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John Lamb, Published October 02 2012

Longtime folk singer Collins brings celebrated voice to Fargo Theatre

FARGO – Judy Collins made her recording debut, “A Maid of Constant Sorrow,” in 1961, a collection of traditional folk protest tunes.

Thirty-six albums, a complete change in the music industry and a few neo-folk revivals later, one thing remains constant: The 73-year-old singer is still celebrated for giving voice to other people’s songs.

The singer/guitarist plays the Fargo Theatre on Saturday night, cherry-picking tunes from her 51-year career. Collins has a knack for knowing a good song when she hears it and was often the first to popularize a number.

Here’s a look at some of her signature tunes and at least one she inspired.

• Collins started off as a classical pianist, debuting at age 13. But she soon discovered folk music and switched to guitar.

Early on she recognized the power of Bob Dylan, recording “Masters of War” in 1963, just after the release of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” Two years later she took a spin with “Mr. Tambourine Man” months after Dylan released it. Collins knew the song well – she claims he finished it at her house.

She would later release a compilation of his songs, “Judy Sings Dylan … Just Like a Woman.”

• Her big break came with Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” in 1967, two years before the author herself would release it. Collins’ version reached No. 8 on the charts and earned her a Grammy for best folk performance.

While each went on to have distinguished careers, they’ve never been friends.

“She said some things that were rather hostile,” Collins said in The Daily Beast in a story about her autobiography, “and I probably took them (too) seriously. Perhaps I shouldn’t have. I can’t call it a friendship, but I certainly admire her without reservation.”

• Not only did she help introduce Mitchell to a broader audiences, she also kick-started the career of Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen by recording “Suzanne” and releasing it a year before he did in 1967. (She also recorded “Dress Rehearsal Rag” for her 1966 album “In My Life” and would later be the first to record “Bird on a Wire.” In 2004 she released, “Judy Collins Sings Leonard Cohen: Democracy”.)

Inducting him into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Collins recalled Cohen as an admirer. When he first played her “Suzanne” he told her, “I can’t sing and I can’t play the guitar, and I don’t know if this is a song.” She responded, “Leonard, it’s a song and I’m recording it tomorrow.”

The recording made a mark on another singer-songwriter – James Taylor.

“The first time I heard any of (Cohen’s) songs was Judy Collins’ version of ‘Suzanne’ on her ‘In My Life’ album,” Taylor told Rolling Stone. “I loved her version and it had a huge effect on me and informed my writing.”

• Forty-one years after first recording “In My Life,” she released an album of Beatles tunes, “Judy Collins Sings Lennon and McCartney”. The disc includes one of her favorite songs, “Blackbird.”

• Though she never recorded it, Collins was instrumental in Crosby Stills and Nash’s first hit, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Guitarist Stephen Stills wrote the seven-minute song about his ex-girlfriend, after Collins left him for actor Stacy Keach.

“Stephen knew exactly what he was doing,” she writes in her 2011 memoir, “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes”. “He was that smart and that gifted. In a way it was his revenge, served hot, and it was magnificent.”

• A long-time political and social activist, Collins appeared before the court in the case of the Chicago Seven in 1969. Testifying in support of Abbie Hoffman and the six others, Collins sang Pete Singer’s “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” from the witness stand before being scolded by the judge.

• Eight years after her first Grammy win, Collins’ version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” won Song of the Year. The tune was written for Sondheim’s 1973 musical, “A Little Night Music,” but Collins released it as a single in 1975 and it would become her third biggest hit.

• At the 1993 inauguration for President Bill Clinton, Collins reprised her version of the spiritual, “Amazing Grace” and Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning,” the song the Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea, was named after. Bill Clinton has named her 1972 compilation album, “Colors of the Day,” his favorite.

Collins became a family friend and often stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom.

“For eight years I went in and out of the White House like I owned it,” she says in her book. “I would stay up and talk to Bill until 2:30 in the morning and think, ‘My God, when is this man going to let me get to bed?’”

If you go

What: Judy Collins

When: Doors open at 7 p.m.; opener Rachael Sage starts at 8

Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway

Info: Tickets are $37.50 and $47.50; fees may apply. Tickets are available at jadepresents.com, at the Tickets 300 box office or by calling (866) 300-8300.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533