Folk singer Judy Collins sings through lifetime of strife, joy at L+M event

Judy Collins has had her share of challenges. But, through depression, an eating disorder, alcoholism, the death of a son and a lifetime in show business, she still has her voice.

Collins, 77, delivered a rambling and spirited speech Sunday at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital's Well Healed Woman conference at Mohegan Sun Sunday.

“I love the fact that I can sing as a soprano — still, after all these years," she said. "So I thought I’d just get this out of way.”

Leaning into the microphone, she sang, “Rows and flows of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air.” In a clear, recognizable voice, she sang "Both Sides Now," the Joni Mitchell song that may be the most recognizable tune Collins has recorded.

It was only the first of many times Collins would break into song, using the music to punctuate a speech that began in her childhood as a piano prodigy with an alcoholic father and ended with her starting to talk about her son’s 1992 suicide, but abruptly cutting herself off to answer questions from the audience.

She was the keynote speaker at the annual, daylong conference, which drew more than 400 people Sunday afternoon for a schedule of speeches and shopping, and a lunch that included a high heel-shaped chocolate dessert.

Collins mostly avoided talking about the results of last week’s presidential election, except when an audience member asked a question about artists’ involvement in moral and political causes.

Without saying his name, Collins decried the president-elect’s proclivity for minimizing the threat of sexual assault against women.

“We cannot treat women in the way it has been publicly shown is possible,” she said. “People in general in this country, they like to see things get done — they do not want to be abused or bullied or forced into racism. We as women deserve to be respected. We deserve not to have our sexuality taken advantage of.”

But Collins mostly stuck to her life in music, not shying away from the periods of mental illness and troubling times that have punctuated it.

She remembered life as a teenage student of classical piano in Denver, the daughter of singer Chuck Collins.

“I was a child prodigy,” she said. “It was very exciting — I was 13, I was at the top of my game. I was bound to have my career ... on the concert stage.”

But it was a rocky time in the Collins household. Her father was “admired, respected,” she said. “He had wonderful, wonderful talent. But he also was an alcoholic.”

Collins remembered getting more medical care as a teenager for her migraines than following a suicide attempt at age 14. She quickly became an alcoholic herself, a theme that wove itself through the next two decades of her life and her skyrocketing career.

“I woke up and suddenly I was on the radio, and in clubs, traveling,” she said. “At 19, I was pregnant and married, in that order.”

Collins dropped as many names of famous musicians as she had recorded songs with. She remembered meeting Bob Dylan, “when he was homeless, and trying to get a job singing Woody Guthrie songs,” and Leonard Cohen, who died last week and of whom Collins was “a lifetime fan and friend.”

But music was only one way Collins said she has soothed herself in tormented moments. She said exercise, meditation and staying busy with artistic expression have kept her healthy, adding ironically for a conference sponsored by a hospital, that she “(doesn’t) trust most traditional medical facilities at all.”

Laughter, she said, has been one of the best ways she has coped with hardships.

“Laughter is huge,” she said, adding that after her son died, “it was months before I could laugh.”

Later, at a party, “I heard a voice laughing and I thought, that’s me. There is hope, there is joy.”

m.shanahan@theday.com

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