Judy Collins: “I ain’t a folksinger. I’m a singer.”

Judy Collins
Judy Collins in June, 2013, at the 50th anniversary of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s visit to to New Ross, Co. Wexford, Ireland in 1963. Photo by Sean Rowe via Flickr, Creative Commons.

The song Amazing Grace was and continues to be a staple of Judy Collins’s concert repertoire. However, when she performed a concert in Calgary, she never got to sing it.  Arts columnist Brian Brennan. explains why. An excerpt of Brennan’s Brief Encounters column, “Amazing Grace”: Judy Collins (paywall):

Before American Idol there was the Kiwanis International Talent Search. The year was 1956, the place was Denver, Colorado. Sixteen-year-old Judy Collins won first prize singing an English folk ballad, Pretty Saro, at a regional talent contest jointly sponsored by Kiwanis clubs in Colorado and three other American states. For accompaniment she used a rented guitar. The prize included a trip to Atlantic City for her first professional singing engagement.

One of the other contestants was an ambitious young violinist who had been conservatory trained. His father complained to the man sitting next to him, who just happened to be Collins’s father: “Isn’t that just the damnedest? Here I spend a fortune on violin lessons. My son is on his way to Juilliard and a New York career, and he gets beat out by a hillbilly singer.”

Some hillbilly singer. The blue-eyed winner of that talent contest was, in fact, a conservatory-trained musician who had been headed for a career as a classical pianist before she took a left turn and embraced folk music. For nine years Collins had studied with one of the best. Her piano teacher was Antonia Brico, a brilliant European-trained musician who in 1938 became the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic. In 1947, Brico became director of the Denver Businessmen’s Symphony. Six years later, Collins made her piano-playing debut with the orchestra at age 13. By that time, however, Collins had already decided she wanted to be a singer … log in or subscribe* to read “Amazing Grace”: Judy Collins.

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