By Connie Berry
Judy Collins spent the 1960s performing folk music around the country with the best of the era – Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie and Tom Paxton among them. On Saturday, July 30, she performed at Stella Maris Retreat Center in Skaneateles at a concert sponsored by the Skaneateles Area Arts Council. Her lyrics back in the 1960s were poetic and often reflected the attitude of young people disaffected by the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement. Collins has released nearly 50 albums in as many years.
Collins, 72 years old now, was a classically trained pianist, making her public debut performing Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos at age 13. Her father, Thomas Charles Collins, was a well-known radio personality moving the family from Seattle to Los Angeles and finally to Denver. Collins grew up in a home deeply appreciative of music. Her father was blind and, according to Collins’ memoirs, he lived life to the fullest not letting his lack of eyesight impair his vision of the world.
Besides the vast amount of musical recordings credited to Collins, in the last few decades, she has become an accomplished author with nine books published. She wrote of her personal journey after her only child, her son Clark, committed suicide in 1992 at age 33. Collins wrote in the prologue in her 1998 book, Singing Lessons: “My son’s death was the first thing in my life from which there was nowhere to hide. I had to face the loss head-on, confronting Clark’s death with my own desire to live, to lift off the earth, to sing, to fly.”
Collins explains in her book that her son struggled with addiction before his death, and he was not the first in her family to grapple with it. Her father, she wrote, was an alcoholic and she too struggled with alcoholism and depression. While her father could be charming and the strongest personality in the household, there were times when she and her four younger siblings felt fearful and anxious as their mother piled them into the car and drove them to the park so they would not be around their father when he drank heavily.
Her book, Sanity & Grace focused on Clark’s suicide and her own healing process. “I felt I had to do that book to get through it,” she said in a telephone interview before her Stella Maris concert. Collins’ books also talk about her spirituality and search for inner peace. Collins explained that she had been to Stella Maris previously and found it a beautiful, inspiring place. She grew up a Methodist but, like others in her generation, has explored many different types of religion. As a little girl, Collins said she had such a desire for prayer that she set up a makeshift altar in her closet. She felt the Catholic Church’s ritual and mystery were more alluring than her Methodist roots. She wrote in Singing Lessons: “But my feeling of fault was deep. I begged in my heart to be a Catholic, or some kind of person who could be forgiven by some firm God, more successful in forgiveness,” Collins wrote.
She quotes Bl. John Paul II’s description of prayer, “We begin with the impression that it’s our initiative, but it’s always God’s initiative with us.”
Throughout her life, Collins said, she has dealt with challenges and demons but said that is no more than anyone else has dealt with.
“We’ve all had those experiences and have had to come through difficult things,” she said.
Overcoming adversity is part of who she is and Collins said one of her earliest moments of inspiration came when she heard Jesse Owens, the famous Olympic athlete who won four gold medals at the 1939 games in Berlin. Owens was the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves. He spoke at Collins’ high school and she never forgot his story. When she visited Berlin years later, Collins said it was “a challenge emotionally” to be in the stadium where he had competed. “His message of never giving up, on that day [in high school] that made sense to me.”
Nowadays, Collins focuses on touring and writing, following a fairly disciplined lifestyle.
“I try to follow some important habits of behavior,” she explained. “I meditate, I journal, if I’m going to write, I clear the decks and don’t answer the phone. The other parts of my day I exercise and cross train with the treadmill, swimming, walking. You have to keep everything moving. If you don’t use it, you lose it. I try to eat well. Every piece of it fits together to form a chemical puzzle.”
Collins said she loves the writing process, especially editing and working with her editors. Her books can be inspiring and revealing at the same time.
Towards the end of Singing Lessons, Collins wrote, “The stars are always shining somewhere. I have only to look through the blue sky or into the black night to find them and let them shine on me. The sky will clear, my mind will clear, if I move from negative to positive. In the moment of silence between stars there is healing, there is the sound of the pulse of light, the sound of God talking to me, listening to me, healing me, bringing me strength.”
She has a new book coming out in October, one she said will be different. It’s about her life in the music business with stories about the people she’s worked with over the years. Whether Collins is weathering personal challenges or creating something new, music is still a constant for her, as is her search for inner peace.