The media fills up so much of our public space amplifying the antics of idiots that you might come to believe that stupidity is the essence of the American character. For the rest of us citizens, this promotion of the outrageous can have a pernicious effect; it can erode our sense of national esteem. We come to wonder: are we, as a culture, really that dumb and heartless?
Thank goodness there is an antidote to this toxic influence. In smaller, quieter places, we find examples of exemplary Americans, who can help make us feel proud of who we are as a people. The other night at the Café Carlyle in New York City, I heard one such person sing. Her name is Judy Collins.
I hadn’t heard Judy sing live in almost 40 years. As a young man, I had the incredible fortune to participate, in a small way, in the production of three of Judy’s albums, Judith, Bread and Roses, and So Early in the Spring: A Retrospective. The first of these represents one of Judy’s artistic peaks in a stellar career of music and writing, featuring her classic rendering of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In the Clowns.”
After working on those records, life got in the way, and I had not had a chance to witness Judy singing since. I figured it was about time. So, to celebrate my birthday, my wife and I had a night on the town.
Seeing Judy again after all these years was a revelation. Her art has deepened, and so has my appreciation of it. Judy is nothing short of an American treasure. At 74 years of age, her uncannily pure voice is timeless. Though blessed with an extraordinary natural instrument, she has not only preserved, but she has also cultivated and developed, her talent so that her singing is even richer, more poignant, and subtler than what I remember from decades ago.
Judy’s fine artistry and impeccable taste were surely nourished growing up in a musical family in Colorado, and from having been classically trained and mentored by the brilliant, ground-breaking conductor Antonia Brico, the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic. Judy was lucky that way. But she took that acculturation and forged a singular path with it. She began her career by singing traditional folk songs, but then expanded her repertoire to include great songs wherever she could find them. She introduced a generation to Kurt Weill, she discovered writers like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, she celebrated songsmiths like Jimmy Webb and Paul McCartney, she dipped into the canon of American standards by writers like Yip Harburg, and has become a singular voice for the works of Stephen Sondheim. She has also, over the last many decades, showcased songs by writers far less known, all who have lived up to her standard of quality. This unerring ear and refined sensibility has led her to be one of our age’s premier interpreters of song.
Add to this a large body of uniquely rapturous songs of her own composition, and you can begin to grasp the outlines of why Judy is an artist nonpareil who deserves to be treasured.
Judy’s recording abilities stood out from the crowd back in the days when I worked with her. In an era of nascent decadence and nihilism represented by disco and punk, she brought together a team of incomparable craftsmen to produce her works. On Judith, her producer was Arif Mardin, the engineer was Phil Ramone, and the orchestrator was Jonathan Tunick. Even the album cover photographer, Francesco Scavullo, was the top talent of that time. What an amazing gift for me, a student of the art of making records, to get to observe and learn from the greatest in the biz! Her fine production skills remain apparent as Judy continues to make fine recordings to this day.
It may be hard to remember, but the 60s were a time of liberal idealism. We were a generation who were going to make a difference; we were going to have a positive impact on the world. We would eliminate injustice and unfairness wherever we found it, no matter what it took. And in the feminist, civil rights, and gay rights movements, we did change the world for the better. But we were also faced with the contingencies of life. We made mistakes, we hurt each other, and many of us lost touch with our ideals.
Judy was not immune to the excesses of that time. She, in her own words, had a life of “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.” But fortunately, for her and for us, she gained the lasting insight of that era, which was that, if we had any chance of changing the world, we had to begin by changing ourselves. Sure, like the rest of us, she has had her demons, but she has faced them down, and achieved no small measure of wisdom as a result.
Judy spoke on stage with poise, confidence, and a clear mind. In her music, her writing, and her advocacy, she is a model of intelligence, compassion, and self-realization. She has turned the pain of her life to good account, by using that suffering to help relieve the suffering of others.
Judy’s life is a clarion call to return to the best of what the 1960s represented. This model of growth and positive transformation is what the elders of our culture are meant to provide for those who follow. Sadly, we make limited room in our public sphere to celebrate the rare sages, like Judy, among us.
At the show, Judy spoke about the record album, with its collection of songs, large cover, and liner notes. Certainly, those were beautiful objects that we made. But, we certainly don’t want to be the kind of folks who sit around and complain about how the old days were better. As the lyrics of a song I engineered for Judy all those years ago, put it, everything must change. Nevertheless, even though we must accept the inevitable transformations that time brings about, we can still appreciate the good that endures from time past. Let us cherish those who have made, and continue to make, a profound contribution to the great continuum of culture that marks our development toward the realization of humanity.
Let’s honor and celebrate Judy Collins as the national treasure that she is. And remember that greatness has been, is, and can be found in the heart of the American character.
For chapters from my music memoir, click here.