Judy Collins reinvents ‘Amazing Grace’ with the help of a Global Virtual Choir

Judy Collins interview

JUDY COLLINS

Judy Collins has connected deeply with many of us for so long. With her clear, silken voice, imaginative interpretive singing, unmatched stylistic range and intimate, poetic original songs, “legend” seems like an apt label.

Raised in Seattle and Denver, she has, for many years, been a resident of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where she now lives with her husband, industrial designer and graphic artist Louis Nelson. During lockdown, she has put together an international global chorus — which she called a Global Virtual Choir — for a powerful new rendition of the anthemic song, “Amazing Grace.”

We have included the song in NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series, featuring songs relevant to the coronavirus crisis, because it can serve as an emotional bridge, connecting us while we try to adjust to our dystopian lives and emerge with renewed purpose and deeper connections to humanity.

Collins has long used music as a force to heal, effect change and develop community. She continues this tradition with the new “Amazing Grace,” which was released on the Elektra label in May, with proceeds going to the World Health Organization Response Fund. See the breathtaking video below, as well as a message about the project from Collins’ friend, Ringo Starr.

Collins has recorded 55 albums — and survived a male-dominated music industry, a rigorous touring schedule and the perils of life — aided by her huge reserves of energy and discipline.

Since her start in 1961 with her debut album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, she has remained prolific and positive, and a champion of new talent. Though venues and stages remain closed, she remains at the center of creating change through music.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Judy several times over the past 10 years, and every time has been a musical career highlight for me,” said James Mastro of The Bongos and Ian Hunter’s Rant Band. “She brings so much to every performance, and is a class act all the way. The legend status is well-deserved. They just don’t make them like this anymore.”

The cover of Judy Collins’ original “Amazing Grace” single.

‘AMAZING’ TALE

Written in 1772 by Anglican clergyman John Newton as a Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace” recounts his transformation from a man without faith to a writer of hymns. Whether you interpret the song through a secular or religious lens, the themes of forgiveness and redemption are universal.

Newton served as captain of a ship, transporting enslaved people, when he wrote “Amazing Grace.” After a storm at sea, he experienced a spiritual awakening and embraced Christianity; years later, he supported the abolition of slavery. The hymn was used by preachers and abolitionists until Collins, with her indomitable spirit and gorgeous voice, made it popular, first, in folk circles, and then all over the world.

Many of us rely upon it to lift our spirits during times of trouble, and Collins does, too. She said in our recent interview that it helped her sustain sobriety when her son from her first marriage, Clark Taylor — who battled depression and addiction — committed suicide in 1992. “Amazing Grace” resonates for Collins over the years as a calming song during wartime and personal struggle, and as an expression of hope, healing, freedom and spiritual transformation.

Fifty years ago, Collins recorded her spectacular original rendition of the song with some friends at St. Paul’s Chapel on the campus of Columbia University. She released it on her 1970 album, Whales & Nightingales. (see video below), with the backdrop of the Vietnam War raging and the national disgrace of segregation and racial inequality.

“I sang it in an encounter group one night and my producer was there and he said we have to record it tomorrow. And so that’s what we did,” Collins said. “I was thrilled to do it.

“In those days … my producer and Elektra Records and I would look for beautiful venues to record in. There was a way in which we felt we needed to get a certain kind of sound, so we’d rent Carnegie Hall and record there, and rent a church and record there.

“When we found the St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University campus and we went to see it one night, I stood in the middle of this gorgeous chapel and sang, and we all said, ‘Ah, this is the place where we have to record “Amazing Grace,” ‘ which we did.”

She recorded the song with “a small group of friends and nice recording equipment, which was brought in by my engineer, but we didn’t expect much. We had a wonderful time doing it. It sounded great. It was delicious to be there in that chapel on the Columbia campus where so many good things happen in New York. We walked away and thought that was nice, and then suddenly when the album came out … the first thing the DJs pulled from the recording was my version of ‘Amazing Grace,’ so it started to get played here, and then it went crazy in the U.K. I think it was on the charts for 70 weeks straight or something like that.

“The record company was just flabbergasted. They said, ‘How did this happen?’ An old 400-years-old hymn being sung a cappella by a group of nonprofessionals — except me, of course.”

I asked Collins why the song has endured, and captivated so many lost souls.

