Judy Collins

Send in the clowns

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Because I am a person of a certain age, my main point of reference when it comes to Judy Collins is from reruns of her 1978 appearance on the Muppet Show, in particular, her somewhat eerie performance of “Send in the Clowns.” To put a finer point on it, it wasn’t so much her performance that was eerie, rather it was the balletic, tumbling clowns dancing across half of the television screen that seared the song into my memory.

In not taking the time to get to know Collins, I have done myself a great disservice. As it turns out, she’s pretty amazing.

First of all, we have a rightful claim to Collins—if not so much her music—in this corner of the country as she was born and spent the first 10 years of her life in Seattle. But even before she made her musical debut as a classical piano prodigy at the age of 13, Collins had overcome polio, which she contracted when she was 11 years old. Maybe it was conquering the often deadly disease that did it, or maybe it was something she was born with, but from a very young age it seems Collins was always firmly in charge of her own destiny.

Indeed when a burgeoning interest in folk music caused her piano instructor to force her to choose between the two disciplines, Collins made the difficult decision to forgo what was shaping up to be a promising career as a pianist and never looked back. She embraced the music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, learned to play the guitar and eventually made her way to New York, where she played the smoke-filled folk clubs of Greenwich Village.

It was then that she first gained recognition for her ability to reinterpret songs by great songwriters and protest poets—such as Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan—lending her distinctive voice and style to their politically minded lyricism. But it wasn’t just the well-known songwriters of that time that she gave voice to. Combining her keen ear for discerning interesting, intelligent songwriting with her wide-ranging musical sensibility, Collins also helped introduce the music of then-obscure songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Randy Newman to broader audiences.

Soon Collins was writing songs of her own, and the blue-eyed girl who was once busking on the sidewalks of New York began charting Billboard hits and, before long, even won a Grammy for the song “Both Sides, Now.” It was during this time that Collins made her iconic appearance on the Muppet Show (as well as Sesame Street, but that isn’t as indelible a part of my childhood experience).

Collins’ career has spanned nearly 60 years, but it hasn’t all been bright lights, award-winning moments and hit songs. In fact, many of her highs have been tempered by lows that might’ve crippled someone with less self-possession, but Collins is made of strong stuff, dealing with her demons forthrightly. She’s endured tuberculosis, the end of a marriage, a battle with bulimia and alcoholism that included a stint in rehab and the tragic suicide of her son.

Through it all, she’s continued to record and tour, releasing more than 50 albums (and counting), still allowing her musical curiosity to be her guide, still seeking to shed light on lesser-known artists—her performance at the Mount Baker Theatre will feature Seattle’s Passenger String Quartet—still using her voice to speak to the environmental and social issues that are so close to her heart and have imbued so much of her work with a sense of purpose.

Few people in music have had the kind of career Collins have enjoyed, with its time spanned and musical nooks and crannies explored. But, then again, she’s been fiercely self-determined since the minute she stepped away from the piano bench and picked up a guitar all those years ago. But, then again, I should’ve known that anyone who can hold her own among an unruly pack of superstar Muppets is not to be underestimated.

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