As Judy Collins prepares to accept her lifetime achievement honor at next month’s She Rocks Awards, the legendary singer-songwriter and soprano chats frankly with Yahoo Entertainment about the many personal and professional highs and lows of her 83 years. But since the She Rocks Awards recognizes trailblazing women in music, it makes sense to start with a discussion of perhaps one of her lesser-known songs, but one that’s as topical as ever and would certainly be a relevant choice for Collins’s She Rocks ceremony setlist: “Mama Mama,” which depicts a mother of five who grapples with the decision to have an abortion.
“Oh, thank you for asking about that one — nobody knows about ‘Mama Mama’!” Collins exclaims. “I want to start singing it again.”
When asked what inspired the song, Collins begins: “Well, I had been very much a part of the Roe v. Wade effort in ‘69. I was in a group of women that included [activist, second-wave feminist, and Ms. magazine co-founder] Gloria Steinem and [civil rights lawyer] Florynce Kennedy. Gloria rounded us up and asked us to go to Congress with her, and we were the first-time women to talk about having had an abortion, at the beginning of the Roe v. Wade discussions. And so I always felt that I had to somehow write about it, because it’s so prevalent. I mean, it has to be a choice. It has to be available. It is everything to do with women’s health, on every level. And that’s why I wrote ‘Mama Mama.’”
Ten years before “Mama Mama” came out, Ms. released its first issue, featuring a historic open letter titled “We Have Had Abortions” that was signed by prominent women like tennis star Billie Jean King, actress Lee Grant, writers Susan Sontag, Nora Ephron, and Barbara Tuchman, and Collins. Speaking to Yahoo Entertainment more than half a century later, and coming up on a year since Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court, Collins recalls bravely speaking in a public forum about the illegal abortion she had at age 22.
“I told my story about going to Nebraska and driving overnight by myself and not telling anybody, and then driving back in the middle of the night from — what was the name of the state again? — from Wyoming and back to Denver. It was not easy, and it was not fun, and it was something I don’t ever want to do again,” Collins says matter-of-factly. “It’s a story that of course haunts many people, many women. My theory is that men can’t do it [get pregnant and give birth], so they’re very angry that women can, and they don’t want us to control it at all. I mean, reproduction is a very big deal, very mysterious, something to be very jealous about. I’m thinking of Atwood’s book, The Handmaid’s Tale. Men want to be in charge. To try to stop us from having any control over our bodies or over our lives, it’s just not kosher.”
Read on for Collins’s epic Yahoo Entertainment conversation about her battles with bulimia, depression, alcoholism, tuberculosis, and vocal issues; her iconic recordings that helped launch the careers of Leonard Cohen and (a seemingly resentful) Joni Mitchell; testifying at the Chicago 7 trial (a historic moment, that, much to Collins’s outrage, was omitted from Aaron Sorkin’s film The Trial of the Chicago 7); singing at longtime fan and friend Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993; the intersection of music and politics in 2023; and finally releasing her first album of all original material after 60 years in the business.
Yahoo Entertainment: You’ve always written raw and personal songs, but it took until last year for you release an entire album of originals, Spellbound, which received a Grammy nomination. Why didn’t you do that until six decades and 55 albums into your career?
Judy Collins: Well, my songwriting, really, was three songs a year that I felt were really up to the mark. I was kind of in competition with myself, since I’d recorded so many extraordinary songs [written by other people], some of which became big hits. I was somewhat hesitant, but I kept at it and worked at it. And then I got very serious about it when I started working with [singer-songwriter] Ari Hest, and that sort of triggered my own songwriting in a bigger way. … I’ve always been disciplined about my songwriting; it just hasn’t happened to fill [an album’s worth of] 10 or 12 tracks until now. And I’m very happy that it does.
You’ve lived such a full life now, and have so much experience to draw from. I definitely want to ask about one Spellbound track, “Arizona,” because it seems like that was 60 years in the making. It’s about a turbulent time in your young life, and there’s a line where you say, “My dark years are gone.”
