Search This Blog

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Remarkable Voice of Judy Collins, Master of the Modern Art Song

The Remarkable Voice of Judy Collins, Master of the Modern Art Song

By Professor Nathan Bernstein


It is a pleasure to introduce today’s guest writer, Professor Nathan Bernstein.  Many readers, who follow great singers and historical operatic recordings on Youtube, will certainly know our author, although not by his real name.  Many will have read the erudite and highly detailed comments of Professor Bernstein, whose Youtube pseudonym is ‘Meltzerboy,” and who signs himself as “Nate.”  In fact, Professor Bernstein possesses a truly formidable knowledge of old classical singers and equally antique recordings.  He and I have conversed often and over a long period of time on Youtube, and I confess that I have learned a lot in so doing!  We both share a particular love of two singers:  Amelita Galli-Curci, and—strange as it may at first seem—Judy Collins.  I believe it dawned on both of us at about the same that “folk singer” is simply an inadequate term to describe the amazing Judy Collins.  She is so much more than that—her music is both intellectual and sophisticated, and often easily on a par with the music of Schumann and Schubert.  She is in fact a master of the modern art song, and her presentations are superlative.  She possesses an extraordinary voice and certainly belongs in the company of the singers one finds on Great Opera Singers!    Edmund StAustell



     Those who experienced the era of social protest and revolution in the 1960's are no doubt familiar with the voice and singing of Judy Collins, one of the pioneer folk divas of that turbulent period in American history. Folk music, at least as it manifested itself in the United States, was inextricably linked to liberal and leftist causes, although, as Judy Collins' famous contemporary, Joan Baez, once stated, half her songs are a call to activism while the other half serve as a means of escape from the social and political injustices of the times.

     For myself, the first time I heard the voice of Judy Collins in performance was in the 1970's at an outdoor venue: to be exact, Manhattan's Central Park. I clearly remember eagerly waiting in line clutching my ticket, wondering how she would sound live as compared to her voice on records. With many singers, one's first live contact is slightly disappointing since, as most of you may know, modern recordings are the product of several takes, splicing, and many other technological marvels, all of which are designed to package an artist at her absolute best. Therefore, I had my doubts. But all at once I and others waiting on line were treated to the sound of Judy's voice as she was rehearsing a few lines of Leonard Cohen's song "Story of Isaac." My immediate thought was that her voice sounded stronger, fuller, and more beautiful than it had on recordings, and the ensuing concert only confirmed my initial impression.

     How best to describe the voice and singing style of Judy Collins? With respect to the voice itself, one might say it is nearly vibrato-less, silvery, and equalized in all its registers. There is no forcing of tone yet it can at all times be easily and clearly heard without any interfering fuzz. Further, the diction is impeccable and the singing is artistic in that it avoids cheap effects and reveals the musicality as well as musicianship of the singer.  Here is one of her most popular and best-loved songs, “Both Sides Now:”

Sophisticated lyrics and stunning vocalism!  A truly beautiful song, magisterially delivered!

     Judy Collins had originally studied classical piano (similar to opera singers such as Amelita Galli-Curci and Lily Pons) and indeed gave performances of Mozart and Rachmaninoff compositions in public when she was still in her teens. Her piano teacher was one of the first women conductors, Dr. Antonia Brico, about whom Judy later produced an award-nominated documentary. Moreover, Judy grew up in a musical household: her mother played the piano, while her blind father, Chuck Collins, was a well-known radio personality and performer who specialized in the songs of Rodgers and Hart. So how did Judy Collins gravitate from performing the classical piano compositions of Mozart, Debussy, Ravel, and Rachmaninoff, as well as Broadway tunes, to singing folk music?  There were probably several forces at work, but, according to her own testimony, when she first heard Jo Stafford singing "Barbara Allen" on the radio, she was instantly hooked. At the start, Judy Collins was a folksinger pure and simple, performing traditional Irish, Scottish, and English ballads as well as the music of "city" songwriters, such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, and several others. She was instrumental in popularizing the songs of Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, in particular, before either of them had record contracts or performed their own compositions on stage. Indeed, she was responsible for Leonard Cohen's career as a performer. In the late 1960's, she was led to her one and only voice teacher, Max Margulies, to whom she admits to owing her vocal prowess and longevity. It was Margulies who shaped her voice from one of a rough (but still beautiful) alto to that of a shimmering soprano with a nearly three-octave range. She worked tirelessly with Margulies on equalizing her registers from top to bottom, on that elusive element of all great singers called phrasing, and on what Margulies spoke of as "clarity."  It was the same method he instilled in the classical singers he taught and coached. Here is an absolute classic of phrasing and style, as well as brilliant musicality.  Written by Collins herself, the astonishing “My Father:”

