Judy Collins had already made her name in the New York folk scene by the time she released her innovative fifth studio album (sixth overall) ‘In My Life’ in 1966. Unlike her previous folk albums, it showed how diverse her capabilities were by also including songs from theatre (Weill-Brecht’s ‘Pirate Jenny’ from ‘The Threepenny Opera’ and Richard Peaslee’s ‘Marat/Sade’ from Peter Weiss’s play of the same name), classical, and pop alongside her trademark folk. Who else could pull off interpreting Kurt Weill and Bob Dylan on the same album?
Joshua Rifkin arranged and conducted the songs, with gorgeous baroque effect on the title track in particular. He and producer Mark Abramson may have had a hand in the choice of songs, but Collins’ voice, while classically trained, matches the material, however disparate.
It is a significant record for historical reasons too: for one thing, it was the first recording of songs by Leonard Cohen (‘Suzanne’ and ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’) to be recorded. As Collins mentioned in her autobiography ‘Trust The Heart,’ Cohen was a new friend of hers in 1966, who would meet her in Greenwich Village for tea and walks when he was in town. Recognizing his talent early on, she urged Cohen to sing and record his songs himself. This persistence eventually resulted in Collins getting him onstage almost against his will to sing ‘Suzanne’ with her at an anti-war concert at Town Hall in 1967.
Randy Newman was another songwriter who was not yet widely known whose work appeared on ‘In My Life’ (‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’). It shows a certain level of confidence that she incorporated famous songs by acclaimed and popular songwriters as well, namely Donovan (‘Sunny Goodge Street’), Bob Dylan (‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’), Richard Fariña (‘Hard Lovin’ Loser,’ which became Collins’ first charting single), The Beatles (‘In My Life’), and Jacques Brel (‘La Colombe’). The album may have been stronger without the show tunes and more from her folk and pop contemporaries, but she interprets them with admirable energy and emotion.
Collins’ version of Bob Dylan’s caustic ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ has an air of sadness that the original lacks, making the closing lines “I’m going back to New York City / I do believe I’ve had enough” a pitiable statement.
‘In My Life’ showed Collins as a more nuanced artist than the demure, earnest folk singer she was often portrayed as early in her career. ‘Marat/Sade’ captures the righteous revolutionary spirit of 1968, two years early. There is a playfulness in her voice on ‘Hard Lovin’ Loser’ that probably took listeners by surprise. The album is considered by many fans to be one of her best pieces of work and definitely one of her most ambitious.