The preponderance of revivalist folk music in the new millennium has been scruffy and idiosyncratic by design, some of it more genuinely ragamuffin and throwback (our own vaunted Felice Brothers, for example), some of it pure calculation (names withheld), groomed to the precise specs of scruff. In the age of digital manipulation and Autotune, human slop and neurological skew pass for credentials of authenticity. New indie-folk places a perhaps somewhat misguided value on imperfection and error as bona fides and ends in themselves. (This, I must interrupt myself to say, is an aesthetic misstep; imperfection is in fact mysteriously cool, but only as a residue of trying. The ways in which you honestly fail become, as the kids long ago used to say, “your thing.”)
At its heart, the new folk is a doctrinally organic gesture of rejection – an abdication of the values, the technologies, the language and the identities offered to youth by the present. Social networking and the inherent virulence of digital may be its mode, but its mythologies are boxcar and WPA. Bob Dylan and his immediate forbears were middle-class folk revivalists too, searching for habitable identities at a time when the Military/Industrial Complex and the hegemony of Madison Avenue were already – as the kids today say – “a thing.”
What seems lost in today’s culturally expanded revival of revivalism is how much of that first wave of new folk in the early ’60s was straight-up chamber in nature. It was jewel-folk, sung with conservatory chops and often arranged and orchestrated by pros with a real grasp of Modernist chamber music. The imperfections and eccentricities that we so cherish today were cleaned immaculate by that first Autotune: training and technique. As folk traditions revive all around us in a celebration of evergreen pre-technological values, this “high folk” is neglected, passed by, except by the exponents who still live and work among us – like the great Judy Collins.
Collins, as legend has it, was Elektra Records’ answer to Vanguard’s Joan Baez: a folkie interpreter with concert-hall chops, treating traditionals as gems of the repertoire. Collins’ first two albums came out in ’61 (A Maid of Constant Sorrow) and ’62 (Golden Apples of the Sun). Both were crystalline acoustic collections of groomed traditionals, sung in a huskier voice than the one for which Collins would soon become famous – perhaps a kind of gravitas forced upon her by the age and folk’s de rigueur world-weariness, its burdens of wisdom.
By her third and fourth records – Judy Collins 3 and the early-career highlight The Judy Collins Concert, an exquisite live set recorded at New York City’s Town Hall – Collins had shifted her attention from traditionals to the politically aware songs of her contemporaries, many of whose careers she would aid significantly: Dylan, Tom Paxton, Joni Mitchell and the late Leonard Cohen, with whose work she would develop a special and lasting relationship. In fact, move over, Buckley; it was Judy Collins who began the recovery of the exquisite melodies there that the Canadian poet himself was somewhat unfit to represent.
By the mid-’60s, the mannered severity of her early singing had given way to the soaring voice that she would ride into her peak in the ’70s: a voice that would quite naturally lead her out of doctrinal folk and, as early as 1967’s well-regarded In My Life, into chamber-pop, show tunes and the posh side of the singer/songwriter movement (while Collins began as an interpreter, she did eventually pen many of her own most beloved songs).
An engaging performer and an empathic individual who went very public with her processing of her son’s 1992 suicide, Judy Collins hardly even strikes me as anything that you’d call folk anymore; but maybe that’s because I have too willingly accepted the present’s definition of folk as the opposite of guile and sophistication. Approaching 80, but with a few years yet, American musical legend Judy Collins performs “Holidays & Hits” at the Bearsville Theater on Thursday, December 22 at 8 p.m. Gold Circle seating costs $60, floor reserved seating costs $55 and general admission costs $25. For more information, visit www.bearsvilletheater.com. The Bearsville Theater is located at 291 Tinker Street in Woodstock.