Judy Collins was born in 1939 in Denver, Colorado, daughter of Chuck Collins, a blind, well-known radio personality in Denver and on the West Coast. He did a lot to encourage her early enthusiasm for music.
At the age of six, Judy began studying to be a concert pianist, practising over the years with an eight-hours-a-day dedication. While still young she played with the Denver Businessmen’s Symphony Orchestra.
Judy went to school in Jacksonville, Illinois, and eventually wound up back in Denver at the University of Colorado, still apparently set on a career as a pianist.
As folk clubs burgeoned at the end of the 1950s Judy turned her attention to folk music, and before long she had abandoned the idea of a career as a concert pianist.
She began singing regularly at folk clubs in Colorado, in particular, the Exodus Club in Denver where she played frequently between the autumn of 1959 and the spring of 1961.
From there she played in Chicago and then move off to New York where she appeared quite often at the Monday night folk ‘hoots’ at Gerde’s Folk City club.
After some time in the club, Judy was offered a recording contract and released her first LP, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, in 1961 – an album of traditional songs like Wild Mountain Thyme, John Riley and I Know Where I’m Going. A second album in a similar vein followed but by 1963 she was developing an interest in contemporary songwriters.
Her third album featured these writers, songs of protest sung with an enraged conviction, with words that harked back to the immediate past, to the Cuban Missile Crisis of the previous year. Songs like Bob Dylan‘s Masters Of War and Tim Rose’s Come Away Belinda.
The fourth and fifth albums continued in the same direction, containing songs by Paxton, Fred Neil, and more by Dylan.
In 1964 she toured the South singing for the voter registration drive with Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and others. She performed at anti-Vietnam rallies and anti-draft rallies with her clear voice and acoustic guitar.
Between 1966 and 1968 Judy made three albums which were revolutionary – In My Life, Wildflowers and Who Knows Where The Time Goes. Musically they were far more sophisticated than anything she had done before, without the loss of the passionate commitment shown on the earlier recordings.
Judy didn’t record again for three years and, when she did, she favoured the piano once more and emerged as a strong songwriter in her own right.
But the track that floored everyone on its original release – and still sounds extraordinary – is her heart-stopping treatment of traditional whaling song Farewell To Tarwathie, set to the chilling accompaniment of endangered humpback whales, instantly turning into both protest song and a pre-new age celebration of nature which is simply stunning.