Judy Collins: My Life in Music

Photo Credit: James Vesey

The beloved singer-songwriter reflects the experience of  building — and redefining — a legendary career

I have always been involved in the details of my life in music — whether it is choosing the songs I sing, the musicians I record and travel with, the producers I partner with, the managers, agents, lawyers I work with, or the labels I record for. That is, with one exception.

When I was barely 22, performing in folk clubs around Denver, Chicago, Boston, and New York, I was invited to join Elektra Records the label run by Jac Holzman. At the time, I had no thoughts about making records. We were singing tunes that were traditional or learned from other artists’ records that I bought and listened to endlessly. I knew a lot about discipline, having trained as a pianist for fifteen of my twenty-two years, and had even performed Mozart with a symphony orchestra conducted by my great teacher, Antonia Brico. I took all that obsession and passion and put it into the songs I performed and I knew by the time I met Jac Holzman that I had found the answer to my desires — to play this new kind of music, to learn it, to sing it in clubs everywhere I could — and to make a living. But I had never thought of making a record until Jac Holzman approached me that rainy night in Greenwich Village, at the Village Gate.

I had platinum and gold-selling albums, was able to travel the world playing concerts (as I still do), and had my songs reach Grammy status and chart in top ten categories on Billboard. My hits while I was on Elektra included “Both Sides Now,” “Some Day Soon,” “Amazing Grace,” “Cook With Honey,” “Send in the Clowns,” “In My Life,” Hard Loving Loser,” and “Turn Turn Turn” — all from my earliest albums. I always made a good living and sometimes even felt I was thriving financially from my record sales. When Jac was running it, Elektra was a wonderful place to be. When I joined the company in 1961, there were a few traditional artists and some unusual singers and songwriters — among them were Josh White, Theodore Bikel, Jean Ritchie and Cynthia Gooding. As Jac learned to market in the new world of the singer-writer (I started writing my own songs in 1967), he branched out to sign artists like The Doors, Carly Simon, Harry Chapin, Bread, Phil Ochs, and even Paul Butterfield — moving with the times, and the times they were a-changin’.

Elektra was a great company –- they did well by me. Even now, fifty years after I started recording for the company, my royalties from those original recordings, often recast in the CD format and sold as my back-catalogue, are paid bi-yearly and on time. There was a time during the heyday of my years at Elektra that employees even thanked me for making it possible for them to make their livings selling my records.

For those first twenty-four years — even into the eras of David Geffen and Joe Smith, who succeeded Jac — things were pretty good for Elektra, artistically and financially.

We travel, we show up and do the heavy lifting — the promotion — get on the planes and the cars and the buses, fill the halls with our fans because the music drives their hearts and minds. We live a life on the road that is not envied by anyone who realizes how difficult it can be. We are paid for the travel, the airports, the hours on busses and planes and the separation from our loved ones. The music is free.

After Bob Krasnow took over Elektra in 1983, there was a sea change in the way Elektra treated the artists on their roster — at least with the way they treated me! But I don’t think it was only me. The kind of loyalty, interest, and unflagging enthusiasm the label had for my work and my process as an artist began to fade. I had been selling well and paying salaries in the company, but suddenly the bottom fell out of my support. Elektra under Bob Krasnow was not interested in marketing and promoting the kind of music I was making and performing.

Of course, changes in the audiences’ musical tastes were having an impact, as well. The Internet was hitting hard, and many of the original entrepreneurs like Jac were selling their businesses to other people who, talented as they were, often did not understand the nuances of artistic temperament and the necessity of riding out the ups and downs of an artist’s path. Or, it just may be that Clive was right: I was not selling at the rate of my earlier albums and he could not bear the burden on the budget for his company.

No one likes change, but change comes, and with it comes the need to reinvent ourselves. There were too many big companies spending too much money, driving established artists out, purging themselves of all but the top multi-million dollar selling acts.

I did the dance. I went to other companies and made a few albums for a couple of the big labels. I think some were good, but I was not happy with the business of sitting down with another music mogul to discuss my next project and then have it sliced, diced and dropped.

There were a couple of models for the decision I made ten years ago. Ani Difranco had made her bid, starting her own successful self-run company, Righteous Babe Records. A few Canadian singer-songwriters I knew, particularly Gordon Lightfoot and Sylvia Tyson, were way ahead of the curve and by the mid-nineties had owned their own companies for a long time. I realized that if I wanted to make albums and keep doing the things I loved to do — sing, write and bring great songs to the public — I invested my own money in what I came to call Wildflower Records.

I had to learn a lot about distribution, and I met with almost every company that was in the business in the late nineties. Jac had taught me well — he used to take me to lunch with the rackers in New Jersey and was the first to teach me that the people who sell our records and albums and CDs are to be thanked, lauded and appreciated. The same is true for publishers, and I have now had a lot of experience with those amazing people because of the books I have written.

When we started, we did a few things that I felt needed to be done to keep my fans up to date with where I was in my life. One of the first pieces we produced was a CD and accompanying video for PBS of the concert I had been doing for many years at Wolf Trap, in Virginia. I followed this with the Judy Collins’ Wildflower Festival, a concert I promoted and produced in many cities around the country that featured some of the artists I had worked with over the years, including Richie Havens, Tom Rush, Janis Ian, Roger McGuinn, Arlo Guthrie and Tom Paxton. This series of concerts resulted in another PBS show and video.

