Judy Collins: ‘When I found folk music, I also found drinking’

Barbara Allen, by Jo Stafford

I’d been playing the piano since I was five, and by the time I was 15 I was memorising Rachmaninov concertos. But Barbara Allen, recorded by Jo Stafford, turned me towards the music that was becoming the rebirth of folk music in the US. I knew Stafford’s voice very well – her My Funny Valentine was one of our favourites. She was such a magnificent singer, and her version of Barbara Allen was just stunning. That and The Gypsy Rover were songs that plunged me into a new life. I often say, though, that I was born knowing the lyrics to Danny Boy because my father sang all kinds of things – I would have heard that in the womb.

When I found folk music, I also found drinking. I found I could play guitar, sing a song and have a few drinks. You can’t do that when you’re practising Rachmaninov – there’s much too much required. So I found a social milieu and a career in folk music. And I’m an alcoholic. If it wasn’t the parties up on Lookout mountain near Denver with a gang of folkies, these long-haired creatures in sandals (even in the snow), I would have found something else because I had to drink.

Jo Stafford’s Barbara Allen.

I tried to kill myself at 14 because I was depressed – of course I didn’t succeed, fortunately for my family, as I think it would have destroyed my father. People who attempt suicide, they’re not giving you a warning – it’s always serious. I changed my mind, most definitely, but there was no question I was serious when I was making my attempt.

My father, Chuck Collins

I drank for 23 years, and in that time I was able to forge a career that has gone on to this day, like the Energizer bunny. I was pretty much the pure definition of an alcoholic – I didn’t do many drugs, I always thought they interfered with my drinking – and I was a successful, working alcoholic. It came to an end in 1978 – I was terribly sick, and I had really lost everything that meant anything to me. I didn’t have any money, and I couldn’t work. I got sober, thank God, as I have these ferociously busy, successful, extraordinary years to look back on. Without discipline, I would be nowhere today.

I grew up with this sense of discipline and art: getting up, having meals, going to bed, doing two hours of piano practice, all at a certain time. I wanted to rebel at times, which is probably why I started drinking. After my suicide attempt, my father wrote me a letter, and apologised for being such a taskmaster – which he was – and yelling at me for not practising enough. That apology went a long way in securing my sense of healthy attitudes.

He made his living in the radio business and doing concerts – he had this gorgeous voice, and he would sing, tell jokes, talk politics … it was that old-fashioned golden era of radio. He was also blind, which interested people, and made him a double hero. He got around without a dog or a cane; he would come round to your house and quickly get to know where every room was, and how to get up and down the stairs. He walked everywhere – at first, the bus driver in our neighbourhood didn’t know he was blind, and then tried to offer him a free fare, but my father refused it, saying: “I’m like everyone else, I’ll pay my way.” Which is what we were all taught: pay your way.

Judy Collins with her father, Chuck, in 1951.

He was a great reader. We were brought up with Dostoevsky, Moby-Dick and War and Peace. He would read to us from his braille books that he got from the Library of Congress; these huge constructions in these boxes would rise up the walls. We had a whole wall of our garage in Denver filled with them. He said: “It’s not so bad. At least you can read in the dark.” He was remarkable in many ways, and he died too soon, of an aneurysm, in 1968 at 57. He lived long enough to see me have a career, and that was very gratifying to him.

We were Roosevelt kids, raised from the results of the Depression. Like a lot of parents who came out of that, and who lived through horrible things such as the McCarthy era, they came out with values and a sense of style and integrity that I think is lost on our compatriots today. Taking responsibility for yourself was what we were taught in our family; that and manners and generosity. We’ve got a whole new lease on life over here now, because we’ve got a president whose hero is Roosevelt – Biden understands that you’ve got to take care of those who do not have. I don’t care how hard the Republicans are going to fight because they’ve always fought us, and they are always out to tear down government, to do evil to us. I don’t think they’re going to succeed in breaking through this new breath of fresh air. It’s a miracle. This past four years, we were heading toward the abyss. On every level: moral, physical, spiritual, the integrity of this country was up in smoke. So to have this happen, it makes you believe that someone somewhere has something good in mind for us all.

Antonia Brico, music teacher

Brico Antonia … ‘She was a pioneer.’
Brico Antonia … ‘She was a pioneer.’ Photograph: Duane Howell/Denver Post/Getty Images

Brico was the first female conductor to conduct major symphonies in the world, starting in the Berlin Philharmonic when she was 27, and later becoming the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic. She was a pioneer – and here she was in Denver. I walked into Brico’s studio, and she listened to me play and said: “I don’t know – the technique is pretty bad, but let me see what I can do.” She took me under her arm, handed me the score for Mozart’s K.365 piano concerto and said: ‘In two years, you’re going to play this with my orchestra.’ I spent the first month memorising it, on a road trip from Denver to Seattle to visit my relatives. The score was spread out in the car’s back seat on my lap.

