In My Life: Caroline Herring, Judy Collins, Joan Baez and the Eternal Return
Half a dozen albums that I had ordered from my local record store came in last week, and Caroline Herring’s “Golden Apples of the Sun” was among them. I knew the song from an album by Judy Collins with the same title and was looking forward to hearing her take on Yeats.
But, what struck me more was the album seemed to reflect, in miniature, what I find more and more in today’s Americana music, an offhandedness that sometimes works, oft times doesn’t; where being an amateur is viewed as being an auteur and one’s amateurness is viewed as being unaffected. But, in reality, is all too often the height of affectation.
Not that this covers all of what is going on today. Not at all. In total, it is a very good time for acoustic music. It’s just, on the other hand, some try a little to hard to make it appear that they are not trying at all.
But as my thought processes run off into tangents of all sorts, it got me to thinking about folk music in the mid-60’s when Joan Baez was the high priestess with the voice and the boyfriend. And the performer who was always the also ran, Judy Collins, but who would, in short order, release a seminal record that would serve as a turning point in folk music and, in many ways, serve to eclipse her rival.
While 1965 is remembered for many things in the arts world, it should also be remembered for producing perhaps the finest sounding folk record ever: Joan Baez’s “Farewell Angelina.” Her voice was at its peak (and it has always been one of the finest) and was a fine mix of contemporary songs (four by Dylan, including the title song) and the traditional.
Judy Collins also raised her standards by releasing “Fifth Album” in 1965. Not only did it also contain three Dylan songs (one also covered by Baez, as if to stoke the competition even more), it contained songs by a relative unknown Gordon Lightfoot and Baez’s brother-in-law, Richard Farina. But for me the highlight was then, and remains now, “The Coming of the Roads.” Anyone who knows only Kathy Mattea’s version on her most recent album “Coal” should seek out Collins’ recording. Both Wheeler and Mattea are native West Virginians, Collins from an urban environment, yet Collins nails it with such a poignancy it brings tears to your eyes. And to add insult to injury, Mattea was unaware of its very existence until she began “looking” for songs for her coal “project.” (The song has an extra, darker resonance today as miners have become politically co-opted by the same coal companies that also oppress them. Talk about a Stockholm Syndrome.)
Baez and Collins came from divergent backgrounds – Baez from the coffee house community in the college town of college towns, Cambridge, and Collins, from the West Coast, had the Great American Songbook as her soundtrack growing up. By 1965, not only had Dylan left the fold, Baez and Collins had taken “folk” music about as far as it could go. With her mind & energies elsewhere, Baez did not release a record in 1966, or perhaps even spend much time contemplating one. As both were, up to that point, at the mercy of other songwriters, their continued popularity rested on finding newer, unknown songs that would resonate with their audience. And the traditional folk audience, by and large, did not include rock & roll or tin pan alley.
However, what had been a perceived as a short coming, in 1966 served Collins well. Like Baez she had immersed herself into and had become synonymous with folk music, its traditions and expanding its boundaries. Collins expanded it even more as she was the first to see the potential in the theatre/art songs of Brecht & Weill, the pop songs of Lennon & McCartney and a complete unknown, Randy Newman.
In November 1966 Collins released “In My Life.” With a cover somewhat reminiscent of Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home,” but in a monochromatic outdoor brown, save for a blue, blue dress to match her eyes (not that you could tell on that cover). The album is largely remembered today for having introduced “Suzanne” and Leonard Cohen to the world – both of which, as we now well know, was of major import.
However, she did not title the album “Suzanne” — and she had to know how good that song was. Rather, it was titled after the Beatles song, “In My Life.” While Lennon & McCartney’s “Michelle” and “Yesterday” had invaded the repertoires of Sinatra and other similar vocalists, they had not been embraced by a much less accepting folk audience. And this was despite the fact that many of those who listened to folk music, especially the younger portion, also listened to the Beatles and many other popular, albeit lesser, bands of the day.
Collins, as a result of being aware of a much wider range of music, was among the first to see not just the potential in others – and she did so much more than anyone else – but the potential in pop songs by rock & roll bands. To strip the song down, make it acoustic and show it’s inner workings, it’s inner life – as a jazz or cabaret vocalist would. Not only that, she put not only the song right out there in front for all the world to see, but also to say these are the songs, the sensibilities, the drivers in my life now. She began the album with one of Dylan’s Judas songs, “Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues” as if to say, the times have changed yet again. The eternal return.
At that time it was a risk, not just to include the Beatles song, but to also showcase songs by avant garde Germans whose work was no longer even being staged for their intended audience. Kurt Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, despite her two fabulous records of his songs some years before, finding little work, played a schoolboy’s image of a contemptible, sexually repressed, communist destroyer of all things bright and beautiful, stereotypical lesbian in a 1964 James Bond motion picture. (But that take is not completely accurate as it is apparent that Lenya had a lot of fun playing against type as Rosa Kleb.) And lest we forget introducing an unsuspecting world to Randy Newman’s sensibility. That too should not be ignored.
To her record label, the independent Elektra, Collins was it’s brightest commercial star, so it too was taking a risk. If it was a bust, her credibility would be serious hurt. But Collins’ take on the music world was on the mark and her acceptance by a wider audience was also on target. In November 1966 — the same month her record label also released the first record by an unknown American band that had been turned down by all the major labels, The Doors, came out — “In My Life” was released and changed the folk music landscape.
In 1967 Baez played catch-up with “Joan.” It included Lennon & McCartney’s much more obvious “Eleanor Rigby” and a song that was also on “Life” – “La Colombe” as if to say anything you can do, I can do better. But it was not better, pleasant enough, but not in the same league. And it contained nary a Dylan song – the break-up was a bad one.
It’s as though their roles had been reversed. This was even reflected in their respective album covers: Joan’s “Angelina” portrayed her as an exotic, Judy’s “Fifth” was wholesome. Just Judy’s body language on the cover of “Life” was a defiant one. The cover “Joan” was that of a choir girl.
For those who have not heard it, I suggest you go back, listen to the ones that came before “In My Life” — not just the great “Farewell Angelina” and “Fifth Album,” but pre-1966 records by Carolyn Hester, Eric Anderson, Fred Neil, Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk, Richard & Mimi Farina and many others of their day. Also, listen to what they listened to, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Cisco Houston, Malvina Reynolds, and many, many others. Then listen to “In My Life.” You will get a semblance of the shift that happened in 1966-67 and, perhaps, be able to hear with greater clarity what we hear today.
Today’s Americana is not just yesterday’s folk music, it’s the continuation of a tradition, a continuation as seen though new eyes, new voices and new lives. To more fully appreciate any history, any art it enriches the experience to know what went before. It also enables you to more readily separate the wheat from today’s chaff.
In short, “In My Life” is both a missing link and a significant record. I won’t say that some one else would not have finally put two and two together, but Judy Collins is one who did it. The album was just the first of many more that found more creative and commercial success (when that was still possible) than did Baez in the decade that followed. Not to mention Collins becoming the more accomplished songwriter of the two.
And as a coda, a few years back a professional songwriter’s group chose “In My Life” as the finest popular music song written in the past 40 years.