Bill Moyers takes viewers on a revelatory and personal journey with singer Judy Collins, called “the voice of the century.” Still popular four decades after her first album, Collins reveals a window into her life and music, shaped by personal tragedy, but driven by hope. In public there was Judy Collins the dazzling performer, in private there was the battle with drugs and alcohol, TB, hepatitis and divorce. And then, in 1992, came a devastating blow when her son Clark committed suicide. Collins speaks with startling honesty about her son’s death and how she has dealt with this inconceivable tragedy. But today for Collins, there is healing and there is joy, which she has found, in part, through her work.
Author and poet Roya Hakakian was a 12-year-old living in Iran when the revolution swept through the country in 1979. At first she greeted it with excitement, believing the promises of the new and liberating society would come true, but soon the reality of an oppressive regime set in. Hakakian discusses JOURNEY FROM THE LAND OF NO: A GIRLHOOD CAUGHT IN REVOLUTIONARY IRAN, her bittersweet memoir of poetry, passion and the intoxicating promise of revolution.
BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW. We take a break from the headlines this weekend to spend a little time with two remarkable women. One writes with passion about her longing for justice in the land of her birth, a country swept by revolution. The other is a household name right here at home.
MOYERS: For those of us old enough to have experienced the 1960s, David, her music still echoes in our memories. But Judy Collins has never allowed herself to be imprisoned in the past. The CHICAGO TRIBUNE got it right four years ago, quote, “Few singers have the kind of staying power — or repertoire” — that Judy Collins has.
To paraphrase the late songwriter Woody Guthrie, “From the Redwood Forest to the White House to the Gulf Stream waters, Judy Collins has made herself accessible to the likes of you and me.”
My wife Judith and I got to know her 15 years ago — and became good friends — when we were working on a documentary about the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Judy Collins had sent that 18th century hymn to the top of the charts when she sang it in 1971. So naturally, we asked her to sing it for the opening of our film.
COLLINS: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound/ That saved a wretch like me./ I once was lost, but now I’m found,/ Was blind, but now I see.”
MOYERS: As I sat in St. Paul’s Chapel as you sang those words. I remember wondering what does that word “wretch” mean to this beautiful woman with this magnificent voice? Some people won’t sing that verse because of that term “wretch.”
COLLINS: I wouldn’t sing it any other way. I think “wretch” tells it exactly the way it is. The condition of wretchedness is the source of the condition of transformation. I mean, look at all the stories in the Bible.
Look at all the stories of, you know, being at the end of the road and with no alternatives and no options. And suddenly, from somewhere, like John Newton, who wrote that song “Amazing Grace,” that inspiration for, instead of death, destruction, disaster and devastation, you’re in the clouds singing hymns of glory.
MOYERS: And he had been a slave trader.
COLLINS: He’d been a—
COLLINS: —bad boy, responsible for the lives of the slaves on his ship. And when the ship crashed and he lived, he then became an abolitionist and wrote hymns for the rest of his life. I mean, he was having a good day on the other side of that shipwreck.
MOYERS: So, this is a story about a revolution in a human life?
MOYERS: And that’s what you believe in, isn’t it?
COLLINS: I totally believe in it. Raised in a place where the vision of salvation is ever present, and the knowledge that when the daylight comes, you’ve always got another chance, I think that’s embedded. It’s ingrained in my life and in many, many people’s lives.
So, that what comes, you know, what sweeps you along, the sadness you feel, the depression you may feel, you are also— what happens to you, you may not have too much to say about. What you do about it, you have a lot to say about.
MOYERS: Judy Collins has always had a lot to say, and for most of her life she is said it through music. She started piano lessons at the age of four and by thirteen was an accomplished classical pianist. But the pressures of being a child prodigy led to a suicide attempt at 14. Then she turned to folk music. With her first solo album 40 years ago, her career took off. She made the cover of LIFE Magazine in 1969. More than two dozen albums, six of them gold, have followed, winning her a Grammy and praise as “the voice of the century.” In public there was the dazzling performer, in private there was the battle with drugs and alcohol, TB, hepatitis and divorce.
