A folk music icon is back on tour with an old flame and musical partner as they recreate legendary moments and create new ones.
By Steve Houk
It was the late sixties, and oh so many things were blossoming. Those flowers in your hair, the spirit of a new unencumbered kind of love, and a sense of a new type of freedom that was helping to distract (and in some cases inspire) young people about what was happening halfway across the world to their peers in the jungles of Vietnam.
And of course, music was blossoming too, flourishing in so many new and important and wondrous ways, particularly for a gaggle of young burgeoning and extremely talented songwriters, including an up and coming folk singer named Judy Collins, whose 1967 album called, yes, Wildflowers (which to date is her highest charting record ever) began to truly establish her as a stunning and powerful presence in the folk music world.
Collins also had a love of her own blossoming at the time with another young up and coming songwriter, Stephen Stills, who would play guitar on her 1968 album Who Knows Where The Time Goes. Something went awry in their relationship back then, what it was doesn’t really matter, but it was at that time that Stills felt compelled to write her what has become a folk rock classic, “Suite Judy Blues Eyes.”
“I heard him play it for me in May of 1969,” the majestic and affable Collins told me, “and I said to him, ‘Stephen, it’s beautiful…but it’s not going to get me back.’ He said, ‘Of course it will.’ The fun now is to be able to sing it with him at the end of a show. That’s just fabulous.”
Yes, it is almost unfathomable, Collins and Stills singing that song together onstage now almost 50 years later, the one he wrote so many moons ago to try and win her back. But it’s all true, these two legends of music are touring together again after last year’s triumphant fifty show run, an almost unparalleled duo that is for many music fans almost too much to believe, with Collins’ still magnificent voice in wonderful form, and Stills’ pipes sounding strong as well along with his still powerful guitar chops.
“It’s very exciting,” Collins said as she was driving through New Hampshire on the way to the duo’s next show in Massachusetts, on a tour that stops at the Kennedy Center on June 30th. “First of all, of course, he’s a genius. I get to be onstage and listen to those incredible solos. And it’s so nice ‘cuz it’s different every night. The experience is just phenomenal, and our show, I think has really taken on a wonderful progression.”
So how does this incredible twosome, with so much of their glorious music to choose from, including songs from their excellent 2017 collaborative record Everybody Knows, pick their set list every night? Well, as the rebooted tour has grown and matured, Collins says any worries are diminished, and they can just pick songs and play.
“Yes, all those ups and downs and nerves, and what are we gonna sing?” Collins said. “All those things have now been worked out, and now it’s just pure pleasure. We started out with something that seems to work, and now we add, and subtract, and fool around, and we get different songs to fill in different places. It’s just a work in progress, always.”
Before she became a folk icon, Collins studied classical piano at an early age — not surprising given her father was a blind singer, pianist and radio host — even performing a Mozart concerto in her public debut at age 13. Collins laughed out loud when reminded of the time long ago when her first piano teacher Antonia Brico came to see her perform years later after she had become internationally famous, and after the show backstage took both of Collins’ hands in hers and said softly, “Little Judy, you really could have gone places.”
But back when she was trying to figure out which musical direction to take, it was the magical sounds of folk legends like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and a couple of specific folk songs in particular, that truly ignited her lifelong love of folk music
“I had great training, I was playing with the symphony and doing all kinds of other things, always performing in some way,” Collins said. “But the other world really took over. The great folk scare, that’s what my brothers always called it. I had heard a couple of songs, ‘Gypsy Rover’ and ‘Barbara Allen’ which put it in a nutshell, because songs like that, they really changed my life. I was completely overtaken by the idea that that’s what I wanted to do, not the other thing, but that. I think it had been coming.”
And not surprisingly given her lifelong activism soul, Collins is releasing — and with luck will play in concert on this tour with Stills — a song she wrote two years ago that seems even more relevant today, right at this minute in fact, called “The Dreamers.”
“It’s just been hanging around in my poetry and songs book, and I finally figured it out and I sang it in Seattle in February, and I’ve been singing it ever since. The timing just seems right.”
As we wrapped up our chat as she drove through the hills of my beloved New England where I grew up, I told Judy Collins how much her music has meant to me, starting with dancing around my living room at age 7 with my babysitter Nancy DeVries listening to her classic album In My Life. And then, almost 35 years later, playing her version of the title song at my father’s funeral in a crowded church in Connecticut. Clearly, she has deeply affected many people like me, in many different ways, and is moved and honored to do so.
“Oh, that’s so beautiful,” Collins said kindly after I recalled those memories, with a tinge of emotion in her voice. “I’m so happy that I could somehow contribute. That’s a wonderful story.”
Judy Collins and Stephen Stills with special guest Kenny White perform Saturday June 30th at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts,
2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC 20566. For tickets, click here.