Judy Collins is probably the best interpreter of songs not written by her in the world of folk and americana. Whilst she has of course written some excellent songs herself such as “My Father”, “Fishermen Song” and“Secret Gardens” to name just three, it’s as a performer of the songs of others that she excels. Legend has it that she was the first person to cover songs by both Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen (coincidentally both Canadians) and bring them to prominence. As Collins herself says “When I met Leonard, in 1966, he came to my house and was sent to me by one of our mutual friends who said, ‘This guy has just written some songs and he wants you to tell him whether you think they’re songs. When he came to see me, he sang a few songs to me and of course, I started recording him right away and actually launched his career.”.
As for Mitchell, to quote Collins again “Joni Mitchell I met on the telephone for the first time. I didn’t know who she was, she was working in the Village and Tom Rush had taken a shine to her, so consequently everybody in the Village knew ‘Circle Game’ because he’d recorded it and loved it and was always talking about her. But I hadn’t met her, didn’t know anything about her, so when she sang this song to me in the middle of the night on the phone, I was just entranced. I said, I’ll be right over, I have to sing it.”.
Collins went onto record a number of songs by both writers but probably her most well-known cover is Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ which was released on Collins’ 1967 album ‘Wildflowers’. It went on to be a top twenty hit in the UK and top ten in the US and win a Grammy for Best Folk Performance of 1969.
The classic clip below was filmed in 1976 with the Boston Pops conducted by Arthur Fieldler. Although not well known here, the Boston Pops are an American institution playing popular classical ‘hits’ and making regular appearances on American television. Whilst adding a large orchestra to Collins’ acoustic guitar can sound a bit schmaltzy, her crystalline vocals soar above the orchestra and the song is as moving as it was when it was first written.