Judy Collins’ iconic rendition of “Amazing Grace” was released on 1970’s Whales & Nightingales, an album that turns 50 in August. But Collins initially performed the hymn many years before that, during the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964 and at the height of the Vietnam War.
Now, the legendary singer has decided to rerelease the song, backed by a choir of singers across the globe. Listeners can also join the Global Virtual Choir to sing the song with Collins. All proceeds from the single will be donated to the World Health Organization Solidarity Response Fund.
From her Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan, Collins hopped on the phone with Rolling Stone to discuss the single, its historical significance, and what she’s been up to in quarantine.
How have you been doing in quarantine?
Lucky to be in a beautiful place with all my books and toys and cats and husband, so it’s not as bad as it might be. Besides that, we take a walk every three or four days — masks, gloves — and go to the park when there are not so many people there.
How are your cats doing? Are they confused at you being home all the time?
[Laughs] Sort of. They’re so happy. We’re enjoying being at home. I’ve tried for years to figure out a way to get two months off in the summer. I’ve never been able to do it.
Tell me how you originally decided to record “Amazing Grace.”
I was in Mississippi with Fannie Lou [Hamer] in 1964, going around in different towns. She sang “Amazing Grace,” a song my grandmother had sung to me when I was little. I made the connection with freedom and the anti-war movement.
So in 1969, I was in an encounter group in New York that I had started with the guy who had started Phoenix House [Mitchell Rosenthal]. My producer was in that group with me, and one night he said to me, “I think you should sing something because everybody is very upset.” So I sang “Amazing Grace.” I figured by that time many people knew about it. I sang it, and everybody calmed down.
The next day, he called me and said, “I think we should record that.” We wound up going to St. Paul’s [Chapel] on the campus of Columbia University. A beautiful little cathedral with incredible sound, and that’s where we recorded it. It became a huge hit.
What made you decide to rerelease it?
I figured that this song is something that can be very healing for people to hear and sing. I said, “Let’s try to raise money for the World Health Organization.” I made 30 videos for 30 different countries around the world inviting people to come and sing in the choir.
“Amazing Grace” is hundreds of years old. What makes it so timeless?
It’s been 50 years since I’ve been, quite often, ending my shows with “Amazing Grace.” I didn’t know where it came from in the first place. I had no idea that it was written by this guy [John Newton] who was an Englishman who was a slave-trading captain. [He] had a religious experience when his ship wrecked and he was saved, and he wrote this song. He became the inspiration for William Wilberforce, who finally got the bill passed in England to stop the slave trade.
When I was singing this song before I knew where it came from, I just understood that it was powerful. But after I found out John Newton’s history, I thought to myself, “There’s an even deeper reason for this.” Because this came out of a spiritual transformation that Newton experienced. From being a really terrible person, he changed his life and decided to devote himself to doing things that were going to be healing. That’s got to be part of that song’s power. It’s got to be.
You’ve previously said that the song also helped pull you through your alcohol addiction.
It certainly did. I was really floundering and going down. I knew that my life was in danger. I was very sick. I got a call one night after my son Clark’s death — he died of drug addiction — and Joan Rivers called me and said, “You can’t stop working.” I was already sober, but I was in danger of doing myself injury. So when I went back out and picked up my concerts, I wanted to cancel everything and stop my life. I found that “Amazing Grace” was something I would sing every night, and it was helping me not to drink.
On this rereleased version, what do you think the chorus adds to the song that wasn’t already there?
Oh, my God. When I heard it, I was blown away. I thought maybe they’d sing along with me. And then when they played it, they just take off in that third verse and reach the heavens. They are phenomenal. Of course, this was done independently with many people from many different parts of the world, singing their ideas of what the harmonies should be. I think it’s magnificent. To me, it’s the incarnation for now of what this song has to sound like.
You released Winter Stories last year and were performing frequently. What is it like for you to not be able to tour?
It’s somewhat of a gift, because I am at home, in a sheltered, safe place. The exterminator came today, and that was very scary! He was wearing a mask, unlike the president. We’re here and I’m contacting my family and praying for all of these poor people that have died and that are in danger from this terrible thing. I’m trying to do my part, which is to stay in and be safe, and to not run around with no mask and no gloves. It has to do with service.
When my son took his life, my job was not to take my life and to not act in ways that could be damaging, like drink and go crazy. I think there’s a level that has to be respected. What does it mean to be here in this pandemic? It means you have to think about your neighbors and figure out how you can protect yourself, but also protect them.
Your voice is still so incredible. Are you practicing at home?
I am. I’m practicing every day, singing away and listening to other artists. I’m delving into some of the songs that I wanted to learn. So that’s another thing that I’m doing. When I sing, I’m happy.