But there was always that voice and songs she made her own.
MOYERS: This will strike you as a naive question. But, what is it that makes a good song? I’m asking the expert here because the range of your repertoire is so large, from protest songs like “Masters of War” to “Amazing Grace” to Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” Just take that one song that all of us are familiar with, and we’ve all heard you sing it. What is it that makes it a good song?
COLLINS: I think it’s because there’s a mystery in it. People don’t really know what it’s about. But it always seems to be about something that pertains to you and you only, or me and me only. And when there’s a mystery in that, that in which you can identify yourself. “Isn’t it rich, are we a pair,” I mean, everybody can relate to that. “Me here at last on the ground, you in midair. Where are the clowns?”
Well, you know, you just say, in the old vaudeville days, you know, “Send in the Clowns.” Which was a theatrical answer to an act which has gone on too long. But there’s a mystery in the lyric. Because you can find yourself in it. And people always say, what is it about? I have no clue what it’s about.
And, about 200 people had already recorded it when I heard it. But, I knew I heard this song and I knew that it would fit into my voice.
You know, how you hear something and you know it’s gonna be right for you. It’s like trying on a coat or a dress. You know, well that would fit me. Even if I had to get it altered a little. That’s the right, you know, it’s the right style, it’s the right shape. That’s how that song feels.
And I’ve worn that song in many different places. And it still fits very well. A good song is one that’s gonna last forever. One in which people can find themselves and their stories. And one in which you can find pleasure if you have to sing it 100,000 times.
MOYERS: You own it, but everybody owns it.
COLLINS: You own it, and you give it to everybody. That’s right.
MOYERS: Was there one folk song that caused you to say, “This is it, I have got to sing folk music?”
COLLINS: The one that reached me was a song called, “Barbara Allen,” which Jo Stafford sang.
And I heard this song and I said, “That’s it.” And I got my father to rent me a guitar. And stopped playing the piano quite as seriously as I had been. Because I was won over.
It’s a love story. It’s a story about unrequited love. And it just hooked me. I mean, adolescents love stories about unrequited love. And—
MOYERS: Can you sing a verse of it?
COLLINS: “Twas in the merry month of May/ When the green birds were swirling./ A young man on his death bed lay,/ for the love Barbara Allen.” And then it goes on.
“He sent his servant to the town,/ Sent him to her dwelling./ My master’s sick and he sends for you, if your name is Barbara Allen.” And then it goes on and it ends badly. But it’s a beautiful song that just swept me up. And I had to sing it.
MOYERS: Almost every song of yours that’s my favorite is a story. You’re a storyteller in a way, almost like—
MOYERS: —the minstrels of old, right, the troubadours—
MOYERS: Whose purpose was not music but stories.
COLLINS: But stories.
I heard— I was listening to a piece about Leonard Bernstein in the Young People’s Concert the other day. And he was asked about folk music. And he was talking about what is a folk song.
And I guess he said it as well as anybody I’ve ever heard. He said it is the speech and the cadence, the linguistic cadence and the stories of people and how they talk and what they think about and what their desires are, what their concerns are. And of course, it’s very political because life is political. One’s life is very political.
MOYERS: How so? What do you mean?
COLLINS: Well, how you treat your friends, how you treat the animals in your home, how you treat your neighbors, what kind of relationships you have with people on the street, in your business, in your— you know, what kind of— Gloria Steinem once said to me, “I can tell everything about a person when I look in their checkbook,” you know, what things you give money to, what things you support, you know, where your heart goes out.
MOYERS: And those are political acts?
COLLINS: I believe so. They— it starts, doesn’t it, there?
MOYERS: You’re saying our private lives are political commitments.
COLLINS: I believe that. I believe that completely. When I was growing up in my family, my father was a Roosevelt man. He was a “New Dealer.”
