Welcoming Judy Collins

The legendary folk singer and activist hopes to uncover some familial history when she performs in The MAC on October 3

'One of my great memories of visiting Belfast in the mid-1960s was meeting the McPeake family, when the old man was still alive. I’m hoping we can reconnect. They are great musicians.'

Even on the telephone, the voice of Judy Collins is instantly recognizable. It as soft and clear as when she sings, warm and welcoming – the voice of a classically-trained folk singer who has brought her unique sound to the songs of Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, among others.

Many of these classic interpretations, along with her own compositions, will feature in Collins' forthcoming – and rescheduled – concert at The MAC in Belfast on October 3, when 'Judy of the blue eyes', the multi-Grammy Award-winning artist and activist tells her story of a career that has spanned five decades.

The audience will be treated to anecdotes of the times she spent with Dylan, whom Collins remembers as being very badly dressed on their first encounter; Cohen, who needed much prompting from her to take up a singing career; and Seeger, whose crusades in support of disarmament and environmental causes reinforced her love of folk music.

Collins is looking forward to returning to Ireland. Her father's family emigrated from Ireland to America in the 1880s and, says Collins, 'that makes me Irish, too. He was always singing Irish songs,' she recalls, 'so I grew up to the strains of 'The Kerry Dancers', 'Danny Boy' and 'I‘ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen'. That music was a wonderful part of my life.'

Collins is talking from her home in New York. In the background someone distracts her with queries about bubble wrap, a pair of scissors and where to leave a parcel that has just arrived to the apartment on the city’s Upper West Side. And yet she refuses to be frustrated – even after all these years, she is still as professional as they come.

Charlie, Judy’s father, was a radio presenter in Denver, Colorado and introduced her to many musicians and performers. When she was a teenager, he bought Collins her first guitar. It drew her away from the world of classical piano, where she was regarded as an emerging star.

The folk revival of the 1960s captivated her. She was enthralled by the music of Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers. The first of more than 40 albums was recorded in 1961, when she was aged 22.

'When I began making records, the first couple of albums were full of Irish traditional songs and that was my passion. It was after that that I began recording contemporary songs of artists like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.'

In the 1960s, Collins became a prominent voice for the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protest movements. Arrested at several demonstrations, she was also admonished in a courtroom for singing from the witness stand. Does she believe there is a place for the protest singer in the 21st century?

'There is for the singing of songs of social significance,' she argues. 'The stories of people are songs that are valuable. How did they get through their problems? How did they survive? These are stories to think about and to sing about, and I try to do that myself.'

Does she perceive the world to be as dangerous now as it was back in the 1960s? 'The world is always dangerous and uncertain. That is the planet we live on. I think there is more trouble than there was then. And in many ways, it’s even less certain. You do what you can. You take the actions you hope will help. You try to do the right thing. That’s all you can do.'

These days the issue of suicide prevention remains close to Collin’s heart. Her only child, Clark, took his own life in 1992. 'It’s a terrible problem and a hugely important topic, as I know from personal experience,' she explains. 'I do fund raisers as well as speaking engagements around the country to raise awareness about mental health.'

Collins is hoping to discover more precise detail on the location of her ancestral roots on her next couple of visits to Ireland. Back in June 2013, a scheduled concert in Belfast was cancelled because it clashed with the visit of another important American to the city – President Barack Obama, himself of Irish descent.

However, that visit to the island was not wasted. Collins received an Irish American Foundation award at the same time as the 50th anniversary of President John F Kennedy’s visit to Ireland was being commemorated. 'I met Kennedy in 1963,' Collins remembers, 'a few months before he was killed. I didn’t know the family personally, but as a girl of the 60s we were all crazy about the Kennedys.'

'That recognition is an honour. The organisers have said they are going to try and help me find out where my father’s family came from. They landed originally in Virginia, but no records were kept.'

And for her Belfast concert at The MAC, will Collins be delving into the repertoire that has won her so many fans down the decades? 'Of course. I never tire of singing these songs, because they are good songs.

'There will be some of the classics like 'Some Day Soon', 'Both Sides Now', 'Amazing Grace', and some of the other newer songs. I will also be performing 'In The Twilight', about my mother Marjorie, who died a few years ago. I never mind singing them again and again, but I mix it up a bit. Mind you, if you want to hear all of the hits, you’d have to go to all of my shows!'

Judy Collins performs at The MAC, Belfast, on Thursday, October 3.