the course of three extraordinary albums in the last half of the 1960s,
Judy Collins made the journey from folk star to pop star. All of those
albums–In My Life, Wildflowers, and Who Knows Where the Time Goes–had
showcased her superb interpretations of songs by an astonishing array
of composers. They'd also varied in arrangement from near-classical to
country-rock, as well as starting to feature some of her own
compositions. Indeed, the only sure prediction you could make about a
Judy Collins album was that it would be unpredictable. The 1970 record Whales and Nightingales certainly
fit that bill in both sound and subject matter, with Jacques Brel and
Bob Dylan songs fitting side-by-side with traditional folk tunes,
gospel, and even an actual whale song. Yet for all its unconventional
territory, it would be one of her most popular releases, as well as
producing an international hit single.
In an unusual
and, in some ways, even radical approach, Collins and producer Mark
Abramson decided to record material for the album in several locations
outside of standard recording studios. As Judy sees it today, it was
"one of these situations where we wanted to get the right sound. And in
those days, you couldn't just dial it up. If you wanted to get the
sound of Carnegie Hall, you had to go there. So that's what we did." In
addition to Carnegie Hall, tracks were cut at the Manhattan Center (a
seventh-floor ballroom where Capitol Records had done numerous original
cast LPs) and St. Paul's chapel at Columbia University. "Our whole
approach was to get the sound of the place, to get the kind of feel of
those rooms," adds Collins. "A big deal in those days. You had to take
your recording truck and nothing was digital. It was all analog."
Amplifies engineer John Haeny in Elektra Records founder/president Jac Holzman's memoir Follow the Music (co-written with Gavan Daws), "We decided to pick locations that matched the emotional ambience of the songs we were recording. Mark and I spent weeks scouting locations. And then recording...What a time we had. We recorded out of a converted red truck, with bums, panhandlers and junkies all around us, during a hot steamy New York summer, and it was just the most vibrant experience imaginable."
For all the cutting-edge adventurousness of the recording methods, much of the material was more traditional in nature than what Collins had usually put on her albums for nearly a decade. "The Patriot Game" was written by Irishman Domenic Behan (also renowned as a playwright and novelist), and had already become a folk standard of sorts through recordings by the Clancy Brothers, the Dubliners, and the Kingston Trio. "Simple Gifts" is, in the words of Judy's 1998 autobiography Singing Lessons, "a song of Shaker origin about beauty in simplicity." "Oh, Had I a Golden Thread" was written by Pete Seeger, an inspiration to Collins and countless performers who began their careers in the folk revival, and of course author of "Turn! Turn! Turn!," which Judy had memorably covered back in the early 1960s on her third album.
Yet one of the traditional songs was, to say the least, arranged in a most untraditional manner. For the whaling song "Farewell to Tarwathie" features Roger Payne's actual recordings of songs of humpback whales, at a time when awareness of whale songs, and the availability of environmental recordings of that nature in general, was far less widespread than it is today. As Collins explains, Payne, a marine biologist with the New York Zoological Society, brought the recordings to her "in the summer of 1969, when I was performing in Peer Gynt, the play, with Stacy Keach in the lead of Peer Gynt; I was playing the all-suffering Solveig. One night, this tall, good-looking man came backstage and handed me this tape. He said, 'I want you to figure something out to do with these whales. They're wonderful, and I'm entrusting them to you.'"
Continues Judy, "Of course, I had no clue what I was gonna do with them. It was such an unusual sound, so beautiful but so haunting. I decided, after I'd lived with them for a month or two, that they really belonged with the whaling song¬–with the song that could bring out the poignancy of how confusing and depressing the whole question of whaling was. Because it still goes on. Roger Payne is still fighting that fight. He continues to try to convince the Japanese and the Russians, particularly, not to do this."
Collins had hardly, however, abandoned her search for songs to cover by interesting contemporary singer-songwriters. Leading off the album was Joan Baez's "Song for David," written for Baez's then-husband David Harris, who was in jail at the time for refusing induction into the military. Collins had been one of the first prominent artists to record Bob Dylan compositions, and on Whales and Nightingales she opted to sing his "Time Passes Slowly," which Dylan had recently done on his New Morning album. Having been a big fan of Jacques Brel for years, and having already covered his "La Colombe" on In My Life and "La Chanson des Vieux Amants (The Song of Old Lovers)" on Wildflowers, it's unsurprising she put a couple Brel songs on Whales and Nightingales, "Sons Of" and "Marieke." Interestingly, she would re-record "Marieke" a decade later for her 1980 album Running for My Life.
Both of those tracks, as well as "Prothalamium" (co-written by her keyboardist Michael Sahl and recorded in Carnegie Hall) and "Nightingale II," were arranged and conducted by Joshua Rifkin, who'd been a crucial contributor to the musical settings of In My Life and Wildflowers. "What you had with Judy and myself were people who both had folk and classical background," Rifkin commented about his collaborations with Collins in an interview with the author in 2002. "Virtually none of us doing that stuff then had an actual rock background. Folk, perhaps, was the link. I think they brought me in because they were interested in trying something new with her. My response was, when [Elektra] asked me about arranging for her, 'I've never arranged before. So of course I'd love to.' It is really extraordinary that they took these chances on me and several other people. They were ready to try practically anything, or try what appealed to them, and I for one am eternally grateful for their having done so."
Added Rifkin, "Everybody was open to and looking for new possibilities; people were very, very eager to try different things, and see what would happen. There were, I think, at the same time new possibilities for recognition and success that folk musicians had not had before. Pop music now was changing, and it opened up possibilities of folk-derived music being part of a sort of broader pop scene. That was tantalizing, fascinating, challenging, and so forth."
Collins was especially pleased with Rifkin's work on "Nightingale II," which along with the shorter "Nightingale I" marked her only self-penned material on the record. "I had that melody in my mind for a long time," she remembers. "It was supposed to be something else about somebody. But then, I couldn't seem to get the lyrics to work. Finally it turned into a kind of an Aesop's Fable, I guess. Josh heard the melody first and said, 'I think I'd just like to orchestrate that, and have it be kind of the duet with the song that you sing.' Which I loved. I think he did a beautiful job."
By far the most famous song on Whales and Nightingales, however, is its closing cut. While the hymn "Amazing Grace" has been performed by innumerable artists, Collins's version remains the most commercially successful vocal rendition of this standard, reaching #15 in the US and #5 in the UK. Recorded at St. Paul's chapel at Columbia University, the track features actor Stacy Keach, Alistair Cooke's son John, and one of Judy's brothers among the backup singers.
"I had sung it one night when we were all together at an event," Judy explains. "Mark was with me, and the next day he called and said, 'We have to record that song.' The first thing we tried to do at his suggestion was to put instruments to it, and it didn't work at all. It was terrible. That was when I said, 'I've gotta sing it with a group of friends, a cappella, with their joining in on the harmonies.' So we just went up and did it. It certainly came to be tremendously well known around the world." – Richie Unterberger
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