I had mulled over that lyric and that story for a long time. It was a watershed year in my life, and not always in a good way. It was 1962. My marriage to my first husband [Peter Taylor] was falling apart. I’d had some successes, and I was working on my second album, and I had gotten sick with something. I didn’t know what it was, but I had a gurgling in my lungs. I wasn’t going to go to see a doctor, because I was sure that they would tell me to slow down — and I didn’t want to slow down! So, after a night performing at Carnegie Hall, immediately the next day, early in the morning, I had to fly to Arizona to sing at a little club called Ash Alley. I did my set, and the two people who ran the joint came backstage to me and said, “Our day job is that we work in the hospital for a lung doctor, a lung specialist, and tomorrow we’re going to take you over there and have him look at you, because you’re not well.” And that was the beginning of six months [in a sanatorium], being treated [for what turned out to be tuberculosis]. I was put in quarantine right away there, and I had this incredible room that looked out onto the hills and mountains and the landscape of Arizona. There was nothing out there except nature and light and sunsets and sunrises. It was the perfect place for me to have nobody to get at me, nobody to talk to me. All I did was write in my journal and try to get well. And then they moved me to Denver to National Jewish Hospital, and that was also great, because I was close to my mother. But it was a very hard time. I got divorced because of the nature of my broken relationship with my husband. And I lost custody of my son, because he sued for custody and got it.
Wow. It was rare back then for a mother to not get primary custody, too.
It was very rare. And I was told by my lawyer that the reason [Taylor] got custody was that I was in therapy! Nowadays, if you aren’t in therapy, you might lose custody! [laughs] It was a very, very tough year, in every way you can think of. So, I finally wrote about it. I started writing about it in 2016. This has been hanging around for a long time.
It’s interesting that the fact that you were in therapy was held against you in family court. A lot of the things that you’ve written about, in both your memoirs and your songs — abortion, depression, alcoholism, eating disorders — weren’t things people talked about much then, things people didn’t really understand.
Well, that’s why I stayed in therapy for so long — because that was the place to say it! [laughs] But when I first started seeing the therapist who put me in treatment [for bulimia] in 1978, he had no clue, believe me. So, it’s been a long time coming. There was Karen Carpenter, of course. She and I really were on the same path. We were both involved with these diets. She just went too far.
What were the moments when you went too far?
I had an incident where I had decided that I wouldn’t eat salt. Which, of course, is insane. I cut out all salt. This no-salt thing just came upon me as a random idea; it was crazy. And one day I was in my bedroom and I fell down. I couldn’t get up. That’s exactly what happened to Karen: Her electrolytes dropped and she fainted. And that was it. I was, fortunately, close enough to a telephone that I called [for help]. They couldn’t get my blood pressure up because of this lack of salt. So, they took me to the hospital and they immediately put me on saline, and I perked right up. … My doctors took a while to figure out what was wrong with me, and then they said, “You have to stop running” — I was also exercising like a maniac then — “and you have to start eating salt.” I mean, it’s such a simple thing. I’m very happy that I don’t have to go through that anymore.
You battled alcoholism for many years as well. When did you get sober?
Forty-five years ago! I can’t believe I’m even saying that. I knew I was an alcoholic when I was about 19. I was completely sure that I had exactly what was wrong with my father [singer, pianist, and radio host Charles Thomas Collins]: He was brilliant, he was successful, he managed to do everything, he was very disciplined, and he was an alcoholic. So, that’s where I learned to drink and do the work. The first 20 years of my career, I was drinking every day. I literally couldn’t stop. I never tried to stop. And if you’re an alcoholic, it will creep up on you, slowly but surely. … My life just went into to freefall in the beginning of 1977. I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t do anything. I had troubles with my vocal cords, which were caused by, I’m sure, the bulimia, but probably also by the drinking. And I really lost a year: If you look at my history, you’ll see that in ‘77, about 40 or 50 shows were canceled during that year. … That’s a career-killer. And not only that, but I couldn’t even sign a contract [for future shows], because I couldn’t sing. So, I then ran into what we call my “Eskimo.” He was wonderful actor, very famous, who was also a terrible alcoholic. He was always on the cover of this and that magazine, in New York, falling out of a bar…
Which actor was it? Do you not want to say?
