Sweet Judy Blue Eyes
Folk icon comes to Ventura Music Festival
By Chris Jay 05/01/2014
The Ventura Music Festival has grown remarkably since its inception in 1994. In recent years, the predominantly classical music fete has branched out into jazz and folk, with appearances by major names like Herbie Hancock and Branford Marsalis. This year’s festival, however, is arguably the best lineup yet with two bona fide world-renowned acts appearing. One of those is the angelic soprano-voiced folk music icon Judy Collins.
It’s hard to encapsulate Judy Collins’ life and career. In fact it’s taken multiple autobiographies for her to do so. She was born Judith Marjorie Collins in 1939 in Seattle, the eldest of five siblings and the daughter of a blind radio DJ. After moving to Denver as a young girl, she began studying piano under the legendary female conductor and pianist, Antonia Brico. A child prodigy seemingly on the fast track for a life in classical music, that all changed when she was introduced to the music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
Collins made her way to the hotbed of folk music, Greenwich Village, and signed to Elektra Records. Her early work was heavy in the traditional folk ballads and the obligatory protest songs by artists like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton, but it was with more elaborate productions and instrumentations that Collins began to find mainstream success. Her haunting version of the Joni Mitchell classic “Both Sides Now” gave Collins her first major chart success and Grammy award, and she became known for her interpretations of songs by yet-to-be-discovered songwriters. Collins covered Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, helping introduce all of them to a wider audience. When not covering new artists, she was inspiring them as the Crosby, Stills and Nash classic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” can attest.
Collins also was among the first not to be pigeonholed in a specific genre as she scored two unlikely hits in the ’70s: A stirring version of the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” and “Send in the Clowns,” a ballad from a Broadway musical. Her records were some of the most diverse of the decade with show tunes, Beatles and Eagles covers, movie theme songs, contemporary pop ballads and her own original compositions all sharing space on the same records.
Collins still has a devoted fan base, and maintains a busy performing schedule. Beyond that, she’s also an author, record label owner, activist, painter and even a speaker and spokeswoman for mental health awareness and suicide prevention. Collins lost her only son to suicide after his long battle with alcoholism and depression, two diseases she also suffered from for years. Her two books on the subject, Sanity and Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival and Strength and the self-help book The Seven T’s: Finding Hope and Healing in the Wake of Tragedy, are powerfully honest and revealing works that have provided inspiration to thousands.
In just the past few years, folk music has lost some of its most important voices, including Mary Travers, Odetta, Richie Havens and, of course, Pete Seeger who touched multiple generations with his boundless energy in his nearly 100 years on planet Earth. That’s why, in 2014, the opportunity to see a bona fide musical legend in person, not to mention on the weekend she celebrates her 75th birthday, is simply an experience not to be missed for anyone who values the folk music genre or just appreciates singing at the most pure and poignant level possible.
So maybe it’s easier to sum up Judy Collins than initially thought: She’s quite simply an American musical treasure.
The Ventura Music Festival presents Judy Collins on Sunday, May 4, at the Ventura High School Auditorium, 2 N. Catalina St., Ventura. For more information visit www.venturamusicfestival.org.