“Well that’s a mystery,” she said. “It was said that John Newton, after he had a spiritual experience and got his brains back and realized he was a criminal, that he had to work for abolition instead of supporting the slave trade … I’m sure that’s part of why the song is so powerful. He originally sang it at one of the church gatherings in the town (Olney, England) that he was living in and writing hymns in. I think it was the first thing he wrote to cheer up the people that were desperately hungry and needed solace and were being battered about by the English government, so he wrote it as a healing musical entity, so I think that’s the way it always worked.”

I suggested that she take credit for the song’s ubiquity. “That’s what (writer) Steve Turner told me,” she said, then explained: “I didn’t know anything about John Newton when I recorded the song and it wasn’t until a few years later when I was sent a copy of Steve Turner’s book (‘Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song’) … he’s an Englishman, and he sent me a manuscript with a letter attached to it and he said, ‘I want you to write the introduction to this book because you just recorded “Amazing Grace” and you rescued it from the dark shadows of history because nobody was singing it.’ It was dropping out of the hymn book. I didn’t know any of that at all … He said, ‘Your version has now promoted everyone to start playing it, including the Scottish Pipers.’ ”

JUDY COLLINS

MESSAGE OF HOPE

It is hard to imagine that Collins’ otherworldly and angelic version of “Amazing Grace” could be successfully reimagined. But it has been. Collins created a rich and bold masterpiece by joining her voice with choirs from different countries, including South Africa, India, Luxembourg and the United States. Collins’ friend, the actor Alan Cumming, and musicians Steve Earle, Dar Williams, Tom Chapin, Rachael Sage, Mandolin Orange, Madeleine Peyroux and others also joined the more than 1,000 voices on this recording, as Collins led them in singing:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
We have already come
‘Twas grace that brought us safe thus far
And grace will lead us home

The spiritual transformation expressed in the song resonates now, when we have to sacrifice our personal freedom to flatten the curve and save lives. This is a moment when we need to define ourselves as a nation and — despite our narcissistic, science-denying leadership — follow the path of justice, both in response to the coronavirus epidemic and systemic racism.

My neighbors in Montclair celebrate “Amazing Grace” by gathering on our block, most nights, to sing it in a circle — socially distanced, pausing for a moment to show gratitude and remember souls lost to the virus. Children among us request it, which is living proof that the song endures.

Collins ends most of her concerts with it. “I have for years, because everybody feels so happy,” she said.

There’s something magical about the exchange. After her son’s death, the song helped her heal. “It was very important to sing it in those years,” she said.

When lockdown was announced in London, places of worships were closed and priest Pat Allerton of St. Peter’s Church in Notting Hill responded by travelling around London with loudspeakers and a microphone to lead a sermon. He amplified his message of healing by playing a recording of Collins’ “Amazing Grace.” His visit in April to London’s Charing Cross Hospital prompted an unprecedented response when a video of his sermon attracted more than five million views.

Collins watched the video, and together with Elektra and her manager Katherine DePaul, decided to launch this global effort.

Once they decided to re-release the song, they agreed to “do an international choral version and let’s have everyone from around the world sing on the chorus,” Collins said.

“I sat here in my dining room and made 30 zoom recordings of me talking — an invitation to 30 countries in the world — naming their famous choirs and asking if any of them would be interested in joining me … we would pay the proceeds to world health … I think this probably happened when we were locked down in March. I think I saw (the video) in the first weeks of April … and by May 29 they released this viral choir with over 1,000 people singing … and individual guests.

“One of the first people I called was Alan Cummings, who is a friend of mine. I had just seen him in London in the Beckett play ‘Endgame.’ I love him. He sang in the choir. It was an amazing experience.”

JUDY COLLINS

STRUGGLES OF THE ’60S

“Amazing Grace” has followed Collins throughout her life. She first heard it as a youngster from her grandmother, and later from the brave and impactful Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party.

“I sang it in Mississippi with the voter registration (campaign) and sang it with Fannie Lou Hamer, traveling from Drew to Ruleville to Greenville to Jackson,” Collins said. She observed the emotional impact the song had on all involved, and thought it was a powerful tool to create peace.

As an opponent of the Vietnam War, a supporter of voting rights and civil rights and an opponent of segregation, Collins marched with Hamer during the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964, a volunteer campaign to register African-American voters. During this project many people were arrested and beaten, churches were bombed or burned, and people were murdered for their involvement.

Collins recalled her attempt to sing another iconic protest song — Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” — at the 1969 trial of anti-war activists (known as the Chicago Seven) including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden and David Dellinger. The group was charged by the federal government with inciting to riot and other charges related to anti-Vietnam War protests in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Defense counsel William Kunstler, along with Leonard Weinglass, requested that Collins sing the song from the witness stand.