He’s gone now, so I can say it was Patrick O’Neal. And he was my Eskimo. I was always working on my body, doing exercises, going to the gym, still trying to stay fit even though I couldn’t work, and I went to a dance class where Patrick’s wife, Cynthia, was in the class. And I said, “What happened to Patrick? I don’t ever see him anymore in the papers.” And she said, “He stopped drinking.” I was shocked. I always saw him out and about and I would think, “Good going! Somebody’s gotta keep up the level here!” [laughs] And she said, “Do you want to talk to him?” I didn’t know him from Adam, really. I’d never met him. But she said, “Here’s his phone number, just call him. He’s on a set.” And I called him and left my number and he called me back, and I got out a big piece of paper and started writing everything down he told me. And I did everything he told me to do. He said, “I know what’s the matter with you, and you’re going to get well. You’re going to go into treatment.” So I did, and thank God I did that and got sober. That was really where my life started. And then I had surgery on my throat, on my vocal cords — the same surgery, actually, that Julie Andrews had, but it didn’t work [for Andrews] because it was easy to screw it up. It was brand-new. But it worked [for me]. … I was lucky in a lot of ways. Miracles do intervene in your life, and where they come from, or why, nobody knows.
Obviously, you’re known not just for your own confessional songwriting, but for being one of the great interpreters. As you mentioned, you’ve had some of your biggest hits with other artists’ songs. And a lot of the artists you chose to cover, even though they became household names later on, weren’t necessarily big at the time. Were you on some sort of mission to help out or evangelize other artists?
Well, I was lucky to be raised in a family with my father, who was a wonderful singer and performer, and even a pretty good songwriter, I have to say. But he made his living singing the Great American Songbook, so I think I came by that naturally. I have always been in love with great songs, and whenever I could find them, I would grab them. … So, when I found an artist like Leonard Cohen, I said to him, “Oh my God, of course ‘Suzanne’ is a great song! What’s the matter with you?” Because some artists can’t hear it themselves when they’ve made a great piece of work; when they’re doing it themselves, they don’t necessarily know.
How exactly did you come to discover and then cover “Suzanne”? And didn’t Cohen sort of repay that favor by being the one who famously encouraged you to write more of your own songs?
His friend [and manager] Mary Martin came to see me — she’d grown up with him in Montreal, and she was crazy about him, but he was a poet. He was a published poet, but his work was very… let’s just say, obscure. And his friends up in Montreal really didn’t think he was going to be going any place any time soon. But when Mary called me, she said, “He wants to come and play you his songs,” and when I heard “Suzanne,” I said, “This is right up my alley!” When he came to my house, I had never written a song. I never was interested in writing songs at all. It never occurred to me. I’d already made five albums of traditional songs, and then of a lot of the singer-songwriters. Like, I recorded Bob Dylan right away; I was one of the first people to record him. Many people in the New York scene were writing their own songs — everybody but me. I didn’t have any clue about songwriting for myself, and it had not been encouraged. But Leonard said to me, “I don’t understand, why aren’t you writing your own songs?” But then I also said to him, “Well, Leonard, you’re going to have to sing your own songs!” He didn’t want to! He said, “Oh, no, you’re going to do that. Everybody else is going to record my songs.” And I said, “No, you have to try it too.” So, he did: I pushed him onstage at a big fundraiser I was doing for WBAI in New York, and it was a huge success. His singing brought the house down. And that was when he said, “Oh, OK. I see what you mean now.”
