Photo by: Daniel Mendoza / The Recording Academy
Judy Collins On Gender Equality In Music: "Whatever You Say, Whatever You Do, We Are Not Going Away" | Newport Folk 2019
Folk hero Judy Collins has seen it all. At a thriving 80 years old, the beloved GRAMMY-winning performer, who is arguably best known for singing the Joni Mitchell-penned "Both Sides Now" and being the subject of Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," Collins remembers attending Newport Folk Festival all the way back in 1963, back when major music stars like Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, Leonard Cohen and Pete Seeger were rising, and relatively unknown voices.
Collins, who still writes, records and tours extensively, remembers hanging with the aforementioned names like it was yesterday. "We'd get drunk and stay up all night and sit out listening to Son House and Mississippi John Hurt," she tells the Recording Academy. "It was very different in those days. It was very exciting, but simpler. There were often stages where the stage was filled with great singers, Dylan and Pete and Odetta. Just so many, many, many, many, many artists been here."
The living legend attended this year's Newport Folk Festival, where she had quite a lively experience, teaming up with Brandi Carlile, The Highwomen and Dolly Parton onstage for multiple duets. The Recording Academy sat down with Collins to chat more about her long, storied history with the fest, how she keeps up the creativity decade after decade and what we have left to do in terms of achieving equal pay and equal rights for women in the music industry.
What has this festival meant for you and your career, and why is Newport special?
The first time I was at Newport was 1963, I think. From after that I've been on I was here with Peter, Paul and Mary, with [Bob] Dylan before the electric. One of the first big festivals and times when I saw Dylan and Joni [Mitchell], I think, it was '63 and there's lots of footage of that. We'd get drunk and stay up all night and sit out listening to Son House and Mississippi John Hurt. And the tents, the workshops were just incredible full of all kinds. The staples were here, the family. Pete was here, Pete Seeger was always here. John Cohen and Ramblin' Jack Elliott are still here today. They're doing shows at the museum, I think, today, again. So I've been here with so many people. In '67 I put together a show with Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, who were here for the first time that afternoon.
It was an afternoon singer/songwriter on one of the lawns. I mean, I still think I'm old school, but it was very different in those days. It was very exciting, but simpler. There were often stages where the stage was filled with great singers, Dylan and Pete and Odetta. Just so many, many, many, many, many artists have been here. I was on the board of directors with George Wein in the '60s in 1963, '64, '65. Pete was on that board and you would talk about the shows every summer, what they were going to be, who was going to be on them. And I just saw George Wein when I came in the other day. Of course, he's still around. He's still kicking. He's a wonderful man. And it was his genius that put this whole thing together for us. He started with the jazz festival, of course, and then something piqued his interest. I don't know who it was. Maybe it was Pete.
Joan was on that first one in 1959 and she and I are still friends. 2009, which was my last until today, my last appearance here, we sang together, Joan and I in the rain, we sang one of her songs, "Diamonds And Rust." So it's part of my history. I've been here. I've sung here. I've had workshops here. I've introduced artists who were unknown to the public, like Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen and others. And today I'm here with a young artist that I discovered a few years ago with Ari Hest. He's going to be part of my set at the museum today, and we'll sing together. He'll sing alone and we'll do some things. We had an album that we put out two years ago, which was nominated for a GRAMMY. And it was my first GRAMMY nomination in 40 years. I now hold the record for the time between GRAMMY nominations. The runner-up was Gloria Gaynor who had 23 years between her nominations for a GRAMMY.
You shattered the record. Wow. Well, I think that's one thing that strikes everybody about you. It's been 10 years since you've been here and you've been extremely active. For a lot of artists as they get older they lose the fire. What has kept you so productive and creative in this stage of your career?
I landed in the right career when I was 19, and I was 19 when I started doing this, so I've had 60 years to figure out why I love it. I love it because it provides me with an avenue to write songs, to choose songs. I've just made an album with a wonderful bluegrass group called the Chatham County Line, which is coming out in November. In the last five or six years I've had a duets album where I sang with Jackson Browne, and Michael McDonald, and Willie Nelson and done albums with [Stephen] Sondheim, the Sondheim songs I love. Duets where I took Ari's song, which we're going to sing today, "Strangers Again," and added to it other great singers and songwriters. It excites me. What I do is fantastic for me and for my audiences. Imagine being able to do 120 shows a year. Last year I did 115 of those shows with Stephen Stills. I was out with him on the road all over the country, and next year we're going to tour with Arlo Guthrie. It never stops.
In your career you've chosen incredible songs to interpret and sing by other people. What do you look for in a song to make it your own?
It has to be something that I fall in love with immediately, or else I never want to hear it again. So the first six years of my recordings in '61 when I began, first I sang traditional songs, one of which I'm going to sing today, "John Riley." Then I didn't write any songs in that first few years.
