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  • Writer's picturePenny Neef

Judy Collins and My Big Pandemic Birthday

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

Words by Penny Neef Images courtesy of Virginia Arts Festival

I just had a big birthday, a giant birthday, a birthday so massive that it ends in a zero and I’m closer to 100 than I care to admit. I came of age in the 60’s. I marched to protest the war in Vietnam. I listened to Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. Three women who wrote songs, came to the marches and sang for the times.

My big birthday came during the pandemic. No birthday celebrations for me. I’ve come this far practicing social distancing, wearing a mask when I do go out, and washing the skin off my hands so I’m not pressing my luck.

Everyone has had disappointments and even tragedy this year. Having a birthday without my family is not a big deal. I did get just a little happier when I found out that Virginia Arts Festival was having a virtual concert, direct from Chrysler Hall, starring Judy Collins with Chatham County Line on my actual birthday.

Three men seated. Two men look into the distance, one at the camera. Man in the middle has a cowboy hat.

Chatham County Line

I’m at the age where I don’t need any more “stuff”. I’d rather go to a concert or have a weekend away. I want to enjoy an experience, not get more things. A virtual concert with one of my favorite singers from the time when I felt I could change the world? It sounded like the next best thing.

The process was simple. I purchased a ticket through the VAF website. It’s nice to purchase one ticket and as many people as are in your “pod” can watch the concert on that one ticket. There are only two of us in our pod, but we were going to get dressed up, order some fancy carryout and watch Judy Collins on our big screen TV.

After coming back from a long birthday bike ride on a beautiful, but hot Saturday, just to prove that I still could ride long and hard, I took a shower and was very unmotivated to get dressed up for the concert. Judy would just have to sing to me in my sweats. She would never know.

I had a confirmation email from VAF. I clicked on the link, hit play, and there was Judy Collins on the stage at Chrysler Hall. My first thought was that I miss Chrysler Hall. I have seen so many great performances there, from Virginia Symphony Orchestra, to Hamilton, to Dance Theatre of Harlem to Gladys Knight. It was sad to see it so empty. Even the stage looked sparse. Judy Collins was in the middle, with her long-time musical director Russell Walden at the piano. The four members of Chatham County Linefrom Raleigh, NC, were spread out in a socially distanced manner around her.

Theatre auditorium with empty seats with band on the stage.

Judy Collins is tall and slim. She was wearing a long sparkly something. She is 81 years old now, and has the chutzpah to wear a big, blond, Dolly Pardon style wig. Judy Collins was and is a folk singer. She was a hippie in the 60’s and should be an old hippie (like me) now. She didn’t need that wig. Those blue eyes that Stephen Stills wrote about in Suite: Judy Blue Eyes still sparkle.

Once I got over that wig, I started to enjoy the concert. Chatham County Line have played with Collins in the past. They are excellent bluegrass musicians and harmonize well with Collins’ soprano voice.

Collins has been singing and touring for 60 years. She plays both guitar and piano. Her voice is not what it was back in the day, but she is fearless and natural on stage. She spoke to us viewers at home, telling stories about Stephen Stills, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell.

Blonde woman (Judy Collins) playing guitar singing into microphone.

Judy Collins singing at Chrysler Hal

Joni Mitchell gave Collins one of her biggest hits, when she called her at 3:00 am one morning and sang Both Sides Nowto her over the phone. Judy recorded it first, something Joni Mitchell probably later regretted. Collins recorded several of Leonard Cohen’s songs. She says that she was the one who encouraged him to start performing his own work.

Virtual concerts are not the same as being there, in a big space with other people. Judy really tried. She sang and played, told stories and jokes, but there was no one in the audience to laugh and respond. There was no collective gasp when she would start singing one of her huge hits and no applause after each song.

It all seemed a little flat. It’s just not the same. Is it better than nothing? Yes. I am so happy that VAF and other arts organizations are making the effort to bring us music, dancing and the arts as best they can. It helps us remember why the arts are so important. Judy Collins and the leader of Chatham County Line both thanked VAF for supporting artists during these troubling times.

For someone of my now advanced age, Judy Collins singing on the stage to an empty Chrysler Hall brought back memories of college, backpacking through Europe in 1971, deep indignation of a futile war in Vietnam, and hopes for a huge future spread out in front of me. It made a pandemic birthday just a little bit better.

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