Judy Collins was born on May 1, 1939, in Seattle, Washington, but she moved with her family to Denver, Colorado, when she was 10. Collins grew up surrounded by all styles of music from Mozart to Cole Porter and folk music from around the world. Her mother was a gifted musician, who played piano and sang, but gave that up when she met Collin’s father. Collin’s father, who was blind, played the piano, sang, and hosted a radio show. When she was nine, Collins started taking piano lessons, and she played her first public performance when she was 13, playing Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos.
A few years later, when she was 15, Collins heard “The Gypsy Rover” and “Barbara Allen” on the radio, and asked her father if he would find her a guitar. Although she was still playing the classical music on the piano, Collins had given her heart to the songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie that she was learning to play on the guitar. She stopped taking piano lessons, started performing in clubs in Colorado, and eventually moved to New York City, where she played in folk clubs like Gerde’s Folk City. Collins signed with Elektra Records when she was 21, in 1960. She released her first album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, which featured traditional folk songs and ballads, one year later in 1961.
Initially, with her lilting, crystalline vocals, Collins gained a reputation as a singer and interpreter of others’ songs. She helped bring attention to then little-known songwriters and their music in her versions of Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon,” Richard Fariña’s “Pack Up Your Sorrows,” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now.” Leonard Cohen visited Collins and sang her “Suzanne,” and she put it on her album and helped get him noticed. The two became life-long friends, and he encouraged her to write her own songs. The first song she wrote was “Since You’ve Asked,” which she included on her sixth album Wildflowers (1967); the album also included “Both Sides, Now,” for which Collins won a Grammy for Best Folk Recording.
Over her more than 50 albums, Collins has showcased her eclectic tastes, performing traditional folk songs, protest songs, country, pop, rock and roll, standards, and show tunes. One her most recognizable songs is her interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” included on her album Judith (1975). Her rendition earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, in 1976, and it earned Sondheim a Grammy for Song of the Year. Collins returned to Sondheim’s songs in 2017 with A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim.
Collins has always been an outspoken activist devoted to a number of causes. On her 1973 album True Stories and Other Dreams, she included her song “Che,” about Che Guevara; in 1982, her song “Mama, Mama” focused on abortion rights, and her song “River of Gold” focused on the environment. Since the death of her only son, Clark, by suicide in 1992, Collins has been activist for suicide prevention.
In addition to her songwriting, Collins has written eight books. In Singing Lessons: A Memoir of Love, Loss, Hope, and Healing (1998), she recounts her struggles with her alcoholism and with her depression in the wake of the trauma of her son’s suicide. She devotes two other books—Sanity and Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival, and Strength (2003) and The Seven T’s: Finding Hope and Healing in the Wake of Tragedy (2007)—to living with and healing from Clark’s suicide. She shares the ups and downs of her music career in her memoir Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music (2011), and in Cravings: How I Conquered Food (2017), Collins candidly describes her struggles with eating disorders.
Over the course of her music career and life, Collins has received numerous awards, including, among others, the “Spirit of Americana/Free Speech Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 from the Americana Music Association, the Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Radio2 Folk Awards in 2009, and the International Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2023 UK Americana Awards. Most recently, Collins was honored with a She Rocks Award at the April 2023 ceremony at the NAMM show in Anaheim, California. She Rocks “honors female innovators and trailblazers in the music and audio industry.”
Judy Collins continues to blaze trails, writing and interpreting songs, traveling and performing, and releasing new albums—Spellbound appeared in 2022—and Collins started her own label, Wildflower Records in 2000, with Katherine DePaul. With her instantly recognizable vocals Collins continue to share her memorable music with the world.