Striking a Chord

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Singer Judy Collins

I can still remember the day it happened. It was a sunny Friday afternoon in 1954. I was casually listening to the radio when Jo Stafford's rendition of Barbara Allen, a 17th century English ballad, came over the airwaves. It was the first folk song I had ever heard. At the time, I was a 14-year-old living in Denver with my parents and four younger siblings and preparing to perform Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto with a local orchestra.

But the poignancy of Stafford's music about a woman's remorse over her lover's death changed everything. Its message was so potent; it overpowered the richness of Rachmaninoff and tapped into my adolescent yearnings of love and loss. Hearing its poetic, antique lyrics made me sit up and say, "That's what I want to do: tell stories with my music." It was like hitting a vein of gold.

Although I was smitten by the song and all it represented, the full switch to folk took about a year. I continued studying piano while immersing myself in folk music. I taught myself to play on a leased guitar, even practicing till my fingers bled, and listened to tunes and ballads on the radio and at record stores.

After months of playing both types of music, I realized it was a charade to go on with classical. During a teary and emotional contretemps with Antonia Brico, my piano teacher and the orchestra's conductor, I told her I was giving up piano classes and classical music altogether. It was big, because I'd been playing piano for 11 years then, and I loved classical music. "Little Judy, you've got it," she said, heartbroken, as she tried to change my mind. "You could be something." But I knew my future was in folk music.

Immediately afterward, I felt ecstasy, as if a burden had been lifted. Creativity started flowing into all areas of my life. I began a romance, then married at 18 and became a mother at 19. And by that time, I was singing professionally at a college hangout called Michael's Pub in Boulder, Colo., for $100 a week, along with all the beer and pizza I wanted. That first gig supported our young family while my husband was in school, and it began my professional career as a folk singer.

When my husband landed a teaching job at the University of Connecticut, my then mother-in-law said, "You don't have to go on with the singing." But her words fell on deaf ears, because I knew then that music was much more than a way to earn money; it was a calling. Through folk music, I connected with the upheavals in our nation and the students on college campuses and drew strength from singers like Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio and the Weavers, who were making names for themselves with political songs.

Those were dizzying times for me and for folk music. By the time I was 21, I had my first record, and my career was thriving. I was shuttling between Connecticut and the folk venues of Greenwich Village and traveling the circuit throughout the country, getting to know kindred spirits such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. I lent my support by singing in Mississippi during the voter-registration drive for African Americans in 1964 and at rallies protesting the Vietnam War.

As it turned out, my remarkable parents had primed me for a life of music and activism also. Both were true-blue New Dealers who had always been politically astute and put themselves on the line for their beliefs. At home we were never allowed to dally in prejudices of any sort, and we regularly discussed current affairs.

When I look back on my career, though, I always return to Barbara Allen with a special fondness. Hearing Jo Stafford's haunting interpretation of that beautiful song at so tender an age set me on the path to an extraordinary life. For that blessing, I will always be grateful.