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On July 20, 2010 Judy Collins met with and Kerry Keane, Department Head for Christie’s Musical Instruments and Cathy Elkies, Head of Christie’s Iconic Sales in her Manhattan apartment to discuss the collection of instruments she would be offering with Christie’s.
Kerry Keane: These guitars were an integral part of your career for more than 40 years; can you tell us why you’re choosing to sell them now?
Judy Collins: I’ve had a wonderful experience with these guitars, but your focus changes. My interest is so much in songwriting and I use the piano so much for that now. The guitars are a representation of the past, but they’re also part of people’s history. And I think if other people have a chance to get to know them, and see them, and play them, and enjoy them, this would be something very exciting. It’s actually the folk process.
KK: How many guitars do you own?
I think probably about fifteen to twenty over the years, and then that’s probably not counting my early guitars. My first guitar was a National guitar with that big steel front. I have no idea where it landed in those chaotic early ‘60s because I must’ve gotten it when I was 15 or 16 years old. Paid a few bucks out of my babysitting money. The Guild was my first 12-string. And that was in the early ‘60s when I had probably heard some of these wonderful singers that were around the Village. They didn’t all play the 12-string, though. Tim Buckley came around New York and I heard his songs, and I adored the way that 12-string sounded. Also, Pete played the 12-string, Pete Seeger.
So when I recorded things like Turn, Turn, Turn, which I recorded in 1963, I was also working with Jim McGuinn, later known as Roger McGuinn who played the 12-string. So then I became intrigued and fascinated with the fact that you could make the whole thing sound like an orchestra. It sounded like bells and other instruments playing along with you. And I love that feeling with the 12-string. And I’ve more and more played the 12-string. I used to be a pretty good Travis picker. And when I was working with the 6-string, I got my first Martin probably in 1962 when I came to New York. I know I was playing a 6-string at Newport Festival, in 1963, so it must’ve been earlier than that. And I could just fingerpick like a whiz.
KK: When we view your collection now, it’s very much a grouping of guitars that a musician would own, and not so much a collection?
Oh, yes. They’re all for the purpose. I never collected for having them. I got some extra versions of the Judy Collins Signature Guitar from Martin, because I loved them so much, and I thought they were so beautiful. So I got a couple more 6-strings, and a couple more 12-strings, but I’m mostly playing the 12-string now, so I have the 6-strings for family.
KK: You began your musical training as a classical pianist. What drew you to the guitar?
The stories. The first songs that I heard on the radio,—well, I was fourteen or fifteen years old, so I guess it was ’54, ’55, ’53. And the first song I heard was called The Gypsy Rover, and it was from a movie called The Black Knight. And it was an Alan Ladd movie about King Arthur’s Round Table and the songs that they chose were traditional songs from English, Irish, Scottish tradition. And this version of The Gypsy Rover was so wonderful with guitars, banjos, and this great story about this girl who runs off with a gypsy and into the woods. And I was just mesmerized by this song. I had only heard things like it from my father, who sang a lot of Irish folk songs. He sang a lot of, I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen, and Danny Boy, and he and my godfather, Holden, used to do the Irish repertoire, and my father would play the piano, Holden would sing. Or my father and Holden would sing duets. Holden was a very fine singer. He sang with the Robert Shaw Chorale and he had his debut at Carnegie Hall. And so I was around a lot of that music, but I didn’t realize what it was because in conjunction with that, my father was singing the great American songbook. So I think that when I heard The Gypsy Rover, I was just floored. I thought, well this is it. And I convinced my father to rent me a guitar. He rented me this old National with seven jazz lessons, which I took one of and then abandoned. But that’s how it all started.
I fiddled around and I have been blessed with, or cursed with, a very good ear. So I can basically play anything you play me on the piano certainly. And the guitar, I just figured it out. And soon I had these calluses. You know, you have to work with your calluses, and put up with the bloody calluses. My father tried to learn the guitar, but of course he got calluses, and he couldn’t learn his Braille books anymore.
KK: Can you tell me why Martins are your guitar of choice?
I think it’s because the people I admired the most played Martins and the Martin sounded the best to me. I think Pete had a Martin 12-string. I met Pete Seeger in 1961 when I started recording in New York for Elektra, and also when Harold Leventhal became my manager. And Harold Leventhal managed the Weavers with Pete, and Freddie Hellerman, Ronnie Gilbert and others They all played 12-string or 6-string Martins and I admired them. If they weren’t playing those, they were playing banjo, and I never even dreamed of playing banjo because it wasn’t going to suit my voice. And talk about wild fingerpicking. I didn’t think I could handle that. But I admired those who played the Martin. It always had the sweetest tone and you can play anything on a Martin guitar. You can put gut strings on a Martin guitar and have it sound like a Spanish guitar. You can play 12-string and have it sound like Pete Seeger and The Bell of Rhymney. You can have a 6-string and play something like Turn, Turn, Turn, which I did in the early years.
KK: You are known for playing Dreadnought body guitars yet there is some imagery of you playing a smaller triple O size Martin. Can you tell us when you choose to play the smaller guitars?
Well, it’s usually because I am looking for that sweeter sound. There is a song that I recorded with Eric Weissberg. It’s called So Early in the Spring. It is the most beautiful duet of guitars that I’ve heard. The two guitars are just dancing along together, with the notes in harmony with each other. I guess because I already played Martin guitars I was invited to go down to the Martin Guitar Company in Nazareth, Pennsylvania to celebrate the opening of their new factory in 1964. There is a photograph of me and Tom Paxton standing on the loading dock playing and singing. I have on this little dress with a slip under it and my slip is showing, which I just love! I mean it’s so not ’60’s, you know? Who wore a dress with a slip playing a Martin guitar? Not Johnny Cash, not Maybell Carter, that’s for sure!!
