JUDY COLLINS, THE DOYENNE of the ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene who’s still going strong aged 77, has extended birthday greetings to Bob Dylan (75 on May 24) via MOJO magazine. Collins, who plays a Dylan birthday tribute show at Berlin’s Wintergarten on a tour that takes in continental Europe and the States, was one of the earliest supporters of Dylan’s songwriting, and remained a staunch fan and regular interpreter throughout what she calls “The Great Folk Scare”, and beyond. The two are pictured above, with Billy Joel, at New York’s Whitney Museum in 1985.
“I first met him in Colorado in 1959, when he was plain old Robert Zimmerman,” says Collins. “And when I worked with him in 1961 he was playing what I thought were very badly sung and badly chosen Woody Guthrie songs. But within weeks of April ’61 he had written Blowin’ In The Wind.”
Collins relates the impact on the Greenwich Village scene of Dylan’s first tranche of classic songs.
“At the first New York Town Hall concert I was there with [Elektra Records boss] Jac Holzman, who kept poking me in the arm and saying, ‘Listen to this one! You have to record this one!’ Masters Of War, Fare Thee Well, The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll – they just kept coming.”
Amongst his peers it was quickly clear that Dylan would keep his listeners guessing. And Collins was a witness to one of his biggest creative leaps.
“At the end of 1963 [Dylan’s manager] Albert Grossman invited me up to a party in Woodstock. We had a lot to drink and I kind of passed out. Then I heard Dylan playing and singing downstairs and I went down and listened to him, watched him writing Mr Tambourine Man for about two hours. He always took the next step,” she adds, “and it gave everybody else courage.”
But what about the folk scene contemporaries who freaked out when Dylan re-embraced rock’n’roll? She must have had friends in the ouraged purist camp?
“Oh it was ridiculous!” laughs Collins. “I thought they were all crazy. Anyone who thought it was outrageous or unexpected or that he’d ruined the whole folk movement... I’ll never forget the review [of Dylan’s 1964 Newport Folk Festival performance] in Sing Out! by the editor… Irwin Silber.”
Noting changes in Dylan’s behaviour, and speaking for the folk revival ‘community’, Silber’s “Open Letter To Bob Dylan” claimed “You're a different Bob Dylan from the one we knew. The old one never wasted our precious time.” And he wasn’t the only one with a bee in his bonnet.
“Dylan was shattering the skylight. He blew all of our minds.”
“Pete Seeger was awfully mad,” says Collins, “but Seeger was a traditionalist and he had a lot of investment in keeping the festival ‘pure’. But folk was always changing, with different artists from different places. And Dylan was always bigger than life.”
And what of Blonde On Blonde, the 1966 Dylan double album celebrated in the latest MOJO magazine?
“Blonde On Blonde was an accumulation of all his reading, and the psychedelics, and the place we were in our history,” says Collins. “He was shattering the skylight. These songs – Visions Of Johanna, Just Like A Woman, I Want You – they were profoundly beautiful. How could you get any better? He blew all of our minds.
“I love Visions Of Johanna. Just Like A Woman I’ve recorded myself. Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands is a favourite. They’re the three key songs in terms of what was happening in Dylan’s writing and also how the album affected people.
In quotes that can be read in the new MOJO magazine’s Blonde On Blonde super-feature, Collins challenges conventional wisdom about the inspiration for Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands (“I think it’s about Joan Baez”) before comparing the landmark album’s status in the rock canon with the recent, paradigm-shifting impact of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hip-hop musical, Hamilton.
Meanwhile, Collins fans will not be surprised to learn that Dylan songs play a key part in her current touring repertoire with Mr Tambourine Man and Slow Train Coming’s I Believe In You slated for an airing. There may not be space for Blonde On Blonde’s Just Like A Woman, but Collins has no time for the theory that the song is chauvinist.
“Oh no!” Collins insists. “Just Like A Woman suits me just fine. Bob was and always will be a feminist!”
Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde is the focus of the latest issue of MOJO magazine, on sale in the UK from May 24. Package includes Blonde On Blonde Revisited – Dylan’s original double album covered by some of MOJO’s favourite contemporary artists.
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