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Sunday, 7 September 2008

Written in granite: Time Passes Slowly

Although Judy Collins' first five albums are all fine records, very much in the pre-electric Dylan style so prevalent at the time (i.e. traditional songs and Dylan songs done pretty much straight by singers with less nasal voices than Mr Z himself), in 1966 she embarked upon a series of four truly superb and much more adventurous albums, the first of which was In My Life. She began working with an arranger by the name of Joshua Rifkin and his mostly orchestral scores were perfect for the material and for Judy's pure voice; and Judy knew how to pick a budding songwriter as we'll see in a moment...

The album opens with one of the most fascinating of all Dylan covers – in fact this is one of the first to take Dylan beyond folk or folk-rock. Tom Thumb's Blues (losing the parenthetical "Just Like") is given a woodwind led setting, slowed down and delivered beautifully, giving a completely new slant on the song. That's followed by Richard Farina's Hard Lovin' Loser, maintaining a bluesy feel but also adding a baroque flavour. Then comes the first European incursion with Brecht/Weil's Pirate Jenny, although almost certainly via Nina Simone's version of a couple of years earlier. She follows this by the first-ever recording of a Leonard Cohen cover. Yes, there was once a world in which there were no covers whatsoever of songs by Leonard Cohen, in 1966 the man himself had published several volumes of poetry and two novels, but he didn't release his own version of Suzanne until the following year – legend has it that he sang it down the telephone to Ms Collins. Hers has a beautiful descending guitar pattern and that famous purity of voice and diction. She then follows it with Jacques Brel's La Colombe (for some reason although the lyric is delivered in English the title isn't translated as "The Dove"), she was to return to Brel on the next album. Next up is another theatrical piece, Marat Sade, and then another piece by a budding songwriter still some way of releasing his own first album in an illustrious career, namely Randy Newman's gorgeous I Think It's Going To Rain Today. After that it's Donovan's Sunny Goodge Street followed by Liverpool Lullaby, which does perhaps sound very slightly odd coming from an American, and then it's another Cohen preview, this time of Dress Rehearsal Rag, the author's own version of which didn't appear for another five years on Songs Of Love And Hate (although he did record it for 1968's Songs From A Room, as witnessed by the recent slightly expanded edition). Then the LP closes with the title track by Lennon and McCartney.

In My Life was recorded in London but Judy was back in New York for the following year's Wildflowers. As an overall album it's not quite as good as its predecessor, but even so it's very fine indeed. This time there are three Cohen compositions, Sisters Of Mercy and Hey That's No Way To Say Goodbye, both also on his own first album, and Priests, his own version of which has never been released. There's also another Brel number, this time in French, La chanson des vieux amants and two songs by yet another up-and-coming songwriter, Joni Mitchell. Did I say that Judy could spot talent? Her version of Both Sides, Now is my favourite, a gorgeous piece of pop music with a beautiful arrangement. Judy also writes three of the songs herself and whilst it's always going to be tough lining them up alongside such heavyweight material, they're really good. 1968's Who Knows Where The Time Goes takes a slightly different direction, a very 1968 direction in fact, this being the year of Music From Big Pink, it has a slight country tinge to it, there's less in the way of baroque adornment. Dylan is back with I Pity The Poor Immigrant from another "back to basics" album, John Wesley Harding, there are two songs from Cohen's Songs From A Room (Story Of Isaac and, fairly obviously, Bird On The Wire) but there's also a British folk presence with Robin Williamson's First Boy I Ever Loved (First
Girl in the original Incredible String Band version) and Sandy Denny's gorgeous Who Knows Where The Time Goes? which she'd earlier released in a slightly different version as a 'b' side.

It was a couple of years before the next album, 1970's Whales And Nightingales but it is one of her very best. It opens with a terrific version of Joan Baez's Song For David, then the first of two Brel songs, Sons Of... (with Marieke to come later) and then Dominic Behan's The Patriot Game. My own personal favourite track is yet another Dylan song, a fantastic rendition of Time Passes Slowly. The album ends with one of the odder hit singles of the 1970s, her more or less a cappella version of the English hymn Amazing Grace, which spent 67 weeks on the UK charts, a record for a female solo artist at the time – strangely enough the same hymn provided another of the oddest chart-toppers of the decade when performed instrumentally by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards a couple of years later.

Judy Collins tends not to get a lot of credit among historians either in rock or folk music. And yet just take another look at the list of songwriters whose work she performed either for the first time or at least before they had established reputations. OK, Dylan had made a name, but even so, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny, Randy Newman, Brel wasn't well-known outside the francophone world, her recording of La Colombe predates Scott Walker's first solo album, with three of the Belgian's compositions, by well over a year.

All of the four albums mentioned here are or have been available on CD. Elektra did twofer sets of Judy Collins' Fifth Album/In My Life and Wildflowers/Who Knows Where The Time Goes which can now be picked up very cheaply.

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