‘And In The Night, The Iron Wheels . . .’

I’ve been thinking about Judy Collins lately. She’s popped up on the RealPlayer a couple of times, and a long-term writing project I’ve been pondering lately name-drops her in a chapter that’s set in 1970. So her name – and her catalog – have been in the back of my mind on and off for the past couple of weeks.

Regular readers can see where this is going: I failed to include even one track by Collins in my massive Ultimate Jukebox last year. And when I think about a performer in that context, two questions arise: Is the performer significant enough in a historical context or – more importantly – a personal context to add to what I call my Jukebox Regrets, my list of records that I acknowledge should have shown up in that 228-record collection.

(Every once in a while, when I ponder that long project, I think to myself, “I knew I should have made it 240 records!”)

Historically, of course, Judy Collins shines brightly as one of the major interpreters of the folk catalog during the early-1960s folk boom. In the space of four studio albums from 1961 into 1965, she changed from a classic interpreter of the traditional folk catalog to one of the key interpreters of current folk music. Her first album, 1961’s Maid of Constant Sorrrow, is a collection of twelve folk tunes all credited as “traditional.” It seems that in the folk boom – just as happened in the concurrent blues revival – the lineages of some songs got lost as tunes went from one person to another, and at least one of the twelve songs on Maid – Ewan MacColl’s “Tim Evans (Go Down You Murderers)” – was mis-credited as traditional. In any case, it was an album of traditionally presented folk music.

That had changed by 1965, when the release of Fifth Album found Collins hewing to traditional folk for a few tracks – “So Early in the Morning” and “Lord Gregory” – but building the bulk of the album’s twelve tracks from the work of current singer-songwriters: Phil Ochs, Richard Farina, Eric Andersen, Gordon Lightfoot and, of course, Bob Dylan. A year later, In My Life would find her adding the names of Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel and John Lennon and Paul McCartney to the songwriting credits with not one of the eleven songs drawn from the traditional folk canon.

All-Music Guide ranks In My Life as Collin’s finest work, giving it 4.5 stars. Based on that benchmark, her second-best album is 1968’s Who Knows Where The Time Goes, which finds her backed by a stellar band – most notably Chris Etheridge on bass, Jim Gordon on drums, James Burton, Stephens Stills (whose “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” stems from this period) and Buddy Emmons on guitars, and Van Dyke Parks on keyboards.

From that point, according to AMG’s ratings, Collins’ work began to slowly decline, and I tend to agree. She had her second Top 20 hit in 1970 with “Amazing Grace” from Whales & Nightingales, a good but not great album that found her writing some of her own material for what I think is the second time, as well as drawing on familiar names like Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Brel and Dylan. Whales was less star-studded, with a good band whose most recognizable names were likely Dave Grisman and Richard Bell.

To me, her last real good work came in 1975 with Judith, an album that brought her another Top 40 hit in Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” which went to No. 36 in 1975 and to No. 19 upon a re-release two years later. Judith also included an idiosyncratic take on the standard “I’ll Be Seeing You” that I enjoy but that would likely be an acquired taste for those unfamiliar with the tune’s haunting popularity during World War II.

After that, I lost interest. I found Bread & Roses from 1976 to be dull, and 1979’s Hard Times for Lovers to be shrill, especially its title track, which got some airplay and went to No. 66. And then I quit listening.

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed a gap: I have not mentioned Wildflowers from 1967. Well, one does save the best for last. The question I have to deal with is whether I consider that 1967 album as Collins’ best solely on merit or because it’s undoubtedly the album of hers with which I am the most familiar. And I don’t know the answer.

After my health concerns in the summer and autumn of 1974 – a lung ailment and an auto accident – I found my stamina gone. The young man who a year earlier had racked up six to eight miles a day walking through Western Europe’s great cities was now exhausted when he got home from a day of college coursework. And I settled into a pattern for the rest of my years at the house on Kilian Boulevard: When I got home about four each afternoon, I’d head to the basement rec room, stack seven or eight LPs on the stereo and lie down on the green couch.

Sometimes I’d sleep until Dad flipped on the light switch at the top of the stairs, altering me that it was dinner time. Sometimes I’d just rest as the music washed over me: The Band, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton, the Moody Blues, Mountain, Traffic, the Rolling Stones and so many more. And Judy Collins’ Wildflowers.

That last album was one of my sister’s, and it’s one she evidently didn’t take with her when she moved to her own place with her new husband in 1972. Because the songs on Wildflowers are incised deeply in me from those late afternoon hours in the darkened rec room: From the opening track of Joni Mitchell’s “Michael From Mountains” through the Side Two opener of Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (which went to No. 8 in December 1968) and on to the closer of Cohen’s “That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” Wildflowers is one of those albums that I feel as if I’ve lived through more than listened to.

I should have made certain when I selected the tunes for my mythical jukebox that at least one Judy Collins track was there. Her absence isn’t the first puzzling oversight, of course, and I imagine it won’t be the last. But she should have been there. As I’ve written this, I’ve listened to and considered a number of Collins’ tracks I might have chosen: Dylan’s “Tom Thumb’s Blues” from 1966; Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” and Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon” from 1968; maybe even “Send In The Clowns.”

But the track should have come from Wildflowers. Its melodies are in my marrow. And the one embedded most deeply is Collins’ own “Albatross,” with its haunting “And in the night, the iron wheels rolling through the rain . . . Come away alone.”

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One Response to “‘And In The Night, The Iron Wheels . . .’”

  1. David Lenander says:

    I, too, think of “Albatross” most often in connection with Judy Collins, but she’d probably get more listings in my personal jukebox than yours. I think her 4th album, the live one, is where her recordings first really excite me, but the 5th is one of her best–the tracks by Eric Andersen (“Thirsty Boots”) and Billy Ed Wheeler (“Coming of the Roads”) are the ones I couldn’t do without, but the rest of the album is about as good as it got, too. She once said that she had the most fun recording that one with the Farinas. But _Wildflowers_ is the one that really doesn’t sound like anything else, and it’s the one most important to me. Also, where she recorded her first original songs, including “Albatross.” There are later flashes of brilliance, like the Denny cover, _Living_’s minor hit, “Open the Door,” and the Mitchell cover of “Chelsea Morning,” far better than the weird minor hit single of the song, I found _Judith_ pretty dull, but liked some of the pieces on _Bread & Roses_, including the title song. I think the last album that was really consistently good was _True Stories & Other Dreams_, but later work on the Elektra releases, like _Hard Times_ and _Times of Our Lives_ and the last one with “Shoot First” had some terrific tracks–I like her cover of the T.S. Eliot lyrics to “Memory” better than any other I’ve heard. Subsequent to Elektra her releases have been a very mixed bag, and in particular, she seems to have lost something in the songwriting, but she can still astonish one with her singing and selection even now. Her most recent release is a good case in point: _Paradise_, I saw an online review by a fan which ranks it among her best albums. I don’t, but I found her restoration of the little-sung beginning to “Over the Rainbow” effective and lovely, and the duets with Joan Baez, Steven Stills and Michael Johnson worthwhile listening. And the cover of “Gauguin” by Jimmy Webb also. The best thing she’s released in a while, though, is the tribute album with covers of her songs–you should hear Rufus Wainwright’s cover of “Albatross,” or Joan Baez’s cover of “Since You’ve Asked,” or a really weird and World-Musicky “Che” by some group I didn’t know.

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