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Judy Collins still turn, turn, turning with new album at 77
HARI SREENIVASAN: Next: new songs from an American classic.
Jeffrey Brown visited Judy Collins to hear a preview of her 51st album being released tomorrow, along with a tour with more than 100 dates.
JEFFREY BROWN: Judy Collins has been making beautiful music since the early 1960s, and, since 1967, writing her own songs.
In her New York apartment recently, she played a new one for us.
JUDY COLLINS, "Silver Skies Blue": I really thought of myself not as a singer in the beginning. I really thought of myself as a storyteller.
JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, really? Meaning that it was all about the story.
JUDY COLLINS: It was.
JEFFREY BROWN: Many years later, at age 77, the stories and songs continue, and for her latest album, titled "Silver Skies Blue," Collins has taken a new step: co-writing an entire record with another artist, 36- year-old Ari Hest.
Collins grew up in a musical family. Her father, blind from age 4, was a singer and radio host who inspired her with Irish ballads, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and much more. She studied classical piano, and then discovered, and became part of, a growing folk music scene that was infused with social activism.
JUDY COLLINS: I learned to sing along the way. So, the songs provided me with a living, with entertainment, education, singing lessons, and adventure throughout my whole career, really.
JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that you, of course, became so well-known for is bringing songs that other people wrote to the attention of a general audience.
JUDY COLLINS: I was desperate to sing great songs, the kind of classic songs that I had been raised with. This is the burgeoning of the great folk music revival. And I was in the village. So I learned Woody and I learned Pete. I learned all their great songs.
And when I came to New York, I was...
JEFFREY BROWN: Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and on and on and on.
JUDY COLLINS: That's right.
I was sitting in the middle of this incredible burgeoning of beauty and art and fantasy, and also politically and socially important songs. I just would walk around the village, and Tom Paxton would come along and say, oh, hi, I just wrote this song, bottle of wine, fruit on the vine. Why don't you sing it?
Dylan was just starting here in '61 here in New York. And I went to hear him at Town Hall, and said I have to sing "Masters of War," and I have to sing "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol," one of the great songs to come out of that era.
JEFFREY BROWN: Over the years, she'd become renowned for her versions of classics such as "Amazing Grace," sung here at Dromoland Castle in Ireland and, at the Metropolitan Museum, Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns."
How do you think of what it is that you're doing when it's someone else's song?
JUDY COLLINS: You have to apply the same criteria to the songs that you write, as well as the songs that you sing of other people. They all have to somehow become -- they have to become Judy Collins songs.
JEFFREY BROWN: Your song.
JUDY COLLINS: Yes.
You have to make them into that somehow. And that's magical, and also which songs you choose is magical, because you don't know what -- it's falling in love. If you're falling in love, you don't know why. I mean, sure, he has blue eyes or, sure, he has green eyes, but you don't know what it is that really is the chemistry. It's the same thing with a song.
JEFFREY BROWN: Can you give me an example?
JUDY COLLINS: In the early things, so things like "Turn, Turn, Turn," of course. I heard that and immediately wanted to sing it my whole -- ever since I heard it as a 15-year-old.
JEFFREY BROWN: There's been great success, including four gold and two platinum albums. But over the years, Collins has also faced well-documented challenges, depression, bulimia, the suicide of her son, a long fight with alcoholism.
JUDY COLLINS: I'm a recovering alcoholic. In fact, today is my anniversary, 38 years.
JEFFREY BROWN: Wow.
JUDY COLLINS: When I have troubles, I have been able to go into my music and my writing to be able to find my way through those things.
JEFFREY BROWN: But that, too, was threatened when she developed problems with her vocal cords that eventually required surgery.
JUDY COLLINS: It was terrifying. I spent a number of years just horrified with, what I was going to do if I couldn't perform?
JEFFREY BROWN: I see you do a lot of speaking on the subject of healing, the healing power of art and music.
JUDY COLLINS: I do.
I would say that my own life has been very impacted by the fact that I'm a working musician. So, I'm involved with music, with writing it, playing it, practicing it, performing it. And it really does -- that two hours when I'm on stage is a meditation, in a way. You can't do a lot when you're singing, except to be present.
JEFFREY BROWN: Still on stage, Judy Collins and her new musical partner Ari Hest are now in the midst of a national tour.
From New York, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."