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Judy Collins Then, Judy Collins Now: Interview – Best Classic Bands08.23.21

On March 21, 1964, a budding 24-year-old folk singer named Judy Collins stepped onto the stage of The Town Hall in New York City to give her first solo concert at a major venue. Accompanied only by a bassist/cellist and a banjo/guitar player, she sang a parade of songs penned by such notable composers as Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Billy Edd Wheeler and Fred Neil. The performance was recorded and released that summer by her label, Elektra Records, as The Judy Collins Concert, and although it didnt chart, it found favor among fans of folk music, who marveled at Collins crystalline vocal delivery and heartfelt interpretations.

Now, at age 82, long ago acknowledged as one of the most beloved and important singer-songwriters of the past half-century, Collins is celebrating that pivotal event with a new album. In February 2021, with the Covid pandemic in full swing, she returned to The Town Hall to reprise songs from that early release, adding and substituting a few while revisiting several of the tunes she sang that evening. The new album, simply titled Live at the Town Hall, NYC, finds Collins voice as strong as ever.

An ad for Collins 2021 Town Hall concert

In between the two Town Hall albums, she has lived a remarkable life and enjoyed a highly successful career. She broke through big-time in 1968 with a top 10 single, her Grammy-winning cover of Joni Mitchells Both Sides Now (which she performed at the new Town Hall show), and continued to release other popular singles (notably her version of Stephen Sondheims Send in the Clowns) and such classic albums for Elektra as 1967s In My Life, the Billboard #5 Wildflowers (1968), Who Knows Where the Time Goes (1968), Whales & Nightingales (1970) and the platinum-selling Judith (1975). She has released more than 50 albums in all and remains a top concert draw.

In addition, Collins has written memoirs, served as an activist, worked in film and television and recently launched a podcast, Since Youve Asked, in which she converses with various figures in the arts and other disciplines.

Collins spoke with Best Classic Bands on the eve of the Live at the Town Hall, NYC albums release.

Judy Collins via her Facebook page

Best Classic Bands: Before we talk about the new Town Hall concert album, lets go back to 1964. What do you remember most about the original show? Did it seem special to you at the time?

Judy Collins: Oh gosh, it was so special. Jac [Holzman, Elektra Records president] had said to me, I think we should record this. I had just discovered [the Bob Dylan song] The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, so I was dying to record that. I had found Billy Edd Wheeler and learned some of his songs, including Coal Tattoo, which I still do in concert. [Ewan MacColls] Cruel Mother, I had found. So I was really up for it. It was very exciting. It was the first time I was at Town Hall, or at any hall, doing a big solo concert in New York. I had sung at Carnegie Hall, in October of 1962, opening for Theo Bikel, but this was a big deal. We were very brave, recording something we would only have one shot at. We did some overdubbing, but that was it.

There is so much history associated with Town Hall. It actually turned 100 this year.

It was Town Halls idea to do this concert and I was so thrilled because I had no idea of a lot of this history. I had sung there a lot of times, and I knew that there was something very special about it, but I went back and reviewed the history, and found out, which I had not known, that the suffragettes were the first people to book Town Hall, after it was built. And of course, [folk singer] Paul Robeson sang thereso many, many, artists. I had gone to see Bob Dylan there at the end of 62 or early 63, I guess.

One of the songs you sang at the 1964 show, and now again at the 2021 event, was Me and My Uncle. It was written by John Phillips before he even formed the Mamas and the Papas. How did that song find its way to you?

Well, he was my friend. I think we first got together in Washington, D.C. It mightve been 62. Then he started the Journeymen, which had Dick Weissman and Scott McKenzie. One night, in New York, he and Michelle [Phillips] invited me and a friend to come downtown for a very 60s dinner invitation, including getting stoned on magic mushrooms or LSD, whatever. It just about wrecked me. It took me quite a few days, maybe two weeks, to get through that. It took me a couple of bottles of Jim Beam. Anyway, that night he sang Me and My Uncle, and I made him sing it over and over again until Id learned it. I knew I wanted to sing it. I had to sing it. And then, after I recorded it, he said, Did I write that song?