I was brought up on all kinds of music. My father was in the radio business. He sang Rodgers And Hart. I knew all those songs. I knew the traditional songs like "Danny Boy." Then when I started to learn folk music, I learned all the traditional songs there, but I never thought about writing songs. There was no reason to. There were so many great songs that I learned from other singers.
The year that I found "Both Sides Now," Joni Mitchell sang it to me on the telephone, which I said last night in front of everybody. She was hanging out with Al Kooper who started Blood, Sweat and Tears, and he put her on the phone and she sang to me "Both Sides Now," which is why this whole thing happened. It was that year in '67 also that Leonard, whom I also recorded his first songs that he ever wrote, he said to me, "I love it. I want you to always record my songs," which I have, but he said, "I don't understand why you're not writing your own songs." So I went home and wrote "Since You've Asked," and I've been writing ever since. I'm going to sing a brand-new one today called "The Grand Canyon."
It's never stopped for me. It's always creative. It's always energy going both to continue to be healthy. I mean, that's one of the things that I'm so grateful for because I have great health. I'm sober for 41 years in case anybody wants to know that there is a solution if you have that kind of a problem. We rock with 12-step programs. They're free, by the way. You don't even need health care to go to a 12-step program, and there are hundreds of them for every problem you might have. So I was lucky because by that time I could then focus on my work, on my health, on eating right, on thinking right, on what's the next creative thing to do, but there's a price for all of it, and part of it is you've got to stay healthy. And we all know that there are lots of people who don't have that good fortune. So I'm grateful for that because it allows me to be able to keep on doing it.
You've been such an activist in your career, especially through music with the songs that you've written, and I think being here at Newport we're reminded that music can create a change. Having been through decades of fighting the good fight when you look back, what do you think music can do? How powerful is it to create change? What have you seen?
A couple years ago I wrote a song called "Dreamers" and I've recorded it. It's about the immigration problem. It's become a problem since people can allow others to direct them to do the wrong thing about immigration. And when I sing "Dreamers," I've been singing it now for about a year and a half, and as I said, I do 120 shows a year, so I have an opportunity to hear and to experience what people think. I think I can hear them thinking because it gets very quiet. I'm going to sing that song today in my show at the museum with Ari.
I don't think I'm making this up. I think when I'm singing the song, I can almost hear people thinking, "Okay, so what do I do? What could be an action that I could take that one person can take?" One person can vote. One person can give money to a candidate that's doing the right thing. One person can go and march. One person can change their entire life, really, if they wish to. And I hear that going on. Of course, then when the song is finished there's a silence and then this incredible wave of people screaming and yelling, standing up, and chanting and hollering, and wanting somehow to do something right this minute.
Oh, it gives me chills and that's exactly how it happens and how it makes change. I'd also love to ask you about gender equality in music. I think this year's festival has a very strong feminine power behind it with last night's headliner, we had The Highwomen in here yesterday. In your career, what progress do you think has been made towards a level playing field for all musicians? And what do you think we still have left to do when it comes to gender equality and music?
Well, equal pay for equal work is the thing that comes to mind. I mean, we are breaking all kinds of glass ceilings. I was so impressed with Brandi [Carlile] what she did last night. She really gave her time. My husband and I were talking about she gave up her spotlight to include all these women, and to make it into something which really showed, oh, well, here we are. Whatever you say, whatever you do, we are not going away. We are here to stay. And we are going to get equal pay for equal work one of these days. It's not happened yet in all these years.
I mean, my husband and I, the first time we met we were at an equal rights amendment fundraiser in 1978. Everybody hollered and yelled. I think we were one vote short. I mean, we really came close to getting this passed, and I think that's where we are now. I think the equal rights amendment has to pass and equal equality. I mean, we've got the gender equality. We've got the financial equality to work on, but it's moving, it's happening. I think that there's every reason to believe that [women] hold up half the sky. I can't remember who it was who said that. I don't think it was a woman. [Editor's note: Mao Zedong first said "Women hold up half the sky."]
You mentioned "Both Sides Now" and the GRAMMY. What memories do you have of finding out that you'd been nominated for a GRAMMY Award 50 years ago?
Well, I was very out of it in those days. I mean, I was very present. I never canceled a date. I always showed up on time, but I was a little foggy. I was thrilled. Well, first of all, I fell in love with Joni Mitchell's songs, many of them, because I recorded "Both Sides Now." I recorded "Michael From Mountains." I recorded "Song About The Midway." I recorded others of hers and I'm singing in concerts. I'm singing others of her songs, but she just dazzled me always. So when I heard that it was nominated, well, and then I had a GRAMMY for it that was very good news, but on the other hand I had a show to do the next night. I had places to go, luggage to pack, drinks to get, you know? It was all about keeping the whole show going. It was thrilling because I think it made it clear that I was serious about what I was doing.