She was a powerhouse, and extremely demanding. To this day, I can sit at the piano and practise my exercises while reading a book; quite often I’d be reading The Count of Monte Cristo while doing Hanon [piano exercises]. After I left, having told her I was going to sing Jimmy Crack Corn instead of playing Rachmaninov, she would come to see me do concerts at Carnegie Hall and say: “Little Jude, you really could have gone places!”

I decided I would make a movie about her – it cost me a couple of hundred thousand dollars – a lot of money in 1972, especially if you were somebody who didn’t have any. It came out in 1975, as Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman. It was nominated for an Oscar and added to the Library of Congress, where it lives for ever, along with Chinatown, for the year 1975. Her career was back on track because of this movie, so I had made it up to her, although she never did say thank you. For a number of years, I wrote songs and performed at the National Dance Institute, for children who were dancing. One year, I brought her to that event. She turned to me afterwards and said: “You are wonderful.” That was it! In 50 years!

Denver’s folk scene

At the Denver Folklore Center, I would go and sit around with these long-haired hippies and listen to their versions of Barbara Allen. It was run by this very interesting man named Lingo the Drifter, who had come to Denver from Chicago with his guitar. He was an eccentric like my father – multifaceted, with a literary education – and they talked, sang, drank and read poetry to each other. Lingo didn’t have any money, so my father said: why don’t you go to Los Angeles and go on one of those quizshows? Dressed in his buckskin and turquoise jewellery, Lingo went to Hollywood and got on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life – he won and came home with $64,000 in a couple of paper bags. He bought the top of Lookout mountain, and he’d have these gatherings of the folklore society there. He’d make home-brew, and borscht, and we’d all sing to one another.

Fern Lake, in Colorado.
Fern Lake, in Colorado. Photograph: Ray Wise/Getty Images

I met two inspirational kids there, a couple of years older than me, when I was 16 or 17: Dick Barker and Mart Hoffman. Mart was this skinny guy. He picked up his guitar and sang a song called Deportee. “The crops are all in and the peaches are ripening …” It absolutely blew me away, and I said he had to teach me it, which he did on the spot. Deportee, next to This Land Is Your Land, became the jewel of Woody Guthrie’s material. I don’t think Mart ever understood what he had done, how important it was and how valued, and valid, his contribution was with that melody – it’s ingenious. I kept in touch with Mart, who moved down to Arizona, and one night in 1972 I got a call from his brother who said that he had taken his life. I later wrote Song for Martin for him.

Fern Lake, the Rocky mountains

When I was 18, my teenage sweetheart Peter Taylor and I hooked up. We went up to Estes Park, and lived for a couple of weeks in a cabin owned by my godfather Holden Bowler – whose name was taken by JD Salinger for Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye after they got friendly on a ship – and we were ecstatic to get a job running a lodge in the Rocky Mountain national park, a nine-mile hike up to 11,000ft. Peter ran pipes down from the mountain, so we had water, and we were there for three months. We served lunch to hikers who came through – I baked on a wood-burning stove and Peter did the wood-chopping. It was heavenly – at the end of the summer, how could you leave paradise? We wanted to buy the place, but we had to go back to Boulder where we lived. By March the following year, my son was born, and I took my first job, at Michael’s Pub, because we didn’t have any money.

Flannery O’Connor … ‘I was enthralled with her.’
Flannery O’Connor … ‘I was enthralled with her.’ Photograph: Apic/Getty Images

Flannery O’Connor – The Habit of Being

I was enthralled with Flannery O’Connor: her struggle and how she continued in the face of her physical adversity with lupus. And I was just overwhelmed with this book: mostly letters, which tell us what she was doing every day, how she communicated with her editor, how she spent time feeding the chickens. It talked about the organisation of thought, and the organisation of skill and how you pursue it. If you’re an energised person who has a lot of ideas in many directions, you have to be able to harness them; The Habit of Being helped me understand my multifaceted life. I remember when I first got into therapy in the early 60s, when I got to New York, the first thing my therapist taught me was: stay in touch. If somebody doesn’t answer your call, call them. Make it your enterprise to create relationships. It’s your job to make this life as interesting and educational as you can – and that I got from Flannery O’Connor, too.

When I was in school, it took everything I had to succeed at geometry. I think that’s also part of the secret of my career and my life: I know how to get to where I’m going.

Judy Collins’ new album, White Bird – Anthology of Favourites, is released on 7 May on Wildflower Records



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