By Richie Unterberger

Like many of the most significant musicians to rise to prominence in the 1960s, Judy Collins began the decade as a singer of traditional folk tunes with sparse instrumental backing. Yet by her third album, #3, she was already rapidly expanding beyond those boundaries in both repertoire and arrangements, covering contemporary songwriters like Bob Dylan and using soon-to-be-folk-rocker Roger McGuinn as arranger and accompanist. Her 1964 live release The Judy Collins Concert turned the focus even more toward emerging composers, with material by Dylan, Tom Paxton, Fred Neil, Billy Edd Wheeler, and John Phillips.

    The following year's Fifth Album was a still more decisive step in her evolution from traditional folk toward a new kind of sound. Again there was a rich assortment of material from the top contemporary folk composers of the day. There were more songs by Dylan and Wheeler, but also material by other writers on the verge of moving into folk-rock, including Eric Andersen, Phil Ochs, Gordon Lightfoot, and Richard Fariña. While still folk at their base, the arrangements were also more varied than ever, including noted side musicians like Bill Lee (father of filmmaker Spike Lee) on bass; Lovin' Spoonful leader John Sebastian, who plays harmonica on "Thirsty Boots"; Danny Kalb, soon to join the Blues Project; Eric Weissberg (whom she had met back in 1959 at the Exodus club in Denver) on second guitar; and Fariña on dulcimer.

    Producing the album was Mark Abramson, who would continue to act in that capacity for Collins well into the 1970s, though as Judy elaborates, "we produced together, truly. I would never have denied him his production credit. But it was also my choices, my thinking, my determination, and then Mark backing me up, helping me get what I wanted to get done. And we knew all these wonderful people, of course."

    Adds Judy, "Fifth Album came as a collection–as they all are, really–of what I'm doing and what I'm thinking of. I suppose the difference is that I had done an album of singer-songwriter songs on the third album. Then I had done a live concert with a number of other additions [to the songwriters interpreted], like Billy Edd Wheeler. So by the time I get to the fifth album, I'm sort of settled in my choosing from, I suppose you would call them, the city writers."

    By far the most famous of these city writers, even in 1965, was Bob Dylan. Three of his songs are on Fifth Album, and one of them is far more famous than the other two. "Mr. Tambourine Man," as she explains, was not a tune she learned from Dylan's recording or the Byrds' #1 hit version, but a composition she first heard sung in person by the songwriter himself. "I went up to visit [Dylan manager] Al Grossman's house in Woodstock," she remembers. "Bob was there that weekend. His wife Sara was there, Grossman's wife Sally was there, and Al Aronowitz, who was a wonderful writer, took me up there for a weekend. I was asleep in bed that night. We'd had a lovely dinner and a great time, and then I heard this song coming up the stairs. It was Dylan down in the basement, playing this song over and over again. It was 'Mr. Tambourine Man.'" While a few artists covered the classic shortly after it was written, including the Byrds and Odetta, Collins's version is one of the first.

    Although Ian & Sylvia had already released a cover of Dylan's "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" in 1963 (as Elvis Presley would in 1966), no official Dylan-sung version would be issued until after the 1960s. "I think he probably had sent me a demo of that song," says Judy. "I wanted to use that song in a movie Stacy Keach was making when he and I were living together, but I couldn't get the rights to it." Dylan's never issued an official version of "Daddy You've Been on My Mind," though it was also included on a Joan Baez album in 1965. The Fifth Album performance features second guitar by Danny Kalb, with whom Collins "actually was taking lessons with at that point, trying to learn to play the guitar a little better than I did."

    Judy's knack for finding songs which had yet to even be recorded was a gift which would surface again and again in her career, leading to some of the first major exposure for important talents such as Leonard Cohen. For Fifth Album she was especially quick to recognize the merit of a tune that would become one of Eric Andersen's most famous compositions. "Thirsty Boots," she reveals, "was a result of my friendship with Al Kooper, who introduced me to Eric Andersen. I didn't know Eric Andersen, so I was very happy to get to know him and start recording his material. Al had called him and said, 'Judy's got another album in the works. Why don't you get over here, and bring some songs?' He came to my door with Al one day, and I didn't know from him Adam. I answered the door, and he said, 'I've gotta use the bathroom.' So he went into the bathroom and finished writing 'Thirsty Boots' there, writing it on, I think, a matchbook," she laughs. "Then he sat down and sang it to me. I said, 'Great, I'll be recording that tomorrow!'"

    Collins was also quick off the mark to record one of Gordon Lightfoot's most acclaimed early songs, "Early Morning Rain"; it wouldn't appear on a Lightfoot album until his debut LP the following year, though Peter, Paul & Mary also put out a version in 1965. "In the Heat of the Summer" had only recently appeared on the second album by fellow Elektra Records artist Phil Ochs. While she'd done three of his other songs on Concert, Judy's particularly fond of Billy Edd Wheeler's "The Coming of the Roads," though Wheeler's perhaps most famous for writing "High Flying Bird" and co-penning the Kingston Trio's hit "The Reverend Mr. Black."

    Collins was close friends with both Richard Fariña and his wife Mimi, who had recently formed a duo and were making tentative ventures into folk-rock with recordings of their own. "Pack Up Your Sorrows," one of the two songs on which Richard played dulcimer, is one of the most famous of his compositions–or, in this case, co-composition, as he wrote it with Pauline Marden, sister of both Mimi Fariña and Joan Baez. Fariña also wrote the poem that graced the back cover, and he and Mimi even brought their German shepherd to Fifth Album sessions.

    "I adored Dick," wrote Collins in her 1998 book Singing Lessons. "He was the buddy I had never had before, a pal I could tell anything. I needed his friendship...he wrote a poem for me in which he compared my voice to amethysts; but his friendship was the true jewel." Tragically, Fariña died in a motorcycle accident not long afterward in April 1966, though Mimi would have a strong role to play on a future Judy Collins album, co-writing the title track of the 1976 LP Bread & Roses.

    Although interpretations of new material by young contemporary folk singer-songwriters comprised the majority of Fifth Album, the record also had more traditional numbers. "Lord Gregory," with cello by Bob Sylvester, and "So Early, Early in the Spring" are both traditional in origin. The Civil Rights anthem "Carry It On," the other cut to feature Fariña's dulcimer, was written by Gil Turner, who's also noted for his membership in the New World Singers, the first act to record "Blowin' in the Wind." "It Isn't Nice" was co-written by two veterans of the most socially conscious wing of the folk revival, Malvina Reynolds and Barbara Dane. The only live track on Fifth Album, it was recorded at New York's Town Hall on March 21, 1964, at the same performance where the songs on The Judy Collins Concert were taped.

    As much of a step forward as Fifth Album was for the folk scene in general and Judy Collins in particular, it was still very much a folk album. She'd make considerably more radical innovations in both the songs she sang and the way they were played on her next album, In My Life, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. – Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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