JUDY COLLINS, THE OLD FOLKIE WITH A NEW HIT, TURNS FEMINIST AND FILMMAKER
May 26, 1975
With the assault of acid rock and heavy metal in the late 1960s, the question in pop music was no longer whither the flowers but where have all the folk singers gone? One of the few who survived was the gifted Judy Collins, but then, in 1972, she too dropped out of earshot. It was by choice, though. The political activist ‑and increasingly feminist‑ Collins had found a new medium to make her statement: film. And in her very first attempt she produced and co‑directed a documentary, Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman, which was up for an Oscar this spring and landed on several of the most discriminating Top 10 movie lists of 1974.
The subject of the film, Antonia Brico, was, as it happened, a student of Sibelius, not to mention Judy's old piano teacher. The affecting message of the picture was that, save for sexist discrimination, Brico, now 73, would have been regularly conducting major American orchestras rather than giving piano lessons in Judy's native Denver. "While I was producing this film," says Collins, "I was getting in touch with her life again so that I could get some affirmation for what I wanted to do with my own life." The upshot for Judy, now 36, was that she was able to free herself finally from an overdependence on male record producers as well as on males, period (including her longtime actor‑lover Stacy Keach).
Judy Collins, 36, a formative voice on the folk scene through the '6Os, has returned to music after creating a feminist film.
After a typically long and fussy search for the ideal material, Collins has now released her 14th LP, Judith, which is on its way to becoming her sixth gold album. More important, it reestablishes her superstardom. "I had gotten pretty disturbed about the music business," she says, lounging in the sunny living room of her New York apartment. "If an album doesn't sell mightily, or if you don't have a hit single, you don't get the control and time needed to do what you want. For me that's never less than a year." Now, with a $1‑million (minimum) contract with Elektra and the presidency of her own company (Rocky Mountain Productions), Judy has finally and permanently secured world enough, and time. "Any woman who survives in this business," she says, with uncharacteristic stridency, "has to do what I've done ‑run her own business."
The daughter of a blind musician, poetry reciter and radio personality, Judy began to read piano music before print. At age 13 she debuted playing a Mozart piano concerto under Brico's direction with a Denver orchestra, but then turned to folk guitar in her late teens. After a brief stay "at one abysmal college in Illinois," she returned home and married her high school boyfriend, now a professor and authority on the poet William Blake. "Before I knew it ‑and before I could even type," she says, "I had a baby boy. My husband delivered papers in Boulder and I sang at local 3.2 beer joints to help him through school." A tape sent to Chicago led to her first big-city gig and, at 21, the LP, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, propelled her national career. (By then, her marriage was breaking up, and her husband originally won custody of their son, Clark, Judy says, because she had moved to Greenwich Village and was undergoing psychotherapy.)
On TV with Gloria Steinem, Judy announced that she had outgrown the need for a "Prince Charming." But she is not antagonistic to men, including brother Denver, a film cameraman.
With her chime‑clear voice and gentle vibrato, she has performed music by writers as diverse as Dylan, Brecht, Brel, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Lennon‑McCartney (In My Life) and, in the new album, Stephen Sondheim (Send in the Clowns) and the Rolling Stones (Salt of the Earth). Though perhaps out of her bag with Jagger, she justifiably says, "I'm good at interpreting another person's work, at making someone else's songs heard and, therefore, understood, for the first time."
Collins' eclectic approach to music parallels her own personal attempt to flee roles and "categories." She is now writing a full biography of Antonia Brico and is into poetry, skiing, crocheting and pottery. She has regained custody of her son, Clark, now 16 and a guitarist himself whose aspirations she hymns in her new album cut, Born to the Breed. Judy avoids the pop‑music party circuit, and her friends tend to be painters (like Susan Crile) and writers rather than singers.
A student of classical music from the age of 6 and now a six‑figure‑a‑year star, Judy still takes piano and singing lessons.
She has had intense romances ‑among them "a year‑long siege" with Stephen Stills, the rock star who wrote the smash Suite Judy Blue Eyes for her‑ but is resistant to marriage. "It just isn't a need. In fact it's a deterrent to a lot of what is socially possible. My relationships with men are improving. A lot of men have told me what is best for me. Now I say, 'No, I have to struggle along in my own plodding, innovative way.' It isn't a question of 'Can I succeed or not?' It's can I really give up that symbolic figure who gets me off the hook ‑ the father‑husband‑lover?"
For now, at least, she seems to know the answer: "Music is the central force in my life. Fame and fortune have their place, if they can be used to further my own flexibility. That's what it's all about."
Collins' first piano teacher and the subject of her Oscar‑nominee film, Antonia Brico, 73, visited Judy in New York from her home in Denver. Auditing is Collin’s cat, Presbyterian Jam.
Though raised in Colorado, Judy is no John Denver and is happiest in her West Side Manhattan apartment. The president of her own production company, she proudly boasts: "I manage me."