In Conversation with Judy Collins

On October 30, 2013, Jonathan sat down with acclaimed recording artist and activist, Judy Collins, to talk about her life and career. She concluded the evening by leading the audience in a rousing rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Below are his introductory remarks. Video of this event will be available shortly.

Judy Collins

October 30, 2013

Good evening.  I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute and it is my pleasure to welcome you to a very special evening.  Many of you have been here before to enjoy book discussions like Bruce Katz’s Metropolitan Revolution, hear world leaders like former Prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno Ocampo, or talk presidential politics during our conference entitled Ike Reconsidered, Lessons from the Eisenhower Legacy for the 21st Century. 

Tonight is different.  I have long wanted to have a series of conversations with the most interesting people I know personally.  Ed Koch was my first guest, followed by former MoMA President Agnes Gund, Vartan Gregorian of the Carnegie Foundation, James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio, and more recently, Harvard Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot.

Tonight is extra special for me.  My guest is Judy Collins, my good friend whose music touches my soul like no other.  I was introduced to her music by my good friends Art and Chris Singer, who bought me Judy’s album Wildflowers as a house warming gift when I was working at Yale in the late 1960’s.  From the very first time I heard her I was captivated and have followed her career ever since, right up to the Carlyle earlier this month.

As I faced my 17th and final commencement as President of the New School in 1999 I was anxious about how I could get through that emotional moment.  I asked myself what would ease the pain of separation, lift my spirits, give me strength to say goodbye to an institution I loved.  The answer: to walk down the aisle of the Riverside Church, where commencement was held, for the last time with Judy Collins singing Amazing Grace behind me.  So I asked her and was amazed with a quick yes.

The trustees then decided to confer upon her an honorary doctorate.  The citation I read said, in part, “Yours is artistry with a clear moral compass and through the alchemy of your art that compass is embedded in our memories – and our aspirations – as an inescapable measure of our progress.”  The occasion was magical and our friendship began that day and expanded to include Cynthia and Louis as we discovered we had weekend houses near each other in Connecticut.  So we have a lot to talk about.

We think of Judy as a talented artist whose music has enriched our lives, raised our sights, fired our determination to build a more just and humane world at peace.  But she is also a gifted writer of several memoirs, a novel entitled Shameless, and a reflection that helps us through challenging times, The Seven T’s: Finding Hope and Healing in the Wake of Tragedy.”  I highly recommend her most recent memoir, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes.


It tells the story of her life from her birthplace in Seattle to Denver where she grew up and made her debut as a classical pianist, to her embrace of folk music here in the 1960’s, at Gerdes,  The Village Gate and other places we remember.  Along the way we appreciate the challenges she faced, polio at age 11, T.B. in 1962, battles with alcohol addiction and the loss of her only child, Clark. The honesty with which she has chosen to share her pain and her happiness is a gift to her audience, bringing them closer to the deeper inspirations for her art. Her songs are a living chronicle of the heartache and joy of the human condition, of once being lost and then being found.

And as she faced these challenges her career took off, the first of thirty-eight albums, A Maid of Constant Sorrow in 1961, thirteen singles on the charts from “Both Sides Now” to “Turn Turn Turn”and “Someday Soon.”  Judy was at the epicenter of the people who made the music we grew up with, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and more. A Grammy in 1968, six academy award nominations for a documentary about her classical music instructor and other awards followed.

At a Carnegie Hall memorial concert for Woody Guthrie in 1968, she shared the stage with Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens and others. Imagine the energy in that room. One of the songs played that night was Woody Guthrie’s “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt.”

…”don’t hang your head and cry;

His mortal clay is laid away, but his good work fills the sky;

This world was lucky to see him born”

 I think Eleanor and Franklin would be pleased that Judy Collins is in their home tonight.

Judy’s music and personal courage inspired our generation to oppose racism, resist the Viet Nam war, press for a ban on landmines and fight for women’s rights and social justice.  She has traveled the world for UNICEF to see firsthand the devastation of the war in Bosnia and Croatia and has advocated for support for Vietnamese children affected by the war.

There is much more to be said but let’s bring that out in our conversation.  We will talk for about thirty minutes and then open up to your questions. And after the program, Judy will be upstairs to autograph CD’s and DVD’s.

Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Judy Collins.

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