What about Both Sides Now? It hadnt been written yet in 1964 but you sang it at the 2021 Town Hall concert. Did you know Joni before you covered that song?

No, she was an unknown, wandering around the Village, trying to get somebody to hire her to sing. I dont think anybody hired her to sing, which is kind of strange in a way. Id never met her and nobody knew her. Then I got this call in the middle of the night from [musician] Al Kooper. She had come to a [Blood, Sweat and Tears, which Kooper had formed in 1967] show and he had followed her home. I loved Blood, Sweat, and Tears, so I would go and listen to them too. Al and I had become friendly, and he knew that I was recording at that point. So he followed her home and she started playing her songs and he said, Hang on a minute. Ive got to call Judy. I know shell love this song. Its three in the morning. And he called me up and I woke up. Its very good thing. I often think, what if he had called Buffy St. Marie?! He said, Ive got a surprise for you. I said, Well, I hope so. It better be good. And it was. He put her on the phone and she sang me Both Sides Now. It was a very good decision.

Listen to the original studio recording of Both Sides Now

The B-side of that single was Ian Tysons Someday Soon, one of your most beautiful songs. How did that one come into your life?

When I got to New York in 63, I lived in the Village and I got to know [folk duo] Ian and Sylvia very well, among others. I had recorded Ian and Sylvia, Gordon LightfootI was into the Canadians in a big way before Leonard [Cohen] showed up in 66 or Joni in 67. They [Ian and Sylvia] did Someday Soon and I said, Ive got to sing that song. I ran into [Ian] in Alberta a couple of years agohes still singing aroundand when he sings that song, he says that Judy Collins version allowed him to buy his ranch in Alberta.

You were one of the first to do Leonard Cohen songs like Suzanne and Sisters of Mercy.

He came to my apartment in 1966 and he said, I cant sing and I cant play the guitar, and I dont know if this is a song. Then he sang me Suzanne and I said, Ill record that in the morning. Thats where we started. Hes the one who said to me, Why arent you writing your own songs? I sat down and wrote Since Youve Asked, which is not only one of the best songs Ive written but the title of my podcast. It took me about 20 minutes to write it. I was seduced into songwritingthe next song takes five years.

Watch Collins and Cohen perform Suzanne together

Although youve written many excellent songs, youre still known primarily as an interpreter of others material. Why have you traditionally looked to others for songs?

Oh, it doesnt matter where it comes from. If its a song that I was supposed to sing, then I have to sing it. In the case of, for instance, Jimmy Webb, you know that every one of his songs is going to be top of the line and youre going to want to sing them all. But you do fall in love with certain songs. Like Im doing [Webbs] Highwayman as a centerpiece of my shows now, and its the best song. It sings itself. Its just amazing. The first time I ever heard his songs was when I recorded The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. With Jimmy, you want to sing everything he writes. But in most cases, it doesnt matter who wrote it. You have to sing it.

Related: Read our review of a Judy Collins-Stephen Stills concert from 2017

What has been the biggest change in your singing style and your approach to performing since the Elektra days?

I talk a lot. I tell a lot of stories. I never did that in the early days, but I really love doing that. I started doing it when I worked at the Caf Carlyle in New York. They gave me the chance to be on stage every night, singing a bunch of songs and I found that it was very easy to come up with stories, especially if you switch around the sequence of your sets. The stories come out in surprising ways. I was able to start to get access to a lot of my memories and stories around these songs. So thats a big change. I also I think Im much more comfortable in all ways on stage.

Speaking of telling stories, you mentioned your podcast. Whats the concept behind it?

Ive interviewed [actor] Alan Cumming and Jimmy Webb and Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle. Very diverse, and really fun. Then I did a couple more with various people and my manager and I thought, why not do this, get some of these interesting stories down?

One of the people you have scheduled is Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra. I didnt realize that you were still in touch with him.

Jac and I signed a contract with Elektra, his label, on a handshake in April of 61. Weve been friends ever since. Hes a wonderful guy, and Ive never lost touch with him. Hes working still, for Warners.

Do you have a favorite among the Elektra albums that you made?