KK: A 1939 Martin D-28 is considered one of the most coveted guitars among collectors and performers. Can you tell us how this guitar came into your possession?
I was always traveling with great guitarists like Eric Weissberg and Stephen Stills and they were both interested in instruments and collected them as Stephen still does. It was these two who convinced me to buy it. So then I had really found the 6-string that I played every time I performed for the next eight or ten years.
KK: Are there specific recordings that you remember making with the pre-war Martin?
I know the songs we did on Who Knows Where The Time Goes, I played a lot on that guitar. I also used it on Whales and Nightingales. Anything I recorded between ’68 and ’77, I would have used the old D-28. I love that guitar to this day. It is a beautiful, beautiful instrument.
Cathy Elkies: You’ve talked a lot about your early influences, and you’re still doing a lot of songwriting today. Who influences you now?
I go back and forth. On my latest album there’s a song by Amy Speace called, The Weight of the World. It’s one of the best anti-war songs that I’ve ever heard. And it has a real depth to it. So I’m always looking for new songwriters, but I’m also always sort of sifting through the past, too. Because there were songs that influenced me that I didn’t know influenced me. On the new album, there is a song that is a traditional song, which is in the Child Ballad Collections. And I had known if it for forty years, but I’d never sung it and I knew I would record it one of these days. I did get to it on this album.
I listen to a lot of songwriters and to a lot of songs. I’m always hunting. But the things that I wind up singing are often things that simply pop into my mind or into my life. I was practicing one day with my 12-string to go on at the Carlisle in October last year. And I suddenly remembered Ghost Riders In The Sky from my childhood. I mean, it came out in 1949, Vaughn Monroe and what a perfect song. So I began to sing it and play it. You know, that last line, “If you want to save your soul from hell, riding on a range, then cowboy, change your ways today! Or with us, you will ride, trying to catch that devil’s herd.” And I just fell in love with it again and got a great bunch of friends to sing on it. Jimmy Webb, Tom Paxton, Bob Neuwirth, and my brother, Denver, are singing and we had a great time doing that.
So, influences, they have an overtone of my own experience. I’m also singing Over The Rainbow, and I was born in 1939, the same year that the song came out. My mother always told me that I was named after Judy Garland and so it fit. It was time for me to sing the song, despite the hundreds, and probably thousands of versions of the song that exist. I also had a friendship with Yip Harbrook who wrote the song with Harold Arlen. He was always saying to me in the ‘70s when I recorded Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? of his, he said, you have to sing my other famous song. And I would always say no, it’s not time yet. So, songs drift in and out, and then because I have 50 years of recording, so many albums, there are many songs that I can pull forward, like, Anathea, which I recorded I think on my second album. The lyrics have to be right for me or I wouldn’t say them, wouldn’t sing them.
KK: There are two contemporary guitars we will be offering, the HD-35 6-string and the 12-string. Both of these instruments were made specifically for you by C.F. Martin and Company. Can you tell us how this project got started and what the process was like working with them?
Well to be most frank about this, it actually was synchronistic, as things often are in life, I had seen a recent piece about Stephen Stills, and his relationship with Martin. He had gone to the factory and working with Dick Boak he figured out everything from the size, the wood, the neck length, to what and were inlays would be like. Well, I was just a little jealous, that’s all! So I remembered my trip to Nazareth back in 1964 and that guitar I brought back with me then. So, I got to thinking I would call them and while I was thinking that Dick Boak of Martin called me! He said he was just thinking about me because Stephen had just been at the factory talking about his new guitars. He said “We have all been thinking about you because your picture’s in our anniversary book, showing you on the loading dock, playing the guitar.” That one with my slip showing! He said he would like to come and speak with me about making a Martin signature guitar for me.
He knew I played a D-35 12-string and wanted to tailor it to my needs. I was very excited. So we got together and talked and talked, and I visited Nazareth where we chose the wood and the idea for the pearl inlayed wildflower on the neck. That was Dick’s idea because Wildflower was the name of my record company. It took quite a while but when the first prototype came, I was thrilled and delighted. Dick decided to do a 6-string as well. I especially like what Martin does when they make a signature guitar for an artist. They ask the artist to choose a nonprofit that the royalties will be given to. In my case, I chose both Amnesty International and UNICEF. They are two of my favorites.
KK: Your social activism is well documented and you were an important voice for change in the last 50 years. How do you think music has played part in that change?
I think it plays a huge part. It does galvanize people and it does bring people together in a way that is hard to conceive of anything else really doing. You know, political rants without music are really no fun. I think that combination of activism and music always drew people together, and it always made people feel as though they could change things. Maybe they couldn’t change things immediately, but it helped in all the anti-war protests that I was involved with and still am. The idea that you always have to give back is fundamental. I think it’s just part of the fabric of being an entertainer, but being a folk singer makes you even more prone to that because you’re involved with an issue of social change overall.
We were part of something that was changing. It was very different in the ‘50s, politics and music came together and people had the scales fall from their eyes as it were. They were going to have to make the change. I think perhaps one of the most moving things I ever did was to go to Mississippi in the summer of 1964. I traveled briefly with Fannie Lou Hamer going into African-American neighborhoods, where people were terrified. You know people were dying, getting beaten up and brutalized. And she was such a powerful example. She would get people out of their houses, and sing “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” I gained a lot of strength from her, as well as feeling in some way that I was making a difference. The difference was made and the world is a different place today. I think that’s because of all the activism that was going on, and that is going on. You know, it never ends. There are so many issues today that beg for attention.