After starting the Judy Collins’ Wildflower Festival, we then began to arrange the rights to license my first four albums from Elektra (they had not yet been released in CD format), packaging them in a manner that caught on with Elektra, who had done the same thing in international markets.

It took us about five years to begin releasing other artists’ CDs for Wildflower Records, but once we did, the roles were reversed and artists started to come to us for help. Since, our roster has grown to a handful of artists, and we try to help them in any way we can. We have to be prudent (I understand that, and realize, prudence was a driving force in what I experienced at other major labels), but we try to look for tour opportunities, offer marketing approaches, and give good advice and support whenever we can. I often put Wildflower artists on my shows as opening acts to help expose them to new fans.

Since starting Wildflower Records I have released a number of my own albums, live concerts and collections, as well as new material and albums from other artists. ‘Portrait of an American Girl’ (2007) includes many of my own new songs, including the great Aaron Copeland classic “Lincoln Portrait.” In 2008, Wildflower released ‘Born to the Breed,’ a CD of other artists singing my songs. The guests include Chrissie Hynde, Rufus Wainwright, Joan Baez, Jimmy Webb, Leonard Cohen, Dar Williams, Bernadette Peters and Shawn Colvin.

In 2010, Wildflower released ‘Paradise,’ a Judy Collins album that has received exemplary praise from many outlets. In a way, this album has rekindled my already successful recording career, and helped me to usher in the next fifty years of my journey. ‘Paradise’ includes duets with Joan Baez and Stephen Stills, and a new song by Jimmy Webb called “Gauguin” that was orchestrated by Jimmy himself.

Also in 2010, Wildflower released an exciting new CD by Kenny White – ‘Comfort in the Static” – as well as a new release from Amy Speace. Both artists have now released two albums for the label.

I love finding new artists and I love doing what I do. I have a lot of control and work now more than I ever have before. Starting Wildflower Records was a great idea and a great direction for me. It gives me an opportunity to give back to younger artists and to discover new talent — I am first and foremost a fan, after all. That is the way I started out: loving the music, the artists, the life, and the path I have been so fortunate to walk. I am not turning back.

Editor’s Note: Judy Collins has thrilled audiences worldwide with her unique blend of interpretative folksongs and contemporary themes. Her impressive career has spanned more than 50 years. She is noted for her rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” on her 1967 album, Wildflowers, which has since been entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Last year, Collector’s Choice Music reissued nine digitally remastered CDs of Collins’ work over the past five decades. Collins is the author of the inspirational memoir Sanity & Grace, focusing on the death of her only son; last year, she released a new CD, Paradise, that features duets with the legendary Stephen Stills and Joan Baez. Now 72, Collins is still writing, performing, and nurturing fresh talent. She plays 80 to 100 dates a year around the country.

4 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Deirdre Cerasa says:

    Thank you Judy, may you continue to sing forever!!

  2. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    Music is one of the magical parts of life that can transform us. I was one of the listeners who appreciated hearing Judy Collins through the years. I love classic and folk music and some of the songs seemed to be a mixture of both. I like that she stayed true to her craft and herself rather than compete with less talented performers.

  3. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    I can still remember the first time I heard *Both Sides Now*, and the road I was on when it came on the  car stereo.   And, I have so many subsequent memories of dorm rooms,  threadbare apartments, cheap wine, cigarette smoke and Judy Collins on the stereo as her music defined my emotional life and the emotional lives of my friends, male and female.  Its been awhile but over the years, my husband and I put us on some Judy Collins, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell et al , and relive our youth.  I was never in a place or time where I could hear her perform live.  Until the summer of 2008.

    I was buying books at Mitchell’s Book Corner in Nantucket and saw a flyer.  Judy was giving a concert to benefit the Nantucket AIDS Foundation.  And it coincided with my husband’s visit to our summer home there and our wedding anniversary!  I was so excited.  Then the well in our summer home went dry and I thought we would have to leave early and miss the concert.  to   Thanks to a kind neigbor’s garden hose attached to our spigot we got water again so we could stay on island and attend the concert (for which I had already purchased the not inexpensive tickets).  I thought about giving away the tickets to the kind neighbor in thanks but just couldn’t bear to so sent them a box of steaks instead.   She sang at the Nantucket High School Auditorium and it was worth every penny.   No opening act or anything, just Judy singing. For a long time  Her voice may not be as crystal clear as it was in 1961 but her phrasing, carrying all of her life in it, made up for it.  A night to remember for sure.  Only cheap wine and cigarettes and pillows on the floor to loll in could have made it any better. 

    So, I am so pleased to hear that her record company is succeeding.  

    I think her story of Elektra records and time moving on and people being replaced is universal in a lot of walks of life.  At some point, as we age, we outlive our usefulness to the powers that control our economic life as the young take our place . Good for you, Judy, that you took that power into your own hands.  


  4. avatar Briana Baran says:

    I remember first hearing Judy Collins sing Leonard Cohens’s Suzanne when I was in high school, and the song winding itself around my thoughts, because I knew that Suzanne was me. And that the lady at the gate in Albatross was just another version of me, in some far away, never-dreamed-of place. I have learned both of those beautiful songs, and though my voice is iron and dark next to Ms. Collins’ crystal and light, I treasure her gift of those lyrics and melodies to a lonely, ugly, anonymous teenage girl…and to the woman she would one day become.
    Thank you, Judy, for all the good things you have done, and are doing. You are the transcendence and the wonder in this glorious species of ours that I love so dearly.