He was also very committed to talking about the things that concerned him on the radio, you know. If it was the era of Joe McCarthy, he talked about how terrible it was— this was for our country, what a disaster this was for our democracy, how unacceptable this was and how, what a violation of everything that this country stood for and was about. He said to us, “Kids, you know, if you don’t vote, you have no say. You have no voice.”
“You must participate in this great adventure.” I find myself at this point in our history reading a lot of early American history. I’m reading now the Joseph Ellis’ book on Washington but I also read Ron Chernow’s book on Hamilton. You know, people were vicious to each other, vicious. I mean, how we survived is partly a direct result of our ability to, in a way, confront each other.
And I think that’s one of the answers to why we get along, all these different cultures, all these different people. We have this process where— why we get it out. And we have a way to process.
And even though it looks pretty angry and pretty confrontational, I was amazed. I mean, Jefferson hired people to slander Hamilton and to slander Adams. I mean, it was quite mean-spirited. I mean, it was Fox News and et cetera, right out there in public. And they would threaten each other to assassinate each other on the streets. I mean, they were quite vocal about their likes and dislikes.
MOYERS: Is it true that back in ’69 and ’70, you were called to testify before Judge Hoffman in the trial of the Chicago Seven?
COLLINS: Yes. I was asked to testify at the trial. And I said, I’d be happy to.
MOYERS: Judy Collins had not been present in Chicago in August of 1968 when protesters against the war in Vietnam clashed violently with the police at the Democratic National Convention. But six months earlier, in New York, leaders of the YIPPIES — a countercultural group known as the Youth International Party — had asked her to sing at their first press conference. And she did. Some of the YIPPIES would be arrested for their role in the Chicago riots that August, and at their trial the next year, Judy Collins was called to testify.
COLLINS: So when Judge Hoffman asked me if I would tell them what I did at the press conference, I said, well, this is what I did. “Where have all the flowers gone?”
And along came the guard from the door and put his hand over my mouth and stopped me singing. And the Judge said, you can’t sing in court.
MOYERS: They muffled you.
COLLINS: They muffled me. They muffled me. Well, those were the years, you know. There was— the war was going on and— that war, which we’ve now revisited so much in these past few months, it’s been very painful.
MOYERS: Why did you put your career on the line for that?
COLLINS: Well, I didn’t think of it as doing that. You know, that’s part of my upbringing. When you have a political idea, when you have a belief, then you take an action and you make your presence and your point of view known. And it wouldn’t have mattered if I was a singer or a person who was teaching at a university. I knew many, many of those people who became part of the movement and were protesting against the war, I marched with a lot of them around the country.
MOYERS: Did the war make you angry?
COLLINS: Oh, still makes me angry.
MOYERS: The Vietnam War?
COLLINS: Oh, my God. It’s so heartbreaking to me and so painful. One of the most painful parts of it, of course, that everybody knew. Everybody knew we were on the wrong track. And eventually, we’d say so, whether it was McNamara or President Johnson, or whoever it was, finally would come around to just a terrible mistake. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anybody say it was a great thing to do.
MOYERS: Her passion about public issues has long led Judy Collins to a politically active life. So it’s not surprising that a recent CD was entitled DEMOCRACY, featuring songs from her old friend from the sixties, the novelist, poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen. Collins put Cohen on the map when she sang one of his timeless creations, “Suzanne.” Leonard Cohen’s sensual, ethereal, almost religious songs have won him a world-wide following.
MOYERS: Tell me about Leonard Cohen, what’s unique about him?
COLLINS: People think Leonard is dark. But, actually his sense of humor and his edge on the world is extremely light. And I’ve always thought he— I always appreciated his intelligence and his lyricism. His beautiful melodies from somebody who didn’t think they could write melodies. They’re quite striking, these melodies.
And as a Jew, his Jewish background, sheds this light on the Christian experience, on the Christ experience. You know, “Sisters With Mercy, The Story of Joan of Arc, Priest.” “You know, who will write love songs for you when I am Lord at last?”