“I was shut up (by presiding judge Julius Hoffman), but I was glad to be there,” said Collins.

Criminal defense lawyer Ron Kuby, Kunstler’s colleague of 12 years and close friend, said “Judge Hoffman’s refusal to allow Judy Collins to sing ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ in court during the trial … summed up for Bill Kunstler the entire trial — the attempt to crush all of the protest, art and music of the vibrant youth counter-culture and replace it with prose and legalisms. Looking back at those times, I note that Collins has spent her long and wonderful lifetime as an activist for social justice and Kunstler went to his grave as a stalwart defender of the downtrodden … Judge Hoffman and the prosecutors exist only as a cautionary tale of what happens when you are on the wrong side of history.”

Collins spoke about the importance of being on the right side of history during the pandemic by acting responsibly and looking after your neighbors.

“It’s historic,” she said. “This is something we are living through which is history-changing. It’s changing the world in a manner that is profound and inexplicable and at many times horrible because of the deaths it’s causing, but on the other hand it’s breaking down the barriers of prejudice and resistance to change … and of course that’s what it’s for, if you look at it as a spiritual lesson … we are powerless to do anything, but to be good citizens and wear our masks, keep locked down and, while we are at it, do something useful.”

Her time has been eased by sharing it with Nelson, who she met at a fundraiser for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978. (Collins has showed up over the years to support gender equality and reproductive rights. Listen to her song “Mama Mama,” about abortion, from her 1982 album Times of Our Lives.)

The got married in 1996 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, with guests including Gloria Steinem and other female leaders. Collins considers her time with Nelson during lockdown “wonderful.”

The cover of Judy Collins’ “In My Life” album.

IN HER LIFE

A prodigious songwriter and author, Collins has sung and written about love, loss, the passage of time, depression, addiction, eating disorders and suicide, lending her voice to profound struggles.

She has supported and honored other artists by singing their songs, paving their way for stardom. Her 1966 album In My Life catapulted her beyond traditional folk music, and her covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag” introduced his music to many people. Later she was credited with convincing him to perform in front of an audience.

In My Life‘s “Marat/Sade,” a suite of songs from the acclaimed 1964 play, demonstrates her eclectic and literary tastes and commitment to finding great songs from a variety of sources. She also sang material by The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Donovan, Randy Newman and Richard Fariña on this breakthrough album.

She featured her dreamy version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” on her 1967 album Wildflowers, as well as Mitchell’s “Michael From Mountains” and Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.”

Her 1968 album Who Knows Where the Time Goes showcased Ian Tyson’s unforgettable “Someday Soon” which puts me back in my dad’s convertible, standing in the back seat as a young girl, feeling free in the era when seatbelts were not required. It was a less regulated time, for sure.

The cover of Judy Collins’ “Judith” album.

In addition, Collins interpreted songs such as Robin Williamson’s “First Boy I Loved” and Sandy Denny’s staggeringly beautiful “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” and her dramatic and stirring rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s ballad “Send in the Clowns,” from her 1975 album Judith, led to Sondheim’s “Song of the Year” Grammy, and serves as another example of her depth and range.

Richard Thompson, Denny’s Fairport Convention bandmate, spoke with me about Collins’ role as a cultural tastemaker and supporter of Denny. “I’ve met her a couple of times over the last 50 years! Very nice, very smart woman,” he said. “From back in the ’60s, she always found the best material, and championed young writers like Leonard Cohen. She started out a folk singer, but can sing anything from ‘Marat/Sade’ to Sondheim.”

He added: “I’m not surprised she found Sandy’s song. It’s a great one, and has endured. Judy’s version gave Sandy a lot of confidence as a writer.”

I made Collins aware of Denny’s sentiments and she said, “oh my … well, it came into our lives by a messenger who drove up to the studio in L.A. We were finished making the album, we were done and we were mixing it. It was ready to put to bed and this guy on a motorcycle pulls up in front of Elektra, rushed into the offices of my producer, threw this tape onto his table and said, ‘You have to hear this …’ And we heard it and we said, ‘Of course, we have to record it.’

“Then I became friendly with Sandy. She died young, I know, and she and I drank together. We were neck and neck, drinking in London and here in New York and I adored her.”

The melancholy and contemplative mood Collins creates makes me hang on every word as she sings:

Sad deserted shore, your fickle friends are leavin’,
Ah, but then you know it’s time for them to go,
But I will still be here,
I have no thought of leaving
I do not count the time
Who knows where the time goes?

