Judy Collins Performs Leonard Cohen’s Verses In Pittsburgh To Light Applause
Leonard Cohen, the recent winner, along with Chuck Berry, of the PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award,1 has acknowledged his debt to Judy Collins for her help in starting his songwriting career by covering and popularizing his songs.2
It turns out, however, there was at least one Collins performance of Cohen’s poetic lyrics that did not win any prizes from the audience.
In 1966, the same year Mary Martin introduced Collins and Cohen, the International Poetry Forum booked Judy Collins for a December 14th presentation at Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh.
Judy Collins Plays The 1966 Poetry Forum
Make no mistake – this was a not a one-time showcase created to spotlight the artistic dexterity of a musician who performs poetry. The International Poetry Forum was founded by Dr. Samuel Hazo “to demonstrate the relevance and centrality of poetry to the public through the oral presentation of poetry.”3 From 1966 to 2009, when the economic collapse made funding impossible, the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, sponsored more than 500 poetry recitals and related events in Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. Performers included Nobel Awardees, Pulitzer and National Book Award Winners, Academy and Tony Awardees plus numerous other significant poets such as Archibald MacLeish, Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren, Billy Collins, Robert Pinsky, Muriel Rukeyser, Philip Levine, Senator Eugene J. McCarthy, Adam Zagajewski, and Seamus Heaney.
And to put it in perspective vis-à-vis Ms Collins’ career, she released her first album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, in 1961 when she was 22 and had already been performing in concerts and clubs for years. Her ”In My Life” album considered her first recording that broke out of the folk mold, was released in 1966.
The prospective performance was the subject of this article from the December 11, 1966 Pittsburgh Press written by Carl Apone, the paper’s Music Editor (click on image to enlarge):
According to report by Ralph Hallow in the December 15, 1966 Pittsburgh Press, however, the audience attending the performance was not impressed.
This article also notes [see marked portion below] that “many of her selections … were written by poet-novelist Leonard Cohen.” Mr Hallow offers lines from “Suzanne,” (which may have been from an early set of lyrics Cohen later changed or were perhaps misheard by the reporter) as an example of Cohen’s work. That these lines are immediately followed by the observation that these selections “drew less applause” than was typical for a folk concert clearly conveys the author’s distaste.
Aftermath: Judy Collins, The Poetry Forum & Leonard Cohen
The disappointing response notwithstanding, Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, and The Poetry Forum all went on to great success for many years.
And, Collins was no quitter. According to this piece from the December 2, 1969 Pittsburgh Pres, Judy Collins “asked to be allowed to return to the poetry forum … “ [see underlined section] and a December 12, 1969 program was scheduled. I have not, alas, been able to find a report on that show.
Nor, apparently, was Dr. Hazo, the founder and administrator of the Poetry Forum, easily discouraged. The Poetry forum booked Leonard Cohen, whose credentials are listed in this September 7, 1967 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article as “Canadian author of four books of verse,” for a January 17, 1968 presentation.
Below is the poster created by pioneering pop artist Jim Dine for the event.
- View Salman Rushdie Presents Leonard Cohen PEN Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award [↩]
- See How Judy Collins Helped Leonard Cohen Start His Singer-Songwriter Career [↩]
- From the mission statement of the Poetry Forum [↩]