By Ashley Lodato
Two degrees of separation in the Methow Valley strikes again! It’s not just Carolyn Sullivan who has a direct connection to Judy Collins. Twisp resident Jim Brennan knew Judy long before Carolyn had even heard of her, and before Judy Collins became Judy Collins as we know her.
Born in Seattle, Judy Collins moved to Denver with her family at age 10, just as young Jim Brennan was learning to crawl. Jim isn’t positive how the Brennans knew the Collins family, but he suspects that Judy’s father — a blind musician-piano-tuner-radio-show-host — tuned the Brennans’ piano, and as Judy became a babysitting-age teen, the Brennans enlisted her to take care of Jim and his younger brother on occasion.
“This was long before Judy picked up a guitar,” says Jim, “and I have vivid memories of her playing piano for my brother and me.” Jim assures me that he and his brother were model children for Judy. “We were pretty respectful,” he says, “I think we were just enthralled by the beautiful young woman playing piano in our living room.”
Judy was a “bobby-soxer at Denver’s East High School,” says Jim, and became enamored with folk music. Denver at that time was a burgeoning hub for folk music — supported by the Denver Folklore Center — and when Judy heard the song “The Gypsy Rover” on the radio, she immediately took her baby-sitting money and marched right down to Wells Music (where Jim would later buy his guitar strings) to purchase the vinyl record that would shape the trajectory of her musical life.
Although Jim hasn’t kept in touch with Judy, he owns a signed copy of Judy’s memoir, “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes” (a nod to the Stephen Stills composition written for her called “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”) and from it learned that Judy has faced perhaps more than her fair share of hardship in her life: bulimia, depression, alcoholism, the suicide of her son.
“She’s had a rugged life,” Jim says. “And yet she’s this extraordinary and talented musician. Her life has spanned so many different kinds of music. She was trained as a classical pianist before she was swept away by the folk scene.”
Jim says that Judy, Stephen Stills and others of that era “loom large in my musical universe.” Jim took his family to see Judy perform in Bellingham at the Mount Baker Theater many years ago, and says that his 33-year-old son, Ryan, is “really tied into folk music, into the pure timelessness of that music.”
“That Judy is still performing is quite impressive,” says Jim. “She’s a true icon of American folk and popular music.”