Blogging Along the Brandywine: Judy Collins still soaring

When I think of Reading, Pa., I think of the Pagoda, beer and pretzels, the Ringgold Band, and perhaps infamously, John Philip Sousa, who died in Reading in 1932 in the Lincoln Hotel just after a final concert rehearsal.

But until a cousin invited me to see folk icon Judy Collins perform Saturday evening, Nov. 23, in the Miller Center for the Arts, an intimate 500-seat theater, which opened in 2007, I never associated Reading with the sublime.

Judy Collins was born in Seattle, Wash., in 1939. Ten years later the family moved to Colorado where Collins studied classical piano making her public debut at age 13, performing Mozart’s “Concerto for Two Pianos.”

But much to the disappointment of her piano teacher, the music and lyrics of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie soon caught her attention and she took up guitar and made her way to Greenwich Village in New York City. Her first album was released at the age of 22 in 1961.

By 1969, the group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young released a collection of short songs in her honor, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" by Stephen Stills.

Indeed, former President Bill and Hillary Clinton have always stated that their daughter Chelsea was name after Collins’ 1969 recording of “Chelsea Morning,” a song she sang at Clinton’s Inaugural Ball in 1993.

I had met Collins on Aug. 15, 1995 when she appeared at the Chester County Book Store signing her newly released novel “Shameless.” Yes, she’s a successful writer too!

I had released my CD  “Bard of the Brandywine” some two years earlier and gave her a copy. I still have the book with her flowing script, “To Sally Jane Denk, Keep Singing! Judy Collins”

But now some 18 years later, what was I to expect at a concert given by a 74 year-old (yes 74) legend whose life had admittedly been laced with alcoholism, drugs, love affairs with many of the big names in the recording industry and the tragic suicide of her only son Clark.

All I can say is it left me breathless.

Judy Collins strode out on stage with confidence and elegance – with her custom 12-string Martin guitar, model HD12-35SJC. (After the concert, a stage manager showed me the back, which featured solid East Indian Rosewood inlaid with a Pacific Big Leaf Maple wedge.)

Her gray hair flowed loose in a style that even would have made the late Farrah Fawcett-Majors jealous. Wearing dark plum-colored leggings, a matching cami, healed short boots and a black-beaded evening jacket, her slim body made me jealous.

Her incredible voice had not changed and did not disappoint for one moment.

Classically trained singers who study the Bel Canto technique know that the “lift” in any voice (i.e, those 1 or 2 notes where a chest voice becomes a head voice) needs to be worked thru for a seamless transition. Collins, however, has created a style by accentuating hers. From her strong lower voice she has a pronounced if not agile skip to her upper voice, which is still as pure and as clear as a flute. At moments it was as if one were in church listening to the sacred.

Her vocal range and phrasing would be amazing for someone half her age.

Her concert featured not only iconic songs like Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”, but “Danny Boy” and the “Hills of Shiloh” (both performed acapella), “My Father”, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, and in a nod to her life-long friend Joan Baez, “Diamonds and Rust”.  Her encore song, “Somewhere over the Rainbow” left us all wanting more.

Judy Collins remains ageless, elegant and energetic — an inspiration in perfection to all of us aging folkies.

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About Sally Denk Hoey

Sally Denk Hoey, is a Gemini - one part music and one part history. She holds a masters degree cum laude from the School of Music at West Chester University. She taught 14 years in both public and private school. Her CD "Bard of the Brandywine" was critically received during her almost 30 years as a folk singer. She currently cantors masses at St Agnes Church in West Chester where she also performs with the select Motet Choir. A recognized historian, Sally serves as a judge-captain for the south-east Pennsylvania regionals of the National History Day Competition. She has served as president of the Brandywine Battlefield Park Associates as well as the Sanderson Museum in Chadds Ford where she now curates the violin collection. Sally re-enacted with the 43rd Regiment of Foot and the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment for 19 years where she interpreted the role of a campfollower at encampments in Valley Forge, Williamsburg, Va., Monmouth, N.J. and Lexington and Concord, Mass. Sally is married to her college classmate, Thomas Hoey, otherwise known as "Mr. Sousa.”

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