As a kid, I could never remember which one was Judy Collins. I shared a room with an older brother who favored female folk singers, all of whom, it seemed, had first names beginning with the letter J: Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Jennifer Warnes, Judee Sill, Judy Collins.
"She gets that a lot," says Michael Ford, author of the encyclopedic Folkie: Remembering Roots Music. "The best way to tell them apart, if you don't know the music, is that Judy is the one with the big eyes who doesn't write songs."
In fact, Collins has penned a handful of tunes during a 40-year career that's produced 30 albums, an occasional radio hit (most notably a stunning a cappella reading of "Amazing Grace" in 1970), and a best-selling memoir. Just lately, music writers have been referring to Collins as a "living legend."
"Judy Collins was the conduit between folk revivalists like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and the folkies who would become the next generation of social poets," Ford says. "That's why she's important, and why she's become iconic."
Collins abandoned an early career as a classical pianist in favor of the early '60s folkie circuit. Her recordings introduced work by Canadian poet Leonard Cohen, popularized songs by Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman, and inspired Stephen Stills' "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes."
"That song alone is reason enough to sanctify her," says Ford. "That and the fact that she's survived in an industry that's been trying to ignore folk music for 30 years." And despite what Ford calls "those idiots who can't tell her from Joan Baez."