By Richie Unterberger

For the first half-dozen albums of her career, Judy Collins sang only traditional folk tunes and material by other songwriters. Even when she began to write songs in the late 1960s, her compositions were outnumbered by tunes from other sources on the records she issued during the next five years or so. The 1973 LP True Stories and Other Dreams, however, marked the first album on which her own songs comprised the majority of the material. As usual, though, the record also featured astutely selected tunes from a variety of other contemporary singer-songwriters, some of whom had also been recording since the early days of the folk revival, and some of whom were newcomers to the music scene.

    True Stories and Other Dreams also marked the first occasion on which she received a producer's credit, shared with Mark Abramson, who'd produced her recordings since the mid-1960s. As Judy elaborates, however, throughout their association, "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." On True Stories and Other Dreams, that support cast included her longtime friend Eric Weissberg on acoustic guitar, banjo, and upright bass; Bill Keith, whose pedal steel lent an occasional country flavor; and even Latin jazzman Ray Barretto on congos and bongos.

    The abundance of original material resulted from a block of time that Collins had deliberately set aside to develop new songs. As was often the case in her compositions, these often dealt with issues inspired by direct experiences with family and friends, as well as socially conscious political concerns. "I took a little time off in 1972 and went out to Long Island just to do some songwriting," remembers Judy today. "At that point, I wrote 'Fishermen Song.' I was on the beach there and these fishermen sing; they bring in the fish, and they would hand me a fresh bluefish or something for me to cook. So 'Fishermen Song' is really about that experience of watching them fish."

    Continues Collins, "'Secret Gardens' was of course about my family. The first line of 'Secret Gardens,' I was working with the poet in sort of an arts group. I was writing away in my journal, and looking for ways to start out my songs. She said, 'Well, look through your journal, and just take one of the sentences from your journal and start a song with it.' So I was looking through my journal, and my grandmother had died a couple of years before. The line in the journal was, 'My grandmother's house is still there, but it isn't the same.' And that was the first line, of course, of 'Secret Gardens.' I always loved 'Secret Gardens.' I had read the book [Frances Hodgson Burnett's children's novel Secret Garden] as a child; I always kept that image in my mind."

    Collins has often written about her family–one of the first songs she wrote, "My Father," remains one of her most famous—and "Holly Ann," she adds, "was about my wonderful sister Holly." The subject of "Song for Martin" wasn't immediate family, but was also inspired by someone close to her, Mart Hoffman, who'd recently committed suicide. "He was the first person I ever heard sing 'This Land Is Your Land,' up at Lookout Mountain in Colorado," says Judy. "He was a wonderful man, just a sweet man."

    In an entirely different vein, the seven-and-a-half-minute "Ché"–inspired, of course, by the famous revolutionary Ché Guevara–is one of the most ambitious compositions Collins ever put on disc. She'd been thinking about "the people who betrayed him, and how they might feel, because they were probably Catholics, they were probably poor, they were probably peasants in South America," she reflects. "And I thought, I want to see if I can paint that picture of him. Because all these people get told by leaders what they should do, and how they should live, and it must get to be a burden."

    It's a subject and song that still resonates with her, as in 2008 "I put out an album, Born to the Breed, with other singers singing my songs. The guy who sang this is James Mudriczki, who's with a group called Puressence in England. He sang this in what would be called the Manchester style, with very, very '70s kind of rhythm. But I thought it was wonderful, the way he did it. So you never know when somebody can do a song and make it something entirely different."

    Of the four tracks by other writers on True Stories and Other Dreams, the most famous is Valerie Carter's "Cook with Honey," as it gave Collins a #32 hit single in spring 1973. Judy and Valerie came into contact as Carter was a girlfriend of a friend of Stacy Keach, the famed actor with whom Collins was having a relationship at the time. Carter recorded the song herself as part of her group Howdy Moon, but Judy thinks she learned the song directly from Valerie, and not from the Howdy Moon record. "I never heard anybody else sing it, except her, so I doubt that I would have heard their version," she says. "So probably I recorded it before she did. A lot of these songs that I've done over these fifty years, I've recorded before the artist who wrote the song recorded it. So in a way they're not covers at all. A lot of times, they wouldn't have record deals. In the case of John Phillips, he wrote 'Me and My Uncle' and forgot he wrote it. But he sang it to me one night, and then I recorded it, and then he said, 'Oh yeah, I did write that!'" she laughs.

    While Stephen Stills's "So Begins the Task" had been on his 1972 album Manassas, it had actually been written at least four years prior to that. It's one of the songs on a recently unearthed demo tape Stills made after a Judy Collins session, issued as an official CD in 2007 titled Just Roll Tape: April 26, 1968. Indeed most of those songs (including of course "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"), says Judy, were about her, as the pair had a relationship in the late 1960s. "We were doing [Collins's late-'60s album] Who Knows Where the Time Goes, and we were back in the studio recording a version of 'Who Knows Where the Time Goes,' which was gonna go into a movie called The Subject Was Roses," she recalls. "When we finished, I had to get on a plane, and Stephen said, 'You know, I'm gonna stick around.' So he gave John Haeny, my engineer, a hundred bucks or something, and said, 'Just roll the tape.' When it came out, I called him up and I said, 'My god, it's like getting a valentine forty years later.'"

    Tom Paxton, like Collins, had been making albums for more than a decade by the time of True Stories and Other Dreams. She'd recorded three of his most famous songs, "The Last Thing on My Mind," "Ramblin' Boy," and "Bottle of Wine," back in 1964 for her album The Judy Collins Concert. She didn't record any more of his material (although she did perform his "Mr. Blue" on a 1967 television program) for quite some time before including a recent Paxton composition on True Stories and Other Dreams.  She hails "The Hostage," written in the wake of the 1971 Attica prison riots and featured on Paxton's 1972 album Peace Will Come, as a "great song, one of the best songs ever written I think by anyone."

    From a less celebrated source, "The Dealer (Down and Losin')" had appeared on the first album by singer-songwriter Bob Ruzicka. "I just love it," Collins enthuses. "A friend of mine was working for me, hunting for material, helping me look for things, and she found that song for me. I always like songs about gambling and horse racing and 'when the odds are against you, don't be depressed.'"

    While True Stories and Other Dreams did pretty well commercially, making the Top Thirty, in a way it marked the end of one era in Collins's career. After it was released, Elektra Records founder/president Jac Holzman called her one night to let her know he'd be leaving the label she'd been recording for since the early 1960s. She'd continue on Elektra, however, for another decade and quite a few more albums, several of which have also been reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. – Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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