Hmm, thats a hard question. I love the Judith album. I think its first-rate; theres a lot of interesting things on it. I worked with Phil Ramone as engineer and Arif Mardin as producer, a dream team. I didnt have a clue who Arif was. I listened to a Danny OKeefe album that had a song on it called Angel Spread Your Wings. I thought, whoever produced that, I have to have that producer. By that time, David Geffen had taken over at Elektra, and so I called him up and I said, I want you to get me Arif Mardin. He said, I cant guarantee that, and I said, Youve got to do this for me, and he did. That was fun.

Youve also written memoirs, you paint, youve been involved with film. Do you have more hours in your day than the rest of us?

I have a little note on my mirror that says, Do it now. I think thats my motto. I have certain things I have to do every day. I have to exercise. I have to write something, either prose or poetry. I have to practice the piano. I have to read a mystery. I have to watch something funny. I have to talk with friends. I just make a point to make every day full of the different things that make me feel good.

Stephen Stills and Judy Collins

You recorded an album (Everybody Knows) in 2017 and toured with Stephen Stills. There was obviously a history there between the two of you. How did that pairing come together after so many years?

We were both surprised. We started out as lovers, in 1968. Then I heard Suite: Judy Blue Eyes [which Stills wrote about Collins] and I said, Thats a very beautiful song, but its not getting me back. Im not coming back to California. I think if I had gone back to California, I wouldnt be here. Then we just kind of stayed in touch. We always were interested in each other. I loved their [Crosby, Stills and Nash] music. I loved his music. I thought he was a genius. His songs just blew my mind. They always have. So over the years wed have long talks. Hed be in India or in the middle of Australia. They did a big concert. It was CSN, me and Richie Havenswe were invited to sing at a huge, blow-out concert for AARP in Orlando [in 2010ed.], in their huge arena. We were all there together and Steve and I looked at each other and we said, We need to do this. We started exchanging notes that had lists of songs that we might do together. I was terrified to go out with him. I really was very nervous.

Watch Collins sing Someday Soon with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash

Why were you nervous?

Well, you dont know whats going to happen if you book a tour that winds up with 115 shows, which we did. Is he going to be crazy? I knew he was not crazy anymore, because Id started to see them and I saw hes getting himself together. Hes very different. He lost a lot of weight, I dont think hes using anymore, that sort of thing. I specifically went to concerts so I could hear them and see what was happening with him. He was doing a big show for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that was being held in New York, and he was playing with most of the bands that were in that event. Hes done so much. Its hard not to like him. Hes wonderful. So, one day, I said I wanted him to do a duet with me. When he got to the apartment, he said, Lets do Tom Paxtons The Last Thing on My Mind. He recorded it with me and he was fine, but what really impressed me was that he got here on time. He had a big job and he was going all over the city, working with people and trying to get ready for this show, this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing [in 2009ed.], but he showed up. It got done and it was great. And then we said, OK, lets do it. We started to put the songs together and we had our first rehearsal with the band in January of 2016. Then we went out and did 115 shows in a year and a half, and every show we were both on stage for the whole time. We sang everything together, except one; each of us had a solo. I think I did Suzanne every time. It was so fabulous. First of all, there was no drama, no bullshit. It was a pleasure. We had a great band; it was phenomenal, a great experience for all of us. And I got to listen to him play every night. Hes not credited enough for being up there with the top guitar players in the world.

Will you ever retire?

Not if I can help it.

Watch Collins perform Dylans Mr. Tambourine Man, which she also sings on her Live at The Town Hall, NYC album

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ and Relix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.

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Judy Collins Then, Judy Collins Now: Interview - Best Classic Bands

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US Capitol riots: The coded tattoos and flags, and the far-right stories they tell –

As the chaos at the Capitol which left five people, including a police officer, dead unfolded in Washington D.C last week, rioters were pictured with a series of flags, signs and tattoos.

Some like the Confederate flag, or the red pro-Trump Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat were well known. But others were more obscure.

According to the New York Times, the array of symbols, slogans and images revealed an alternate political universe where violent extremists, outright racists and conspiracy theorists march side by side with evangelical Christians, suburban Trump supporters and young men.

Modern day white supremacy is illustrated through iconography using both modern and medieval symbols that unites various far-right groups and movements.

