Judy Collins unites generations, sings children's book

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Judy Collins sat at a table on the third floor of BookPeople Friday afternoon, casually sipping a cold Diet Coke. Known for singing alongside some of the great folk artists of the ’60s like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, Collins, 71, prepared herself before going on stage to sing some of her classic songs and talk about her new children’s book, “Over the Rainbow.”

The book continues the folk-music tradition of passing down stories from generation to generation.

“I have a lot of her records,” said Chris Thorton, an ACC graduate and music enthusiast who was there to see her sing. “But the fact that she’s still about continuing tradition — what she’s been doing for years and years and is continuing to do it as she’s getting older — is why I wanted to see her.”

Even though her iconic long flowing brown hair has gone white, Collins looked over the books she was signing before the interview with the same piercing blue eyes that she had 53 years ago on the cover of her album, Wildflowers.

Collins won the Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance in 1969 for her version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now,” but was originally trained in classical piano. She said she decided to do folk music after hearing “Barbara Allen” and “Gypsy Rover” on the radio.

“It’s just the story of lyrics,” Collins said. “‘The Moon [in] June’ lyrics of the ‘Great American Songbook’ don’t tell an independent story; they tell something and they’re wonderful songs, but they’re not really literary ballads — and that’s what got me. Stories are what drive all of us.”

In addition to her music, Collins is a social activist who represents UNICEF, campaigns for the removal of landmines and also advocates suicide prevention after her son committed suicide in 1992.

“Time doesn’t change,” Collins said. “The problems that we’ve always had are human problems. It’s always the same way it was when I was just starting. People were furious and marching about one thing or another. It was mostly the war, and people are crazed about a lot more things now, but we’re always crazed about something.”

In spite of being known for her social activism and long-standing music career, she was in Austin on Friday for a different reason — to promote and sign copies of “Over the Rainbow.” The crowd she drew was a mix of ages, from college students to older generations who had brought their children and grandchildren to listen to Collins.

“I don’t really have a message; I just sing songs that I love,” Collins said before she went on stage. “But at the same time I know what I do is a service. It serves a very internal purpose. You get transported. It lets [listeners] fly wherever they want to. As long as you’re transported into your own mind and memories then that’s wonderful.”

Collins then quickly finished her Diet Coke before warming up for a small vocal performance and gathering all the children on stage.