IN HER LIFE
When thinking of the music of Judy Collins, there is an inevitable identification with the period when, what was called folk music, enjoyed its greatest universal popularity. Collins may have started out as a classically-trained pianist rather than a guitar-toting troubadour, but who else is so inextricably linked to both the early 1960s acoustic movement as well as the 1970s singer/songwriter era? She is also decidedly more than a footnote in the careers of such other icons as Leonard Cohen, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, and even Bob Dylan himself, whose songs she was covering practically from the very beginning of his career.
And yet, upon careful listening, that's not what stands out. While she is in some ways the quintessential folkie - her early records indeed focus largely on traditional material with light acoustic backing - the experimentation and desire to look beyond the world of hootenannies and coffee houses started almost from the very beginning. By her third album, she's already trying out songs and arrangements that vary from the norm with the help of, among others, future Byrds leader McGuinn and jazz bassist Bill Lee (also Spike's dad). By the time we get to the first of these CDs, [originally released on Elektra, but reissued earlier this year by Collector's Choice], she's already become a diverse, interesting and above all musical artist, and one not easily categorized.
Judy Collins' Fifth Album (RATING: !) [orig. release 1965]
There's still more than a touch of "old guard" to this, with two traditional songs and a series of (mostly fairly straight ahead) covers from popular songwriters of the day. Certainly compared to what Dylan and the like were working up to at the time, it's pretty tame. But there's also a palpable sense that she's already looking beyond the easy or expected. The arrangements are diverse and unpredictable, though still acoustic based. The songwriters are a talented group, from the ever dependable "Trad. Arr." to the three Dylan songs (two of which had been yet to be recorded by Dylan). But the musical highlight is the dulcimer playing of good friend Richard Farina on Farina's own Pack Up Your Sorrows. Farina, as part of a duo with wife Mimi, had already put his stamp on the era, using dulcimer as a primary rhythm instrument rather than the usual guitar, setting the stage for performers to find new and unexpected ways to express themselves. Collins would show she was up for it soon enough.
In My Life (RATING: !!!) 
This is the one, the real deal, the highlight of these reissues and almost certainly the finest record of Collins' long career. Of course by then there was already a thriving folk/rock scene- led by, among others, some folks that had played on Collins' previous recordings- so stubborn traditionalists, should they still want to stick with the "old guard," had clearly already lost the battle. Yet rather than follow the trends, Collins finds another way to stand out from the- by then rather massive - crowd. Feeling no need to artificially uphold a tradition that had clearly been stretched to the limit by the age, or to "go electric" in a attempt to stay with the times, she looked to young keyboardist/arranger Joshua Rifkin, the arranger and the producer of the Baroque Beatles Book, a striking resetting of several Lennon/McCartney songs. Collins had been impressed enough to make his orchestral arrangement of a particularly sentimental Lennon/McCartney song the title track, though it's her pure soprano which imbues the song with quiet intensity. Other tracks in this decidedly non-folkie mix include a few bits of musical theater- one from the then-popular Marat Sade and the Brecht/Weill Pirate Jenny, a likely blueprint for Steeleye Span's rendering of the same song a decade later. What she does had no precedent, and for that matter antecedent that I can think of. Most of all, she gives each song the reading it needs. Where she manages to do so most strikingly is on the first recorded appearance of songs by Leonard Cohen. Her Suzanne may be not have the edge Cohen's own version would have a scant few years later, but she draws every bit of sarcasm, barbed wit and bitterness out of his Dress Rehearsal Rag. She had long ago proven she could "sing pretty" when called for, this is where she proves she had the range and intelligence to do the opposite as well. Rifkin's arrangements, be they orchestral or featuring his own piano or harpsichord playing, also avoid fussiness while not going for easy shock value either. There were dozens of ways for this recording to go wrong, but it's to Collins' and Rifkin's credit that they found the one way for it to go right. Almost half a century later, it's still a staggering achievement, and has dated about as well as anything from the era.
Whales and Nightingales (RATING: !!) 
After having hits with the songs of Joni Mitchell, Dylan and the like, Collins started the 1970s more regularly writing her own material, and what of it that's here is pretty good, though the songs don't quite measure up to the songwriters she'd been covering. No shame in that, of course, considering the high standards they'd set. Regardless, it's her ability to make songs her own that stands out here. Be it on Dominic Behan's The Patriot Game - which sharp-eared listeners will recognize as the melodic source for Dylan's With God on Our Side, - the somewhat obscure Time Passes Slowly by Dylan himself, or a couple of Jacques Brel Songs, she inhabits them all thoroughly. This is also an album that was recorded in a great variety of locations- from an empty Carnegie Hall to a crowded New York street to St. Paul's Chapel, site of her recording of Amazing Grace, one of the biggest pop hits of her career. But it's the beautiful performance of the traditional Farewell to Tarwathie featuring recordings of whale songs as accompaniment that explains the first word of the album title. It's once again an example of something that could have been a mere gimmick in the wrong hands. The second half of the title comes from an original two-part song, the first half of it baroquely arranged by old pal Rifkin.
True Stories and Other Dreams (RATING: !) 
By this time, Collins has finally become the best songwriter on her own album. Probably not coincidentally, it's also the first time the majority of the songs are original. An angry (and electric- featuring some rather "heavy" guitar solos) version of Tom Paxton's The Hostage is great, though the other non-original songs don't fare as well as Song for Martin, a sensitive tribute to an old friend who'd committed suicide, or Che, of course about (now very trendy) revolutionary Guevara, refreshingly free of revolutionary rhetoric, and rich in historical narrative.
Also part of the same reissue program are Bread & Roses , Running for My Life , Times of Our Lives , Home Again  and Christmas at the Biltmore . Albums NOT part of it include are Judy Collins #3 , prominently featuring a young Jim (later Roger) McGuinn (accompanying Collins on Turn Turn Turn, a hit for the Byrds two year later), Wildflowers , which features her version of Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now, still the biggest hit of her career and a song likely more identified with her than with its composer, and Who Knows Where the Time Goes  which features a stellar backing band including Stephen Stills, master guitarist James Burton, and pedal steel player Buddy Emmons. These albums are all still in print on their original Elektra label, and all are highly recommended
Collins' history is so interesting because she spans so many different eras in so short a time, and she's an important figure in all of them. She also recorded both before and after the time it became expected for singer/songwriter types to write their own songs. While she was up to the task, when one looks at the songwriters she's best-known for covering- Cohen, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, even Lennon and McCartney- what they all have in common is that their songs have lasted. And that's what the legacy of Judy Collins is in the end, regardless of how the music is played or interpreted. Good songs, well sung- and played with an obvious purpose, which affects both singer and listener.
[!!!]-Classic, sure to be looked back on as such for generations to come.
[!!]-Great, one of the year's finest. If you have even a vague interest in the artist, consider this my whole-hearted recommendation that you go out and purchase it immediately.
[!]-Very good, with considerable appeal for a fan of the artist(s). If you purchase it, you likely won't be disappointed.
[--]-Good/solid, what you would expect.
[X]-Avoid. Either ill-conceived, or artistically inept in some way.