The other cover that I wanted to ask you about, of course, is “Both Sides, Now,” because you and Joni Mitchell are forever linked through that song, and you had such a hit with it.
Well, again, that was fate intervening, because one night I was sound asleep at 3 in the morning and the phone rang, and it was Al Kooper on the phone. I said, “What’s up? Are you sick? Is something wrong?” And he said, “No, no. I just followed this girl home from the club…” Nobody knew Joni Mitchell then, except maybe [folk singer] Tom Rush. And Al said she was good-looking and she’d told him she wrote songs, and he said, “Are they any good?” And she said, “Yes. They’re good.” He said, “Could I hear them?” And she said, “Sure, why don’t you come home with me?” So, he figured he couldn’t lose. But then when he got to her apartment and she played him “Both Sides, Now,” he said, “Whoops… I have to call Judy!” He called me, put Joni on the phone at 3 in the morning, and she sang me “Both Sides, Now.” And I said, “Oh, I’ll be right over!” And that’s how that happened.
I’ve read that she maybe had some issues with you doing the song…
Oh, she’s always had issues with me. We were friends in the beginning. I used to go over and hang out and listen to all those songs and just weep, because they were all songs that I wanted to record. In fact, I’ve recorded so many, I can hardly count them. … I don’t feel that I stick out very prominently in her review of people, and she doesn’t have too many good things to say about [me], but that’s life. I’ve helped her make $110 million, so there’s no reason she shouldn’t say thank you! The money didn’t go into my pocket. [laughs] But what’s in somebody’s heart, I don’t know. But I wish her the best of luck. I mean, she’s a genius. She’s got it all. So, who cares how she feels about anybody, really? I’m not the only person that Joni has had issues with.
Switching gears, since there’s so much to cover in your life. … We were talking politics earlier, so I would love if you could share your Chicago 7 trial story with me. You testified there, but that wasn’t included in Aaron Sorkin’s 2020 movie, which was disappointing…
That wasn’t disappointing — it was depressing! First of all, it was such a moment in history, which should have been seen in that movie. I don’t know what’s wrong with [Sorkin]. Something’s deeply wrong with him, because it was a moment. You couldn’t even sync it up, really. I knew the guys. I had talked at and sung at their press conference for the Yippies. And then of course, they were arrested at the Democratic Convention, and their lawyer, who was a friend of mine, called me and said, “Would you come to the trial and sing?” And I said, “Yeah, what do you want me to do? What do you want me to sing?” He said, “You could sing what you sang at the press conference, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone.’” So, I went to Chicago and I got into the courtroom that morning and I was called by the judge. … I opened my mouth and started to sing that, and somebody put their hand on my mouth. The judge said, “You can’t sing the courtroom,” and our lawyer said, “Could she at least recite the lyrics?” And I immediately wanted to shut down. Actually, my mind kind of went totally blank; I didn’t know until after the fact, when I saw the transcript, that they then had a long discussion about how they all appreciated my singing. It was a moment that was historic in so many ways, and when Sorkin made the film, he denied a woman singer to play that part and to do that scene. It could have been a career-making moment for a young woman with a voice. I’m telling you, I resent his lack of understanding, his lack of intelligence, his lack of courage, his lack of integrity, in taking that out of that movie. That was a bad move. He’s an idiot not to have put that in. Because not just for me or the guys, but for history, that [courtroom incident] meant something.
Have you ever reached to anyone who was involved in that film, to ask why Sorkin did not include that scene?
They say he hates women. … He’s prejudicial in some way. It is unacceptable.
Well, let’s move on again, since your career has intersected with so many moments in political history. Can you tell me a bit about your long friendship with the Clintons? It’s been just over 30 years since you sang at Bill Clinton’s inauguration, and I understand that Chelsea Clinton is even named after one of your recordings — your version of another Joni Mitchell song, “Chelsea Morning.”
