As musician couplings go, the romantic tenure of singer/songwriters Stephen Stills and Judy Collins was fairly brief – less than two years in the late ‘60s, as both of their careers were in sharp ascension. She as a folksinger and he about to launch Crosby, Stills and Nash. Though their time together was the inspiration for not only one of classic rock’s greatest songs, but a highpoint of the musician/muse canon with the Stills-penned “Suite: Judy Blues Eyes” on CSN’s debut record.
“He was possibly the most attractive man I had ever seen,” Collins wrote of their initial 1968 meeting in her most recent memoir, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes. “His eyes found mine, and we gazed at each other, transfixed. I knew then that he would change my life.”
But while their romance didn’t last, their friendship has, and fans of both were treated to last year’s collaborative record Stills & Collins along with a full band concert tour. The trek found them playing their respective hits as well as exploring the nooks and crannies of their catalogs. It went so well both between them and their audience, Stills and Collins decided to extend their bookings.
“It’s been great right from the beginning. I think we knew when we started out that we’d be on the road again because it was so successful,” Collins says – fittingly – while on the road making her way toward Houston. “Everything was selling out and we had such a good time.”
Judy Collins has had more than enough hits to fill out a CD, though her best known songs have tended to be interpretations of folk standards and covers like “Both Sides Now” (Joni Mitchell), “Send in the Clowns” (Stephen Sondheim), “Cook with Honey” (Valerie Carter), “Someday Soon” (Ian Tyson) and the standard “Amazing Grace.” She was well into her career when she was both challenged and encouraged to write her own material from an interesting source: Leonard Cohen.
“After I recorded his song ‘Suzanne,’ we became very close. He was always sending me things to record, but he told me ‘I just don’t understand why you’re not writing your own songs,’” Collins recollects. “I didn’t have an answer for him because frankly, I had never thought of it. So I just started writing. And that’s how you get hooked! But you can’t know what you know until you know it!” Collins’ own originals would include “Since You Asked,” “My Father,” “Holly Ann,” and “Secret Gardens.” A version of Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” is indeed a highlight of Stills & Collins.
Released in 2017, Stills & Collins is the epitome of a comfort record, a sonic journey of two old friends exploring familiar tunes that have more than a little to say about their own relationship, past and present. Its ten track include covers (Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe,” Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care”), reinterpretations of their own previously-recorded songs (“So Begins the Task” and “Questions” from Stills, “River of Gold and “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” from Collins).
There’s even material they wrote about each other (Collins’ “Houses,” and Stills’ “Judy”). The latter is a lost tune that Collins didn’t even know existed until the 2007 release of Just Roll Tape, an off-the-cuff studio performance that Stills cut solo in 1968 after guesting on a Collins session.
As to why the record didn’t include any new, original collaborations, Collins laughs. “It’s hard enough just to get on the road to do the shows! And [writing new songs] is a big commitment.” While they are keeping a chunk of their set list the same from the previous tour, Collins notes they’ve also added “You Don’t Have to Cry,” “The Highwaymen,” Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” and a new song that Collins has written called “Dreamers,” a very topical tune about the children of illegal immigrants in this country.
That’s nothing new for Judy Collins, whose resume of fighting for liberal and progressive political and social causes is long. She participated in many concerts and protests against the Vietnam War, fought for women’s issues, and even testified in the trial of the Chicago Seven.
But perhaps the cause that made the most impact on her was when she traveled to Mississippi during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964 to try and register residents in mostly poor black neighborhoods to vote. A summer that, unfortunately, resulted in the murder of three young student activists by men with ties to both the local sheriff’s department and the Ku Klux Klan.
In Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, Collins recalls with awe traveling with activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer’s preferred method to get her message out would be to stand in a neighborhood street singing spirituals as the top of her lungs until doors and windows opened and curious residents would gather around her. It was then that she would go into her pitch and discuss the importance of voter registration and actually voting to a sometimes fearful community.
Collins was sometimes the only white face to be seen. “It was very real, I’ll tell you that!” she says today. “It was scary because we were there when the three kids were murdered, and everyone knew they’d been murdered by racists. It was not an easy trip.”
Back to the recent tour, she says that Stills is continuing to surprise her by telling her just how many of his songs she directly inspired – including “You Don’t Have to Cry,” which he revealed to her only recently. But none will every top the importance and impact of “Suite: Judy Blues Eyes” with its “do do do do do” chorus and several movements.
As Collins offered in her book, she still has a gut reaction to hearing it, even after the thousands of listenings over decades. “Whenever I hear the song – in a grocery store, in an airport, on my own CD player – it resounds like a call from mystic lakes,” she wrote. “It pierces the heart of this girl and all the other grown-up girls who think it tells their story.”
Asked about it today, she says the appeal (even beyond her subjectivity) is plain: it’s just a damn great song.
“I think everybody feels that way about it!” she laughs. “I think that’s why it plays all the time on the radio!”
A version of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.