“My body is a little highway shrine where all my priests have passed.” Lines that are so striking and so reverent and so illuminating about this history that we know the Judeo-Christian history, certainly. But, he gives such beauty to the story, and you can’t forget them. You can’t forget Joan of Arc and her dialogue with the fire which he describes in such beautiful words.
MOYERS: I remember the first time I heard “Suzanne.” I was lying on the floor in my den. I was in my mid-30s. And I did not really— I had heard of Leonard Cohen. But I didn’t know who he was. And I—listened to that song. I can’t tell you to this day. It still is etched there. There’s something about that song.
COLLINS: Something about that song.
MOYERS: What do you think it is?
COLLINS: It’s very mesmerizing, it’s very haunting. “Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river./ You can hear the boats go by./ You can spend a night beside her…”
Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river.
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
She gets you on her wavelength
And lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover
And you want to travel with her.
The river, the girl, Jesus, it’s so evocative, so evocative. It just took me, swept me. And every time I sing it, I get that same kind of drifty, marvelous optimistic feeling about life.
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
You want to travel blind
And you think maybe you’ll trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind.
MOYERS: Tell me about the song “Kingdom Come.” How did you come to write that?
COLLINS: Well, I didn’t think I’d write anything about 9/11. I was so just destroyed emotionally, as everybody else was. But I had the opportunity to get to know and to meet a lot of the firefighters who were doing work down at Ground Zero.
MOYERS: How come?
COLLINS: I had a friend who was arranging to have some entertainment for some of these people who really needed a little lift and a little bit of emotional sustenance from music and being part of a little bit more lighthearted evening. And I sang. It was in April, so it was only seven months after 9/11.
And one of the firefighters came up and they’re such a great group of people. And they are my fans. You know, they’ve come to concerts. They’ve been there right along through the years. And so, I was chatting with one of the firefighters and his wife, and he said, here. Look at this on the back of my neck. And he pointed on the back of his neck. He had a tattoo that said three-four-three. And it just did me in.
MOYERS: 343 was the number of firefighters who died because of 9/11.
COLLINS: In 9/11.
MOYERS: The 343 stuck in your head?
COLLINS: The 343 I could not get— and I kept telling people about it. And finally my husband, my wonderful husband Louis, whom you know, said to me, “You know, I think you ought to try to write something about that. Get it off your mind, get it into print.” Which I did, and then it just poured out.
Those firemen loaded up with gear
Climbed to their deaths that day
Along with all the other hundreds
Blasted on their way
Police and EMS and those
On whom death took its toll
And all those whose dreams won’t dawn,
About three thousand more
I left the party after that
I could not stay my tears,
For all our gifts for all our hope
For all our nameless fears
For all our heroes, men and women
Lost on that black day
For the firemen with courage
In their hearts so strong and brave,
Who made sure in their final hours
30,000 souls were saved.
They’ve gone to where there are no tears
And every heart is gay,
They will not be forgotten on a sunny day
To Kingdom come, to hell and gone
To somewhere far away
Where murder does not break the heart
On a summer day
Where murder doesn’t break the heart
On a sunny day.
MOYERS: You went to a lot of fire stations, didn’t you, after 9/11?
COLLINS: I did.
And I think that although it may be painful for them to hear that song, I think things that are painful for us sometimes transcend, and if it’s an inspiring piece of music, they help us get through. And maybe it’s healing for them. I’m hoping so.
MOYERS: There’s a lot of pain inside you, isn’t there, even now?
COLLINS: Well, I don’t think I’m different from most people. I mean, I do experience a lot of pain. But it’s always side by side with joy. You know, they say don’t kill all your demons, because you might get the wrong one. You might get the one that gives you your insight, or the one that inspires you to write music, or the one that inspires you to be kind to animals and children. You know, you have to be careful which demon you get rid of.
