Retirement not in the cards for Judy Collins

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MANCHESTER — Judy Collins can quantify her storied music career any number of ways: Eighty years of age, 60-odd years in the music business, 50 albums, countless shows at venues from small clubs to symphony halls, numerous awards, and one amazing voice. Her life story is long and fascinating, and a single newspaper article can't do it justice.

But Collins' journey, as a working musician, an author and an activist, is far from finished. And it will bring her to Southern Vermont Arts Center on July 21, for a performance at the Arkell Pavilion.

Slow down? Not Collins, who has released four albums in the past five years. They include a collection of duets ("Strangers Again"), an album of Stephen Sondheim standards, a folk album with Ari Hest ("Silver Skies Blue"), which netted a Grammy nomination, and an album and lengthy tour with Stephen Stills ("Everybody Knows").

What keeps her going? She doesn't overcomplicate it.

"I'm supposed to be doing this," she told Southern Vermont Landscapes in a phone interview. "When you find out what you're supposed to be doing and do it, how can you not be happy?"

Consider this: Collins, born in 1939, was performing Mozart piano concertos on stage by the age of 13 before pursuing a career in folk music. Never mind the young artists in the current Top 40; it's quite possible that those artists' parents hadn't been born when she recorded her first album, "A Maid of Constant Sorrow," in 1961.

If Collins' description of a recent show in Colorado is a hint, the audience at Arkell Pavilion can

expect a selection of favorites from Collins' vast back catalog, as well as some new songs. "I'm preparing to do an album of my own songs. So we have to take them out," she said.

One of those newer songs, "Dreamers," is about a woman who "crossed the burning border" to America to work in the fields and provide a better life for her family, but is now afraid her daughter will be deported.

Collins recorded "Dreamers" last year, and its message is delivered as a mother's plea, rather than as a diatribe or a polemic:

But will you send her back now

To live in fear and terror

She is our only daughter

Whose dreams have been our vow

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We worked to pay our way here

We gave our youth and promise

And in return you force us

To go back to the wall

Collins recorded and has

performed the song a cappella, and like other songs she has performed without instrumental accompaniment — such as "Amazing Grace" and "Farewell to Tarwathie" — there's nothing standing in the way of her powerful voice.

"It's always the climate," Collins said of how current affairs have influenced her songwriting over a long career. "You always write in the present tense about what's going on in the world. ... And if you're lucky and stick to it, you may succeed. There's no secret to it — it's hard work."

What have time and experience taught Collins about her craft?

First and foremost, there's her singing voice. Reviewers who commented on her album and tour with Stills, in 2017 and 2018, noted that the instrument that first won her wide acclaim in the 1960s was still in excellent form.

There's no secret formula, Collins said.

"Good health, not drinking, not smoking, not screaming. Knowing how to warm up," she said. "And studying with a great teacher certainly didn't hurt."

And when it's time to sing the hits that audiences expect each and every night, such as Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" and the late Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where The Time Goes," there's only one way to perform those songs, Collins said.

"You sing them as if it was the first time every time," she said. "When you have to do that to make a living, they've always got to sound like they're brand new."

Greg Sukiennik is editor of Southern Vermont Landscapes. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.


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