By Richie Unterberger

In My Life was the album most crucial to Judy Collins's astonishing evolution from traditional folk singer to an artist not limited to any category. While folk music was certainly an element of this extraordinarily varied set, it was just one ingredient of a record that also drew from classical music, the theater, rock, and more. Some critics did try to classify the sound as "baroque folk" at the time, and if that's an actual genre, In My Life is certainly the keystone baroque folk album. But the album transcends labels, testifying to her skill at interpreting material by an amazing array of writers in remarkably eclectic musical settings.

    "I think it's a seminal album," acknowledges Judy today. "It was a very big change. It was something that was dramatically different. What I wanted to do with this album was to make a difference, to do different things, not to be doing the singer-songwriter route."

    One key to the change was Joshua Rifkin, who arranged and conducted seven of the eleven songs, effecting a sort of classical/folk fusion with no parallel in pop music at the time. Only 22 when he worked on sessions for In My Life in London in the summer of 1966, he'd already been associated with Elektra for a few years, recording as part of the Even Dozen Jug Band; researching and writing liner notes for Elektra's classical subsidiary, Nonesuch; and doing arrangements for the label's popular LP of classical versions of Beatles songs, The Baroque Beatles Book. Collins and In My Life producer Mark Abramson, explains Judy, "got to know him when he started to do records for Nonesuch. He was wonderful. We liked him a lot, so we thought we should get involved with him in this phase of our work. And he did a beautiful job on that whole album."

    Starting with her third album, #3, Collins had already established herself as a stellar interpreter of material by a wide variety of contemporary singer-songwriters. Those songwriters were from the folk music community, and like many of them, Judy would be moving into different styles in the last half of the 1960s. Indeed, two of the songs she covered on In My Life, Bob Dylan's "Tom Thumb's Blues" and Richard Fariña's "Hard Lovin' Loser," were by songwriters who made some of the first folk-rock records. Collins had covered tunes by both Dylan and Fariña on previous albums, but here they sounded quite different from both the original versions and anything Judy had previously done. "Tom Thumb's Blues" was given a wistful, nearly classical backing, and "Hard Lovin' Loser," in contrast, was as close as the record got to rock'n'roll, driven by an urgent harpsichord riff and barrelhouse piano.

    But other than Donovan's "Sunny Goodge Street" (here given a delicate baroque arrangement), none of the other songs came from the pool of established folk-rockers. Reflecting her interest in theatrical music, the disc also featured Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's biting "Pirate Jenny," as well as the great French composer Jacques Brel's "La Colombe." Declares Judy, "I adored Brel. [Elektra founder/president] Jac Holzman started to bring me Brel records, and I went to his concert in Carnegie Hall in 1965. I was just mad about Brel. And I loved this song; I think it's one of the best anti-war songs ever written by anybody."

    Yet more unusual was Richard Peaslee's "Marat/Sade," whose suite-like structure Collins assembled after getting a reel-to-reel tape of music from the composer himself. As Judy remembers, "I had gone to see Marat/Sade, the Peter Brook play, in New York, and fell in love with the music. I got a quarter-inch tape of it, and then I was sitting in front of my recorder cutting it into shape. I put that song together–created something out of it that has not an entire resemblance to its original form–and then I handed it to Josh, and he did a beautiful orchestration of it. Everything was pretty much his take on orchestrating, but it was very, very classically thought through."

    In My Life also marked the first appearances of songs by Leonard Cohen on record. Cohen, already renowned as a novelist and poet, had yet to start his own recording career when Collins covered "Dress Rehearsal Rag" and "Suzanne" for the album. "Leonard had never been a songwriter, never thought about being a songwriter, and I was told by his close friend Mary Martin that he had written a couple of things that he wanted to find out about," Judy recalls. "So he wanted to come to New York and meet me, and she and I were friends, so she put that together. He played me three songs that day–'Dress Rehearsal Rag,' 'Suzanne,' and 'The Stranger Song.' The only one I haven't ever done is 'The Stranger Song,' which I love [and which Cohen would sing on his debut album shortly afterward]. But I put both of those songs on this album. They were the perfect fit for the kind of departure we were making."

    Also unknown to the general public at the time, though many of his songs had already been recorded by pop/rock artists, was Randy Newman, author of "I Think It's Going to Rain Today." Newman had yet to release an album of his own when Judy recorded it, and the song would go on to be covered by several other major artists, including Neil Diamond, Joe Cocker, Peter Gabriel, Norah Jones, Nina Simone, and Dusty Springfield. Collins's version, however, predates all of these, as well as the version that Newman himself did on his 1968 debut album.

    Joshua Rifkin, as it turns out, had first become aware of Newman even before In My Life, via Cilla Black's 1965 British hit cover of Randy's "I've Been Wrong Before." "It was a great single, and we all loved it," Rifkin enthused to the author in a 2002 interview. "At parties at Mark Abramson's house, we used to play that thing twenty, forty times in a row, just wearing out the vinyl, over and over again."

    Also on the album were two songs that shared Liverpool origins, but could have hardly been more stylistically different. "Liverpool Lullaby" was written by Liverpool folk songwriter Stan Kelly, and might have come Judy's way as a result of being covered in Britain in the mid-1960s by the Ian Campbell Folk Group, who had some US releases on Elektra Records; indeed, the song appears on their 1966 Elektra LP The Rights of Man. The composers of the title track were, like Stan Kelly, from Liverpool, but their song was far less obscure. John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "In My Life," of course, had recently been a cornerstone of the Beatles' chart-topping Rubber Soul album. In 1966, it was still somewhat controversial for an artist who had first risen to popularity in traditional folk circles to do that kind of material, and as Collins states with pride, "doing the Beatles song was a real departure."

    In My Life's cover was scarcely any less memorable than its music, and a real standout even for a label known for its striking sleeve graphics. "We went to a town that I'd worked in, in Colorado," says Judy. "I don't know who got this idea. Maybe I did. But I knew I wanted something unusual, something different; some kind of collection of things that wouldn't normally be together. I knew this club called the Glory Hole in Central City, Colorado. In their garden, I knew they had all these wonderful things like skulls and old pictures of the Mona Lisa. We gathered that wonderful outdoor grillwork furniture and the old pot-bellied stove, and put it all together with the mirror, the glass of brandy, the pack of cigarettes, and the unlighted cigar, and took a picture. Bill Harvey came out with me to Colorado to do that; he was the art director for Elektra, and he and I did a number of album covers together."

    In retrospect, In My Life set a standard of sorts that many subsequent Judy Collins albums have followed, taking risks in the wide range of both the song selection and the gamut of styles explored. As Jac Holzman put it to the author in a 2001 interview, he sees In My Life and her subsequent Elektra recordings as embodiments of "her willingness to explore and to ignore all limits. We did with Judy what we did with any artist. We tried to figure out what was the most ideal setting for the song, and let the instrumentation follow that." – Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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