MOYERS: As you talk, I keep thinking this woman has had so many close calls, alcoholism almost cost you your voice, right, when you were a teenager?
COLLINS: Oh yes, it did, certainly.
MOYERS: You drank constantly for 23 years?
COLLINS: Yeah, I had a long go. The Irish virus really was dug in hard with me.
MOYERS: And you’ve been sober 23 years?
COLLINS: 26 years.
MOYERS: 26 years you’ve been sober? What do you say to people who are struggling with alcoholism?
COLLINS: Well, there’s another way. You don’t have to suffer. And I think that’s the thing that people don’t always know.
I was in treatment. I went to treatment. I think treatment works. I think it’s a wonderful way to get in touch with the alternatives of how to live sober. And I think it’s wonderful that people are aware of that now.
MOYERS: You are a great witness to recovery. And a lot of people keep saying, “You know, treatment doesn’t work. That the rate of attrition is very high,” which it is. But it can be overcome.
COLLINS: It’s like everything else, it’s a process of commitment. And it’s a process of health. And I always — and I think a lot of people are like this — I always wondered what was really wrong with me.
People didn’t talk about it. You know, I didn’t know. I mean, it was sort of mysterious to me. I thought I was nuts. So knowing what is wrong was a big part of it. And also knowing that it was a disease and not a moral issue, very important. It’s about our bodies and our chemistry and how we handle certain substances. After all, some people are allergic to aspirin. Some people can’t eat peanuts. Some can’t drink.
MOYERS: But the person talking to me is the Judy Collins who’s failed a million times and keeps coming back. I think people need to know how you take the pain and turn it to healing.
COLLINS: I work it. I’ve had depression all my life and I have learned how to deal with it. So there is always the dark side. And I don’t think it’s unusual to be depressed. I think life is pretty depressing a lot of the time. But you have the tools. You have the signs, you know, the Catholics call the outward signs of inward grace. Some of these ceremonies that help us to get through difficult things.
MOYERS: So what are they? Give me some very practical things that you do.
COLLINS: Oh, eight hours of sleep if you can get it. Sometimes I try to get ten one day a week, because I need it for the voice. I need it for my serenity. Working out. I always work out. I found out about working out when I was in my early 20s and never let it go, because it gives me— it fuels me.
COLLINS: Exercise. It makes me feel wonderful. Its those endorphins, which do many more things for me than any number of drugs could ever do for me. The endorphins that are created when we exercise are just my friends.
MOYERS: Sleep, exercise?
COLLINS: Sleep, exercise. Good food. Good friends. Friendships. Making sure that in my daily life, my days on earth, I have contacts with people I love to talk and laugh with. Laughter, huge healing force, laughter. Literature. Read, read, I’m pretty addicted to books. And I find the time, I make the time. I’m determined that one of these days I’m going to get through Hutchins 100 books that are essential to anybody who wants to live a good life.
MOYERS: But you’re doing 60 to 70 to 80 performances a year, with all the travel to and from? How do you keep going when you’re 65 years old?
COLLINS: Oh, but I’m just getting started. I feel my career’s about half over. I mean, we have to do what we’re good at, with the heart, what we’re called to by, as Joseph Campbell, says, you know, do what gives you bliss.
And I’m a complete optimist in the face of contrary evidence. Cockeyed, my sister sometimes says. Hopelessly, sometimes it’s been said to me.
But I’m always optimistic. There’s always another day. There’s always another dawn. There’s always some remedy.
MOYERS: But the source of that is, of course, a mystery to me. Because while you don’t welcome heartbreak and tragedy and pain, you nonetheless embrace them as if they were the price of being alive.
COLLINS: Well, they are for everyone. That’s the journey. The journey is a journey of joy and miracles. And it’s a journey of loss and how to rejoice in that loss.
MOYERS: Her greatest loss of all came in 1992. Her only son Clark took his life at the age of 33. She wrote this book to come to terms with the inexplicable.
Why do you think Clark, your son, took his life?