     From that point on, Judy evolved into a chanteuse and song stylist, who would sing not only traditional folk music but Broadway show tunes, art songs of composers such as Ned Rorem, popular music, and songs that can legitimately be called art songs. My next selection is a personal favorite from Judy's earlier years as a balladeer, which she has been reintroducing in several of her concerts of late.  In the heart-breaking “Hills of Shiloh" one can hear the deeper alto quality of Judy's voice at the time:


     Apart from her professional acclaim as an accomplished singer and performer, Judy Collins has had more than her share of personal misfortune, including being stricken with polio as a child, a bout of tuberculosis in her twenties, bulimia, clinical depression, alcoholism for more than 20 years, divorce from her first husband, and the suicide of her son, her only child, at the age of 33. Through it all, however, she has managed to persevere with grace and dignity due, in large measure, to the healing power of her singing, performing, and writing in her journal. She has also become a spokesperson for suicide survivors and those who suffer from the disease of alcoholism.

Finally, a piece composed by Judy Collins called "Home Before Dark."











JD Hobbes said...

Thank you for the fascinating change of pace in your blog. What poignant music! It is easy for us who have been familiar for so long with this singer and her music that we take her for granted. But this article shows the true depth of her study, knowledge, background, vocal talent, and experience. Often the most painful lives produce the most remarkable art, and Judy Collins represents one of those lifetimes.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your prompt and thoughtful reading, Mr. Hobbes. You are such a faithful supporter of the blog, and your comments are excellent and to the point, and--I can assure you--very much appreciated. Yes, I absolutely agree. Prof. Bernstein has hit the nail on the head, so to speak, with this article. I absolutely agree with his portrayal and presentation of this astonishing artist, who is indeed an exemplar of the modern art song, which describes Collin's music precisely. Again, my Thanks.

Anonymous said...

This is quite amazing, Edmund! My thanks to Professor Bernstein. What a unique idea! While I never thought I would see Judy Collins here, what the professor says makes more sense the more I think about it! And what a nice selection of songs. I think the Hills of Shiloh is one of the best songs I ever heard. Very sad, but excellent! You never know what you're to find here! That's one of the things I like so much about this blog!

Martha J.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Why thank you very much, Martha! What a lovely comment, and I in turn thank you for your loyal readership and support. I agree with what you say. And yes, "Hills of Shiloh" is a heart-breaker if ever there was one. My own personal favorite is "My Father," which is right up with some of the best 19th century European art songs ever written!

Anonymous said...

My Father--such a powerful song. We all have memories of the dreams of our parents and grandparents--and the dreams we had for our children. Most never materialized. The message is: live your life. Don't put it off. Live your dreams and love those around you as never before. Life is but a moment.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you! And I certainly can understand your fascination with that song. It is also one of my great favorites. It is a classical composition in every sense of the word, and the lyrics, as you correctly indicate, are very moving and thought-provoking. Thank you for visiting Great Opera Singers, and please feel free to drop by at any time. You are always welcome here. I hope to see you again.

Jasper S. said...

There is great sadness in the Hills of Shiloh. Wars are terrible, but civil wars between countrymen and families are even worse. My Union great-grandfather was in Andersonville prison at the end of the war and returned to the north before he died. His wife was of a Maryland Confederate family. They are buried in different cemeteries. I wish I knew the story but I never will. The families are all dead now. But I hear the pain in this song.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much; a most interesting personalcomment and a testimony to the power and directness of Judy's music and singing. Much appreciated!

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Mr. Bernstein for the great article . I knew all mentioned performers (Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and many others) except for Judy Collins. Strangely, she is not well known in Russia, though she is a great artist. I listened to these songs , and it seems to me that her popularity is based not only on her beautiful voice , skills and intellect, but also on a rare quality , which can be defined as ‘spirituality’. Perhaps, this quality helped her to go through the misfortunes of her personal life without loosing her audience.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Большое спасибо, Наталья! Всегда приятно услышать от вас! I was going to ask you, actually, if Judy was known in Russia, Sorry to hear that you did not know her. She is enormously popular here in the States. You have touched on something very important, I think, when you refer to "spirituality." There certainly is something ephemeral, even transcendent, about her work that just might be well called spirituality. Yes, well said! Again, thanks so much for the comment!

