Writings about Music

Lips and Music Wed: Songstress Judy Collins

Judy Collins possesses a starkly honest, comforting, and alluring pure tone, probably closest to alto saxophonist Paul Desmond and trumpeter Chet Baker among instrumentalists. She proved to be a perfect vessel for filling one of William Butler Yeats’ magnificent early poems with Irish-bejeweled music. That would be The Lake Isle of Innisfree, with music composed by Hamilton Camp, originally released on Judy’s Living album. There is a clear, untouched freshness, and exhilaration that informs youthful works by great masters like Yeats in all disciplines; something uniquely endowed with breathtaking qualities unreachable by later efforts.

Collins’ recording of Innisfree illuminates the setting forth of any young person from their childhood home out into the world; the beginning of internal journeys self-undertaken by creative artists reckless enough to dream of creating something new; the beginning of a new life without a loved one; and the desire to live alone with nature like Henry David Thoreau, the latter being something that Yeats stated himself about the poem.

With Judy’s Time Passes Slowly, we have a companion interpretation of a Bob Dylan song worthy of saddling-up alongside the prolific and earthy composer’s rougher-hued utterance, heard on his divine New Morning album. (Collins is also a gifted composer and instrumentalist.)

However, it is the live recording of Joan of Arc, also on the Living album, where Collins surpasses the recorded version by Leonard Cohen, who composed this hauntingly and achingly beautiful song, depicting an imaginary conversation between Joan of Arc and the fire that will soon envelop her. Using a tempo so slow as to suggest Joan of Arc’s ashes floating upwards, Judy enacts Cohen’s stunningly resonant and fearless lyrics in such convincing fashion as to recall how French soldiers, imperiled and dying on the battlefields of World War 1, overwhelmingly directed their prayers towards the girl from Domremy - who first experienced visions at the age of twelve - even though Joan of Arc was not canonized until 1920.

Here is some of the horrific history that Cohen’s unparalleled song is based upon: "Eyewitnesses described the scene of the execution by burning on 30 May 1431. Tied to a tall pillar at the Vieux-Marché in Rouen, she asked two of the clergy, Fr Martin Ladvenu and Fr Isambart de la Pierre, to hold a crucifix before her. An English soldier also constructed a small cross which she put in the front of her dress. After she died, the English raked back the coals to expose her charred body so that no one could claim she had escaped alive, then burned the body twice more to reduce it to ashes and prevent any collection of relics. They cast her remains into the Seine from the only bridge called Mathilda. The executioner, Geoffroy Therage, later stated that he "...greatly feared to be damned." - Wikipedia

I credit Judy Collins’ music with leading me to study Yeats with Therese Law, an extraordinary disciple of A. Norman Jeffares, while attending the Crane School of Music as an undergraduate. My interaction with Law’s teaching of Yeats had an incalculable effect on my artistic sensibilities, leading me to explore connections between form, content, and context. More recently, I was taken by a related thought of Helen Vendler from "A Life of Learning": "Form is content as deployed. Content is form as imagined."

Vendler was kind enough to send an in-depth reply to a question I had about a late-period Yeats poem in relation to my composition, Nagamani. She also commented: "Your intriguing set of instruments suggests that you are doing something quite new in American music."

Since we are in October, and we are speaking of Yeats, you may wish to feast your eyes on verse with an autumn setting, which I have personally long felt is the most beautiful poem ever composed in English, The Wild Swans at Coole, opening with:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;

Prior to entering college, I enjoyed a hiking and cycling trip though the Canadian Rockies in both Alberta and British Columbia. Leaving our fellow Outward Bound travelers asleep, Barrye Wall and I took to sapid, fortifying breakfasts at 4 AM, allowing us to begin hiking before sunrise to such places as Sunset Pass and Twin Falls, and returning before sunset. The host at one of the remote sets of cabins our group stayed in was a charismatic and entertaining Arlo Guthrie-type raconteur. He enthused that Judy Collins enveloped and captivated audiences beyond the abilities of myriad artists he had heard while attending concerts in the states.

The rasa that Judy Collins presents in her music is as pure and perfect as peace “dropping from the veils of the morning.” It was the tinkling sound of water from a fountain in a shop-window Yeats walked by while feeling "very homesick" in London that inspired The Lake Isle of Innisfree, credited by the poet as being “my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music.”

- Michael Robinson, October 2013, Los Angeles


© 2013 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, jazz pianist and musicologist. His 198 albums include 151 albums for meruvina and 47 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.

Innisfree recording

The Lake Isle of Innisfree poem

The Lake Isle of Innisfree origins

Joan of Arc recording

Joan of Arc lyrics

Joan of Arc entry in Wikipedia

Judy Collins

William Butler Yeats

Hamilton Camp

Leonard Cohen

Time Passes Slowly lyrics

Bob Dylan

A. Norman Jeffares

Helen Vendler

A Life of Learning


The Wild Swans at Coole poem

Outward Bound

Barrye Wall