The cover of the album “Silver Skies Blue,” by Judy Collins and Ari Hest.

STILL SEARCHING

As we age, the passage of time is perplexing, and some of us feel left behind. One way to stay relevant is through collaborative work with younger folks. Collins has followed that path. She has supported, for instance, singer-songwriter Ari Hest, whom she first met when he opened for her.

“I loved working with Ari,” Collins said. “I loved writing together and just being together and we are good friends now, too. That was exciting. I’ve been lucky because I’ve sung with a lot of people. I mean, I have sung a lot of people’s songs, which is the real secret of getting to know somebody.”

In 2015, Collins released a duets album, Strangers Again, featuring Hest on the title track (see below), which he wrote. She also included his song “The Fire” on her 2014 album Live in Ireland.

In 2016, Collins released the Grammy-nominated Silver Skies Blue with Hest. It marked the first time she collaborated for an entire album in her remarkable career.

The lyrics of their title track remind me of the comfort Collins describes in sheltering in place with her husband:

When the light uncovers you
I will sing a morning song
like a sparrow in an oak tree
till the dreams say ‘So long.’
You will turn around to see me,
lying eager next to you.
I’ll color your silver skies blue.
… when the noise is all that’s there
in your poor embattled mind,

I will touch you on the heart,
so your body you can find.

Stephen Stills and Judy Collins in 2017.

Collins provided the inspiration for Crosby, Stills & Nash’s 1969 epic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (one of my favorites), about her romance with Stephen Stills. In 2017, she and Stills released an album together titled Everybody Knows.

She has written seven books, starting with “Trust Your Heart: An Autobiography,” in 1987. Her most recent one, “Cravings: How I Conquered Food,” came out in 2017.

Her albums keep coming, too. Most most recent release was last year’s Winter Stories, a collaboration with Norwegian singer Jonas Fjeld and bluegrass band Chatham County Line.

I’m captivated by her intimate, honest and emotive original material, including “My Father,” “Since You Asked,” “Secret Gardens” and, more recently, “Dreamers,” a gorgeous song about immigration, performed a cappella. Focusing on a woman named Maria, whose daughter is a dreamer, she sings:

When I was only 20, I crossed the burning border,
I came to find a good life and brought my daughter here.
When I came to America, I hoped life would be better …
This land was made by dreamers and children of those dreamers.
We came here for democracy and hope, now all we have is hope.

Charles Thomas Collins, Judy Collins’ father.

Collins is a classically trained pianist and disciplined student of music. By the time she was 13, she was a piano prodigy, performing Mozart’s “Concerto for Two Pianos.” But then Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie’s folk music led her away from master teacher Antonia Brico, in Denver, to explore emotionally vivid lyrics. (In 1974, she co-directed a film about Brico, one of the first women to conduct major symphonies around the world.) Her father — Charles Thomas Collins, a singer, performer and radio personality — also had a profound musical influence on her, giving her her first guitar and surrounding her with songs.

I asked Collins when music started to play a major role in her life. “Well, it began as a child,” she said. “I was completely overrun by and consumed by music, whether it was singing in the choirs in church or at school or listening to my father sing and learning all of the songs that he sang. … And I don’t think I would be on the planet … if I hadn’t started to play the piano at 5 and sing in the chorus and go on my father’s radio show and just be illuminated by music. Everything I saw and heard, I wanted to do something with it. I wanted to sing it and I wanted to play it. I wanted to learn it and, because of that, I learned the thing that would carry me through, which was the discipline of music.”

She added, “That’s why I think children of all ages and every culture should learn music, because music disciplines you to learn. You have to learn to keep time, you have to learn to practice, you have to learn to keep your technique up, and the combination of discipline and music have kept my life moving towards mental and physical and emotional and spiritual health. Without those things — without the music, without the lyrics, without they hymns, without the rhythm, without the discipline — I would be dead, for sure. I was fighting alcoholism, I was fighting depression, I was fighting an eating disorder.

“I was looking at myself in the mirror this morning thinking I’m 42 years sober. I’m abstinent from an eating disorder for 37 or 38 years. I should be dead from these addictions. They are killer addictions that I have. They destroy lives. And I was an undereater, so I wasn’t obese, but I was sick like poor Karen Carpenter. I almost died … from eating no salt and passing out, and not being able to get up, and no one could get my heartbeat up … I wouldn’t eat any salt.