JING said...

A lovely selection of songs and a charming and moving commentary from Professor Bernstein. And how interesting that he and Edmund arrived at so many of the same conclusions about Judy Collins as an artist of song – both in uncovering a deep beauty of many true folks songs, and as an singing artist in the broadest sense. I really appreciated the observations and information Professor Bernstein gave us, particularly about the extent of her vocal training. As he mentioned, she and Joan Baez were often paired and compared in the 60s and 70s, but listening to Judy again with what he wrote in mind, I can hear more clearly some real differences between them (though I was always a fan of both!). Such beauty of tone and delicacy and gentleness of phrasing. And what breath control, especially on Both Sides Now. I think it is fascinating that so many of the folk composers in that era turned to Judy Collins to record their work. I would be curious to hear anything you might add, Professor Bernstein, about her work and relationships with people like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or Leonard Cohen. I think now I am feeling nostalgic, and must be missing the vitality and creativity of that era. Thank you so much!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, my friend. What a lovely comment! I will wait until Prof. Bernstein has a chance to answer. Wonderful to hear from you, and let me take this opportunity to thank you again for the excellent, uniquely good article of yours on David Daniels' Oscar! Well done!

Nate said...

That quality of spirituality which "Anonymous" refers to in the voice and singing of Judy Collins is also apparent in the voice and singing of the great coloratura soprano, Amelita Galli-Curci. Despite their differences in style and material, they both evoke in the listener (at least in myself) a sense of the ethereal.

Anonymous said...

'I was going to ask you, actually, if Judy was known in Russia, Sorry to hear that you did not know her. She is enormously popular here in the States"

Rock music was strictly forbidden in the USSR, and the ban only increased people’s interest to the genre. Rock stars were known, folk singers were almost unknown.

Nate said...

In response to JING's comment, I think there is quite a difference between the singing of Joan Baez and that of Judy Collins. While I love Joan's voice and her style, I don't hear the same type of phrasing in her singing. Judy has more of a genuine, legato phrasing, while Joan often clips her phrases. The latter still often sounds beautiful and her singing is full of character, not to mention the distinct crystalline vibrato of her
tone, particularly in her earlier
years. However, Judy's phrasing is more on the mark to this listener.

Insofar as Collins'current work with the artists you mention: Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan, she is still in touch with Cohen and, so far as I know, Mitchell. I'm not sure what the extent of her present correspondence is with Dylan. Judy has also recently been performing with the gifted singer and songwriter, Don McLean, of "American Pie" fame, at several venues.

JING said...

Nate, thanks so much for your response. I think you nailed the differences between Joan Baez and Judy Collins perfectly. Your words “distinct crystalline vibrato” really capture what is unique about Joan’s tone, and she really does sing with great character. But Judy’s phrasing is so different in the very ways you suggest. Her years of serious musical study surely must account for that difference. For me there is a lot of edginess at times with Joan Baez (especially with some of Dylan’s songs), while with Judy even her ironies, while powerful, tend toward sadness and gentleness. And I appreciate the update on Judy’s old friends. It’s wonderful to imagine them getting together, as well as staying in touch. And her association with Don McLean is totally new to me. Thanks again – you’ve got me thinking in some new directions – including Galli-Curci.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Congratulations Edmund for getting the great YouTube commentator Nate (aka Meltzerboy) on board. Thank you for the great article. Can't comment because it's out of my specialty. Hope your blog can get more distinguished guest writers from YouTube and beyond.

Anonymous said...

Hi Edmund: You will get me obsessed with Judy Collins after the latest blog. I
have played your first and last selection multiple times. She has got
just the sweetest, clearest voice you can hear. And that life story!
Many thanks to your blogger.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Sally. Always good to hear from you. Hope all is well in Basel. Thank you very much for the comment; yes, I agree, the "sweetest, clearest voice...." Exactly! Thanks again, Edmund

Anthony Alfidi said...

Judy Collins was cute in her day and we need more attractive singers in the world. Opera's problem is that it makes stars out of people whom modern audiences find unacceptable: Opera must change to be relevant. That means singers must change.

Alex said...

Thank you for sharing your time, your knowledge and your wonderful blog!!! Thank you., More Blessings and *GOD BLESS*
Best Vocal Coach In Nashville Tn