READ MORE:* QAnon reshaped Trump's party and radicalised believers, the Capitol siege may just be the start* FBI report warned of 'war' at Capitol, contradicting claims that there was no indication of looming violence* FBI warns of plans for US-wide armed protests ahead of Joe Biden inauguration

New Zealand has not escaped the co-opting of some of these symbols and themes, with the March 15 terrorist referencing some in his manifesto.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Jacob Anthony Chansley, with the painted face and wearing a horned, fur hat, during the riots.

Jacob Chansley, also known as Jake Angeli, was one of the most photographed participants in the Washington D.C protests.

In his bizarre fur robes and horned hat, Chansley exposed a midriff tattooed with Viking symbols and Thor's Hammer.

According to the National Geographic, Chansleys tattoos are ancient Scandinavian symbols revived and twisted by 19th-century European nationalists and 20th-century Nazis.

There is no doubt that these symbols have also been co-opted by a growing far-right movement, Tom Birkett, a lecturer in Old English at Irelands University College Cork told The Conversation.

A tattoo on his shoulder seems to be a version of the Sonnenrad, or sun-wheel, Birkett said.

This is a symbol listed by the Anti-Defamation League as one of a number of ancient European symbols appropriated by the Nazis in their attempt to invent an idealised Aryan or Norse heritage.

Also writing in The Conversation, Helen Young, a lecturer at Deakin University in Australia, said modern extremists misinterpret and appropriate medieval culture to suit their own purposes.

They add new modern meanings to historical images and ideas and put them in new contexts," she said. Medievalist symbols like those displayed at the Capitol have been linked to white European identities for centuries.

Their use by violent extremists means that this connection can not be denied, ignored, or thought of as a neutral choice. We must deliberately, actively, and explicitly reject hateful meanings and the violence that goes with them in all aspects of our medievalist modern world.

Ted S. Warren/AP

A person dressed as Lady Liberty wears a shirt with the letter Q, referring to QAnon at the protest.

Chansley is reportedly linked with QAnon a discredited far-right conspiracy theory that a cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic paedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against US president Donald Trump.

Several others at the riot wore references to the theory.

John Minchillo/AP

Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol. The yellow Gadsden flag is visible on the right.

Also present at the Capitol violence were right-wing and often anti-government militias.

Out in force were right-wing militias like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, whose symbol, the Roman numeral III, could be seen on patches and flags, the New York Times said.

USA Today said these groups have shown up to counter protests against police brutality, often claiming they were protecting private property from vandals and looters.

Others signalled their beliefs by waving the Gadsden flag, a yellow banner dating to the American Revolution with a rattlesnake and the phrase Dont Tread on Me, theTimes reported.

More generally recognisable was the Confederate flag, which was carried into the Capitol by one man. The flag is a symbol of the enslavement and ill-treatment of African-Americans, as was the noose and gallows erected by Trump supporters.

Evelyn Hockstein/WASHINGTON POST

Rioters with green and white Kekistan flags at the Capitol.

As well as the MAGA hats, USA and Trump flags of Trump supporters, you may have spotted green-and-white flags of Kekistan, a fictional country that is home to the deity Kek.

This satirical meme is a way to troll liberals and self-righteous conservatives, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups. He is a god of chaos and darkness, with the head of a frog, the source of their mimetic magic, to whom the alt-right and Donald Trump owe their success.

The flag is partly derived from the Nazi flag, a provocative joke in alt-right circles, the Times said.

Imagery of Pepe the Frog was also seen. Linked to the white nationalism movement, the cartoon frog has become associated with online anti-Semitism.

Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post

The scene on January 6 outside the Capitol as Trump fans and others marched.

A group of Proud Boys attended the protest in orange hats. The Proud Boys is a far-right, male-only political group that promotes political violence in the United States and Canada.

Some have adopted the OK hand gesture as their own, seeing it as mimicking the letters W and P,' for white power, the Times reported.

Already reeling from the violent siege at a sacred political site for Americans, the country is now preparing for further armed protests in the days leading up to President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on January 21.


US Capitol riots: The coded tattoos and flags, and the far-right stories they tell -

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