“All of these things that I’ve gone through — whether it was polio or tuberculosis or alcoholism, or an eating disorder — all of these things were affected by the fact that I had music in my life. First of all, I had to get myself in shape to keep practicing and keep performing and keep learning, and keep finding new songs and then writing new songs. It’s a package that was meant for me.”

Collins was trained to be selective in choosing her material to sing, and learned to do so by her observing her dad.

“My mother used to say, ‘You know, you didn’t invent this habit you have of choosing great songs. Your father always chose great songs and you learned that from him.’ And that was true,” Collins said.

“He’d always do one or two songs from a show. He didn’t bother with any of the ones that weren’t great. He was a singer — a performer and entertainer — and he had his own radio show for 30 years. He always sang the songs that he loved that he picked up from shows. He would get recordings of shows from the Library of Congress and then he’d sit down and listen to them … so my instinct about a song happens immediately. I see a song as ‘go’ or ‘stop,’ and if I don’t want to hear it, I never want to hear it again. And if I love it, I fall in love with it and I learn it and sing it and someday probably record it.”

HEALING THROUGH MUSIC

Collins sees the collaborative “Amazing Grace” project as a way for people to break the isolation of lockdown during the pandemic.

“I’m so grateful (for that) and I do think this choir is a huge bridge,” she said. “I could never have done that alone.

“This is one of those things (where) you have no control over what’s going to happen. You try to do the right thing … you hope that you’re doing the right thing, but you don’t know where things go. I have no idea of my impact as a performer…yes, I love doing it, it keeps me alive. The first person that gets healed in terms of mental health from what I do is me. The fact that I sit down and play the piano and work on songs about Thomas Merton … who cares? Nobody else really cares. But you never know where these things are gonna go.”

She returned to St. Paul’s chapel in 1990 to record with Bill Moyers for his PBS project about the song. “He had all kinds of people sing ‘Amazing Grace.’ Jean Ritchie sang it, I think Prince sang it, Jessye Norman sang it and I sang it … that’s where we met and became very good friends.”

Moyers, she said, “keeps telling me (that) somehow, they are going to get it out again and they should because the world needs to have that recording. It’s a beautiful piece. It’s an hour long and it has all these great artists singing ‘Amazing Grace.’ It’s just great.”

Collins’ positive engagement with life and active tour and writing schedule makes me hopeful that my 80s will not be dull.

This period at home likely represents her longest time as an adult without any touring. “I feel I’m appreciating every second,” she said. “Practicing, exercising, watching movies, writing, working on books. We always have something going on that has to be done …

“We are having very good luck in the sense that lots of the stores are delivering so we don’t have to go out that much for food. Every once in a while, we take walks with masks and gloves, and that’s exciting to be out in nature, so we are having a very productive time. I don’t know how the time goes so fast, but it is going very fast.”

Alternating between walks in Riverside Park and Central Park, she is careful to respect other New Yorkers by practicing social distancing. “What else are we going to do — infect other people?” she said. “Unless we are irresponsible and selfish …entitlement is part of the problem for a lot of the people. They think they can get away with whatever and don’t care about anybody else. It’s an obscenity not to.”

As we concluded our conversation, we agreed that Nov. 3 can’t come too soon.

“We’ve got lots of things going on. It’s very exciting. Now, I am going to live in the moment and keep my focus on today.

“God bless, and have a happy lockdown,” she said, and warmly signed off.

BUDD MISHKIN

Still on Collins’ schedule, though in jeopardy because of the pandemic, are shows with Arlo Guthrie at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, Aug. 21; BergenPAC in September, Sept. 11; and the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, Nov. 4.

You can also catch her online in a discussion with South Orange-based journalist Budd Mishkin, presented by the 92nd Street Y in New York, July 8 at 7 p.m.; visit 92y.org/event/judy-collins.

“We will be discussing Judy’s ‘Amazing Grace’ project and some of the many compelling chapters of her career,” said Mishkin.

NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series is designed to spotlight songs relevant to the coronavirus crisis and encourage readers to support the artists who made them (and won’t be able to generate income via concerts at this time). Click here for links to all songs in the series.

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2 thoughts on “Judy Collins reinvents ‘Amazing Grace’ with the help of a Global Virtual Choir

  1. Pingback: Sad Judy Collins reinvents 'Amazing Grace' with the help of a Global Virtual Choir Songs - Sad Songs

  2. Whether you have loved Judy Collins your entire life, or whether you just listened to her for the first time, this detailed and beautiful interview will inspire and renew your determination to make this world a better place. xo

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