area," she says. "People started popping up, saying 'I want to sing with you'." Included are Willie Nelson, Don McLean, Jackson Browne, actor Jeff Bridges ["I know him for a long time. I asked him if he'd like to sing 'Crazy Heart' for the new album, but he said 'Make Our Garden Grow', by Richard Wilbur, who was the US poet laureate"], and The Frames' Glen Hansard. Indeed Hansard and Ireland both played a part in the inspiration behind Strangers Again.

"Glen and I became friends at the Ann Arbour Festival in Michigan," Judy explains. "We hit it off immediately. I'm wild about him, he's a lovely, lovely, man. The idea of the album came when I performed in Castle Dromoland, which was also recorded by CBS for TV and was released as the album Live In Ireland in 2013. He came over to sing at that concert. We were going through some of his material, and I found this song, 'Races', and recorded it with this handsome, wonderful man."

The day Leonard Cohen called

The Greenwich Village folk scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s, that breeding ground which produced artists like Judy, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Al Stewart, Dave Van Ronk, etc, continues to exert a fascination, is much discussed, even romanticised and mythologized, but what was it like to actually be there, when it was all happening?

"I hope you didn't go see that terrible film, Inside IIewyn Davis, what were the Coen brothers thinking?" Judy laments. "The Village was so exciting, we were all going to the same clubs. I wasn't a songwriter then, but I'd be listening to Bob Dylan at the town hall, he'd always have new songs, and then I'd record his songs. I'd meet Tom Paxton and we'd have a bottle of wine, and Van Ronk would be at the Gaslight. There was political conversation and we'd go on marches and listen to Peter, Paul and Mary, and think you could change the world - and we did make a difference.

"The difference was not as dramatically obvious as it used to be, but I see someone like Taylor Swift, and she is active on social media and involved in charitable issues and social issues. She's in that tradition of Joan Baez and others. It's good to notice that people have more than their face surface going on. It's good to see people developing their social activism."

While Judy is celebrated for her peerless interpretations of song, she is equally acclaimed for bringing the work of Leonard Cohen to the world, and, through featuring 'Suzanne' and 'Dress Rehearsal Rag' on her 1966 album In My Life - indeed she was the first to do so.

"He came to my door in 1966," she says. "He said 'I can't play guitar or sing, I've just written a lot of these lyrics and put some music to a couple of them.' He played me 'Suzanne', 'The Stranger Song', and 'Dress Rehearsal Rag', and within 24 hours I had made arrangements for 'Suzanne' and 'Dress Rehearsal Rag' - I never recorded 'The Stranger Song' but I'll get to it some day - He was very determined that I be the one to hear them. I'd heard a lot of people's songs and helped get them out into the world. My first five albums had a lot of Dylan songs and Leonard knew I had a reputation for getting songs out, and that with Elektra Records behind me, I could do something."

Judy was also the first to get Cohen onstage to sing in public. "I pushed him on stage," she says. "I think it was at a charity concert, and he was nervous about going on. So that was the start of his public singing. I thought Leonard was a wonderful singer, but he hadn't any appreciation of his own voice, but he came to understand he had a unique voice that was all his own."

Cohen deeply appreciated what Judy had done for him, but as she admits, she also owes him a debt. "Leonard said to me that I put him on the map and that was great," Judy tells me. "He sent me a tape every 18 months with new songs, and would choose some to record for the next album, and he did that for years. He also said to me, 'I don't understand why you're not writing songs.' That was in 1967, so I wrote 'Since You Asked' [which became one of three self penned songs on her hit album Wildflowers], so he did return the favour. We're mutually indebted to each other."

'I'm a loud mouth'

As well as music, social activism has long been central to Judy's life - she has written songs about Che Guevara; was friends with hippie radicles Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin; and she continues to campaign on issues such as landmines and suicide. When asked if she considers herself part of that nobel, if often marginalized, tradition of the American Left, she declares without hesitation:

"Absolutely! I certainly am! In Utah, Salt Lake City, I was at the Joe Hill Festival, the man the song is written about, [sings] 'I dreamed I saw Joe hill last night, alive as you or me', trade unionist, a Wobbly [Industrial Workers Of The World], who was executed while in prison, and became a martyr. I believe in trade unionism. I am disgusted at attempts in this country to break the unions. I am a shameless liberal, I'm concerned about human rights, climate change, and that people have medical care, and proper pay. In some places I'd be considered the enemy. I'm a loud mouth. I am what I've always been, and always will be."

Judy Collins plays the Town Hall Theatre on Wednesday October 7 at 8pm. The special guest is Ari Heist. For tickets contact 091 - 569777 or see www.tht.ie

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