Oh, Bill is amazing. He’s human, and he’s amazing. He’s certainly one of the smartest people I’ve ever known in my life, and he’s a fan. Around ‘90 I met him [at a concert/conference for women’s issues in Chautauqua, N.Y.] — it’s so funny, my friend Letty Pogrebin [founding editor of Ms. Magazine] called me one day and said, “I think I think you’re performing there, and Hillary Clinton will be there. She’s married to the governor of Arkansas.” Well, I didn’t know who the governor of Arkansas was, and Bill hadn’t started running for president yet. Anyway, we’re all backstage, the five of us… and I totally ignored Bill! [laughs] He went on and on, saying things like, “I saw you the first time in Washington, D.C. at the Shadows club in Georgetown…” And he wanted to go out and party! Well, I don’t do that after shows; I don’t ever do it. So, we went our separate ways, and my brother called me a couple months later and said, “Do you have a new dress? Because Bill Clinton says that if he’s nominated, he’ll have a parade and have Judy Collins sing.” I said, “Oh, that’s very interesting.” And then we met up and I became friendly with Bill and with his wife, and it just kind of unrolled the way it does. I eventually sang [“Amazing Grace” and “Chelsea Morning”] at the inauguration, and then my [second husband] Louis [Nelson] and I, we traipsed in and out of the White House like we lived there! The first time we went was on the inauguration day, and we didn’t any didn’t have any ID with us, and they said, “Oh, you can come in; it doesn’t matter you don’t have any ID.” From that time on, we went in and out of the White House for eight years — parties, celebrations, steak dinners. It was really marvelous. … There was kind of an upswing then in everybody’s enthusiasm and optimism about everything that was going on — that we were going to get this thing done, and this guy was going to help us get it done. And I think people remained optimistic throughout those eight years, and Bill has continued to be phenomenally interesting. I never cease to get cards and birthday greetings from them, and I still have very good, solid friendship with the Clintons. It’s a wonderful thing.
Considering all your past political activism, it must be heartbreaking for someone who was on the frontlines in the ‘60s and ‘70s, who saw abortion become legalized and other progress, to now witness what sometimes feels like a regression of your generation’s work.
There’s a lot of regression on a lot of levels, for a lot of issues — not just women’s health, but also the health of the world. I mean, you can start by looking at the lack of gun control. … The gun control issue is insane, and the behavior of many people in the world is insane. Part of the planet is crazy. Of course, you have to understand, being on this planet, that you keep having to do it again. You have to do what you did before, again and again and again. It shouldn’t be a surprise, because if you read history, if you look back at what’s gone on in the world, you see that nobody learns very fast and they never learn permanently. It’s as though the brain can’t handle a permanent case of success; it has to poke around.
Do you feel the need to write or sing political songs these days — new protest songs?
It all depends how good it is. … It’s hard to write a protest song. But I think “Dreamers” is maybe the best song I’ve ever written. It’s one of the extra songs on the vinyl of Spellbound, and it’s about the DACA situation, the Dreamers. I think it’s the most powerful song I’ve ever written, in terms of politics. … It may be the closest thing that I’ve written to “Deportees,” Woody [Guthrie’s] great song about immigration.
Do you ever feel any disillusionment after coming up in a time when people believed music could change the world — believed music was changing the world? How do you feel about where the planet is now, in terms of art and politics?
Well, the human condition needs art. We need art to live, to stay on the planet. We need music, we need painting, we need poetry. We need it like life’s blood. And when I’ve got two hours singing in a place where nobody can really leave, nobody can get on the phone, nobody can talk to their neighbors, and they’re really listening, those people are absorbing something that we all need — which is peace and quiet and a time of reflection. That’s what the arts and entertainment are about: They’re there to give the person a break from the planet. And that’s enough for me to say, “Oh, good, I could keep doing this until I fall over” — which is exactly what I’m going to do. I can’t imagine living without it.