There it is. That voice. Even over a crackling connection, the unmistakably mystical voice of Judy Collins comes across with pitch perfect clarity. “I love Maine. … Isn’t it great?” said Collins, on the phone from her New York-based Rocky Mountain Productions. The Grammy Award-winning vocalist is getting ready to help Mainers usher in the holidays with the seasonally themed concert, “Judy Collins: A Holiday Special,” at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium Nov. 30.

It’s the latest excursion in a long line of musical journeys for the 65-year-old singer/songwriter. From Woodstock through Watergate, from Vietnam to Iraq, Collins has consoled listeners with “Amazing Grace,” put everything into perspective with “Both Sides Now” and offered unrequited lovers everywhere an anthem with “Send In The Clowns.”

“In the forty-five years of my career, there have been a lot of things that I have recorded that I either thought were ‘classic’ in the first place or hoped that I would make classic,” Collins said. With dozens of gold records to her credit, the singer’s status as a recording industry legend remains unshakable, despite fluctuating tastes in music and what Collins describes as some self-directed career experimentation.

“I personally feel extremely excited and enthusiastic about the way music is moving in my own particular case because I do a lot of different things,” Collins said. “I do sixty to eighty shows a year. … I have my own record label now (The Wildflowers Company) and I never would have done that if I’d still been in the large music company syndrome.”

Collins recently released her 35th album, the Elektra/Rhino compilation “Judy Collins Sings Leonard Cohen: Democracy,” a tribute to the celebrated composer of “Suzanne” and “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Collins befriended Cohen in 1966, introduced his music to millions and remains one of the songwriter’s staunchest supporters. “When I first heard Leonard Cohen’s music, it was very different than anything that was around,” Collins recalled, “but I recognized the poetic content of the lyrics and this wonderful, mesmerizing feeling that the melodies have and I knew that it was singable.”

Infallible instinct

Throughout her career, Collins has exhibited an infallible instinct for selecting eminently singable material as well as excavating chart-topping treasures from the most unlikely sources. In 1970, at the dawn of the rock era, Collins recorded a hymn penned in 1789 by a reformed slave trader named John Newton.

Collins says that both she and executives at Elektra Records were pleasantly surprised when her haunting rendition of “Amazing Grace” became a major hit.

“I think we needed some healing,” Collins said. “The war had really wrung us out in a way that we’re just now reabsorbing. … It was a terrible time and the song really came in at a point where we needed to hear something that was reassuring and spiritually oriented.”

Amid the Grammy Awards and Billboard triumphs, Collins has endured a number of devastating personal tragedies, including her beloved son Clark’s suicide in 1992. As she has done so often with her music, Collins channeled her pain into her work and emerged with two best-selling memoirs, “Singing Lessons” (1998) and “Sanity and Grace” (2003), both of which candidly address the topic of suicide as well as the singer’s own struggles with alcoholism and depression.

Political activist

Even while grappling with her personal demons, Collins has always remained an outspoken and highly visible political activist. In 1964, the singer was on hand to help African Americans register to vote in Mississippi. In May of 1971, Collins was arrested for organizing a celebrity studded Vietnam War protest in the halls of Congress. In the years since, Collins has actively supported countless civil rights organizations and served as a UNICEF International Ambassador For The Arts.

“I think it’s noble to express ourselves in the democracy in which we live,” Collins said. “We have to learn to express our opinions and take the stands that we need to take. It’s not only our right, I think it’s our responsibility.”

“Judy Collins: A Holiday Special” will feature a guest appearance by Musica de Filia, Maine’s all-girl choir; an eclectic mixture of signature selections from the Collins songbook; and holiday favorites redressed Judy-style.

True to form, there will be a message behind the music. “I think that where I’m going and how I get there has a lot to do with the songs I sing,” said Collins. “My music spans both an activist and a spiritual journey and I think that’s evident in most of my work. … I think our own view of the world is what makes us who we are.”

Mark Griffin is a member of The Dramatists Guild of America and a columnist for Film Score Monthly magazine. He lives in Lewiston.


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