Because she's generally the most accessible and least-regarded of the Three Js, with Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez ranked -- rightfully, I think -- in that order above her, it's easy to think of Judy Collins as belonging not among the rolls of our premier folk artists, but among those of folk's near periphery, where dwell the Don McLeans, the Ians and Sylvias, the Buffy Sainte-Maries.
Many lump her in with the Gordon Lightfoots (to draw the line perfectly straight), who rose with Big Folk without ever collecting scratchy archival discs or roughing it too hard on the coffeehouse circuit. But that's not the case; and in any event, there are fine and noble reasons for even the most canny-minded purist to keep artists such as McLean and Lightfoot in his frequent-play pile. Get me drinking some gloomy night and play "Vincent" or "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and I'll tell you all about it. Under the same lights, there are sound reasons to have a comprehensive Judy Collins collection to punt around the house -- perhaps especially if, having swallowed the McLean and Lightfoot proposition without a squeak, you still think you're too cool for her sort of thing (as I once did).
Let's stress again that her career has stronger roots than it might seem. As a teenager in the '50s, she played folk-protest in the coffeehouses, switching as the decade turned to material by Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan. In each case she was well ahead of the trend. Evidence suggests that she had at least one early collaboration with Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers, and she lent great support to the early careers of Roger McGuinn, Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, doing in many cases the first recorded versions of the songs that would later make them famous.
One could say, as the Stones once did, that what matters is the singer, not the song. And it's true that in those terms, even a casual apprehension of Collins' collected work suggests that she's, in essence, merely a middlebrow sentimentalist who arrived on the scene too early to become, say, Annie Haslam or Stevie Nicks (or Tori Amos), but too late to have any affinity for pop standards. One notices that her tone never varies between fiery protest songs and tender love ballads. It seems that she knows only small emotions and is puzzled by grander ones, or that war and love's losses are alike to her. The image of a field of dead sons fills her with the same emotion as that of a woman left waiting at home by her rodeo swain -- a sort of oceanic wistfulness, a generic pity. She's no first-water folkie, if for that alone. But Neil Diamond, for that matter, was a screaming phony as a guitar-slinging troubador. Mac Davis was a cleft chin masquerading as a lightly introspective balladeer. Collins is, at the very least, no conscious fraud -- and just as much as Diamond, what songs! What a voice!
There's no clearer soprano in popular music, nor is there a singer who can enunciate so crisply with so much warmth. She's able to throw down the occasional wild card, like the creepy vocal on Brecht/Weill's "Pirate Jenny" or the credible French of "La Chanson des Vieux Amants" or "Marat/Sade." These are spectacular, and worth a hundred deep listens. But mostly, the thing is just to sit back and let the Voice wash over you -- and to feel the shallow, lugubrious, penetrating sadness it carries as though it were your own. A teenage funk -- boundless from the inside, slightly comical from without. We all know it well.
Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," from "Wildflowers," and "Send in the Clowns," from "Judith," are the biggest hits. Often overlooked are "Chelsea Morning" from "Living," another Mitchell composition, and Cohen's "Suzanne," from "In My Life." The last is, I contend, a great album, and comes highly recommended.