Q&A with Judy Collins

Simon Button

The singer on why she’s re-releasing one of her biggest hits, Amazing Grace, to raise money for the World Health Organisation Solidarity Response Fund 

Reader's Digest: You’ve invited singers from around the globe to join you on the song to form a “Global Virtual Choir”. What are your memories of when you first recorded it in 1969? 

Judy Collins: I’d known the song because people in my family, like my grandmother, sang it and everybody seemed to know it. One night I was at an encounter group in New York City that I belonged to and a friend of mine, the record producer Mark Abramson, said, “I think you’d better sing something because people are getting upset with each other and they’re ramping up to some sort of an argument”. So I sang “Amazing Grace” and he called me the next day and said, “You should record that”.  

We tried to do it with a band, then I said, “We have to do it a capella because that’s the way it’s usually done”. So we went uptown to the little chapel at Columbia University and recorded it in this gorgeous chapel, Saint Paul’s Chapel, with a little choir. 

 

RD: How did you feel when your version was a hit? 

JC: Oh it was wonderful, but I always knew it was such a wonderful piece of music. After I recorded it, the Scottish Bagpipes then recorded their own version and it went into the repertoire of pipers around the world. In the park outside my window is the Firemen’s Memorial, on Riverside Drive, and I hear it every year when they hold a prayer vigil there. It is sung at funerals or played on the pipes or a piano and it’s helpful and healing and it transcends time.  

 

RD: Why do you think it’s the perfect song to revisit now? 

JC: Well, I heard that this gentleman [Notting Hill vicar, Pat Allerton] had played my version in the street near Charing Cross Hospital and I was so moved by that. I thought, How great that this song can be healing because he’d chosen it to play it for all the health care workers at the hospital.  

After I recorded it the first time I found out from Steve Turner, the writer in London, that he was writing a book about the song’s composer John Newton and he asked me to write the preface, saying to me, “You’re the one who rescued the song from drifting into obscurity”. That’s when I learned about John Newton himself and how he evolved from being the captain of a slave ship to a writer of powerful hymns. His life is a transformational story and I’m sure that’s why the song has the power it has. 

 

RD: How are you coping during lockdown

JC: Oh my God, these are strange times. But I’m very privileged because I’m in my own home and I live in New York so food deliveries are accessible and all my toys are here—my piano, my guitar, my computer, my phone. But it’s sad, sad, sad what’s going on in the world. 

 

RD: Are you working on new music and are you looking forward to when you’ll eventually be back on the road? 

JC: I try and write something new every day. I’m working on a whole new batch of songs, practising them and thinking about how I want to do them on tour. I’m in the middle of making a new album anyway and I normally do 120 shows a year. 

I’ve had this privileged life and I’ve been able to travel the world. I draw on those memories but I’m also just plugging ahead with my practising, my singing, my piano-playing, the guitar, and writing poems too. I’m convinced the touring scene will come back. Yes, it will be different but I will be thrilled to be back on the road. I haven’t had this much time off for any reason for probably more than 40 years. It’s been decades since I had time like this but of course this is a terrible, horrible reason to be able to have that. 

Amazing Grace by Judy Collins and the Global Virtual Choir is out now, with all proceeds going to the World Health Organisation Solidarity Response Fund. For more information visit globalvurtualchoir.com 


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