Review by Don Wilcock
Photographs by Richard A. Siciliano
Who owns a song?
Songs are like hats or suits. They can become costumes to singers that define their image to their public and the public’s acceptance of their talent in a way that has little bearing on how talented they are otherwise. Bob Dylan has a terrible voice by most standards, but his songs defined a generation and the complex references to literary touchstones and history – often rewritten – still have his fans studying him like a messiah half a century into his career. Tony Bennett once told me the secret to his long career and renewed acceptance by younger generations was a good song. To each, their songs are as important as Garth Brook’s black hat, Dr. John’s cap, Jimi Hendrix’s military gingerbread or Keith Richards’ studied hobo decadence.
Both Jimmy Webb and Judy Collins wore black spangles at this performance and both sang great songs. The difference between them is the question of who owns their songs. Jimmy Webb has written hundreds of great songs like “Wichita Lineman,” “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Up, Up and Away,” dozens of them in the collective consciousness of the general public. But all of them were made hits by other artists, in this case Glen Campbell and the Fifth Dimension. Judy Collins, on the other hand, has built a career of interpreting other artists’ songs to the point of having her versions transcend the originals.
When we hear Jimmy Webb sing “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman” alone on a Steinway grand piano, it’s a different experience than the Glen Campbell version that’s been programmed into our brains for 45 years. The words are the same, but the emotions they elicit are not as strong because in our mind we know its Glen Campbell agonizing over the distance between him and his lady, not this guy Webb.
When we hear Judy Collins sing Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust,” it’s easier for us to suspend our disbelief and fantasize that she’s recalling the romance of her own relationship with another musical icon – Stephen Stills, perhaps – rather than interpreting a song written by Joan Baez about her affair with Bob Dylan. Judy makes us believe her own folk Madonna mantel and forget Joan Baez’s version.