In her 2012 memoir, “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music,” Judy Collins whimsically refers to the era of her emergence as “the great folk scare.” In the 1960s, on the heels of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and The Weavers, a flood of folk artists broke into the musical mainstream. A partial list includes Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Peter Paul and Mary, and Simon and Garfunkel.
Collins joined the folk music wave at age 22 with the 1961 release of her debut album, “Maid of Constant Sorrow.” Her success was amplified with her Grammy-winning performance of Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” in 1967. In all, she has recorded 36 studio albums, seven live performances and 11 compilations. Her most recent album is the just-released “Silver Skies Blue,” a collection of duets with singer-songwriter Ari Hest.
On the phone from her home in New York City earlier this month, Collins talked about the popularity of folk music and its relation to the events and culture of the 1960s. “It was a breakout on a musical level and a social level and a creative and intellectual level,” she said. “I tuned in last night to this folk thing on PBS where they’re selling this 400-song folk music set. I said, oh, that’s interesting.
“Then I heard my own voice talking about it, about the ‘60s and about the music. The last thing that I said was that the songs were literate. There was literature coming through. It wasn’t just emotions, they were short stories, they were metaphors, they were portraits within the context of some guy playing the guitar in some coffee house. It didn’t take 400 people and an orchestra to get something done.
“We became the news of the day. People were coming to hear us because they were going to hear about the heart, the head, the government, the war. They were going to hear about all the things that were on their minds that they were talking about around the kitchen table.
“It ran the entire gambit of human experience. I don’t know why we had to call it folk music except that we were playing guitars, we were not singing with orchestras, and our songs delved deeply into the human experience. That’s what made it so remarkably poignant and powerful. As a part of it, in the middle of it, I knew the power of the songs that were going on around me.”
While Baez was widely regarded as the most political of the successful female folk artists, Collins was an activist in her own right.
“I was in a hot bed of liberals in my high school and in my life,” she said. “My father was a hot-headed liberal radio man who was willing to talk about everything on the radio. We were coming out of the fog in the country. We were learning about the world. We were learning about ourselves. In part it was the war. And Kennedy had been killed. That blew it open, I think. It was political, it was social.
“The background for all of this is the broadside sheet and the troubadour, the person who is the public advocate, the advocacy poet from the English countryside who goes out with the news and who stands in the middle of the square, just like they still do in speaker’s corner in Hyde Park.
“They’re telling the news about what’s going on in the country, in the culture, in the political situation. We could hear that, and I think people just took to the streets and to the guitar shops and bought themselves guitars and learned to play like I did.”
In her sixth decade as a performing artist, Collins is still going strong.
“I do 120 shows a year,” she said. “I’m writing, performing, making TV specials, running a record label (Wildflower), writing books. I go all over the world singing to wonderful audiences. I have an incredible life as an artist. That’s where the hard work has taken me and that’s where I belong, in the center of this great folk scare.”