COLLINS: He had been in recovery for seven years. And he went into relapse. And we know that alcoholism, among other things, is a disease. Which means you can relapse. And—
MOYERS: Like cancer comes back?
COLLINS: Like cancer comes back.
MOYERS: The craving for alcohol—
MOYERS: —comes back.
COLLINS: And of course, we have to be ever vigilant about these moments. But he was in relapse. He never would have taken his life if he hadn’t been in relapse. That’s what I believe.
MOYERS: Did you feel guilty after he died?
COLLINS: I felt demolished and thought that I probably didn’t tell him certain things that he should’ve heard.
MOYERS: What do you mean?
COLLINS: They say that when people die, they leave a skeleton in their closet. And when a suicide dies, he leaves a skeleton in your closet. So there’s a lot of exhumation that has to happen. You have to sort through your whole life.
MOYERS: “What did I do wrong if—”
COLLINS: “What did I do wrong?” When I saw him last, had I only said this and that. Of course, you know that that’s a fallacy. You know that that’s your cultural brain telling you all of the completely erroneous things about suicide. Because the reason that suicide is so taboo is that that’s what the church and the culture laid on the survivors for centuries.
So, you’re, in a way, you’re going through what history has told you about suicide instead of what we know today. We know it has to do with personal dispositions. We know it has probably to do with chemistry. We know it has to do with alcoholism, addiction, perhaps depression. We know it’s a complicated thing.
MOYERS: My brother took his life almost 40 years ago. He was only—
COLLINS: I think I—
COLLINS: —remember that. My God.
MOYERS: I think he wanted me to feel guilt. But all I felt and still do, is just the aching of a chronic absence. I never felt guilt. I just felt this chronic absence.
And I still feel it. Because there he was, and then he’s gone. And you never recover. I mean, nothing ever fills that hole. Right?
COLLINS: No. It doesn’t. But for your brother and for my son, the question is, we have to try to think of them as what their lives were about, not their deaths.
MOYERS: What do you mean?
COLLINS: If your brother had died from cancer, if my son had died from cancer, we’d have that aching void. But we would not have those sort of overreaching questions about the subject of suicide, the secrecy of suicide, the hesitancy. You probably don’t have that. I don’t have it anymore.
Because I think we have to talk about suicide as though it were another kind of illness. And so, we have to appreciate the people for who they were, not for what they died of.
MOYERS: Charlie Smith wrote a poem which has a graphic line in it. I don’t remember it all, I think you probably know it, where he talks about the saddest case was a boy starving at the feast. That image of a boy starving at a feast, somebody we look at, work with, know every day, dying slowly. We’re not aware of it.
COLLINS: Right. My son, your brother, and we don’t see that.
MOYERS: Suppose, God forbid, someone is watching who is thinking about suicide. What would you say to them?
COLLINS: Call someone. Call a hotline. Get some help. Go see somebody. Talk about it. Talk about it. Reach out and find the help.
MOYERS: How did you get out of the fog?
COLLINS: Inch by inch, minute by minute. Sometimes hour by hour. I also had wonderful friends who reached out to me. Joan Rivers reached out to me.
And she said, “You cannot quit working.” I had planned to quit working. I was gonna put it all aside. She said, “You can’t do that. You won’t heal if you do that. You have to go on with your life.
You get dressed. You get out. You get to the— you make the contacts. You make the connections. It’s like everything else. You have to make every effort you can to show up. And then the wonderful thing is that the healing is there someplace. And it starts, in a way, to take place, sometimes in spite of you.
MOYERS: How do you know you’re healed? Or when are you healed?
COLLINS: When are you healed? That’s a good question. I think you’re healed in some way, all the time. I think that’s an ongoing process all the time. If you can laugh and recognize that the world is a very funny place, that’s healing.
If you can go listen to beautiful music, if you can share a meal with a friend and be present, that’s being healed. Sometimes, if you just can surrender to doing nothing—
MOYERS: Doing nothing?
MOYERS: Do you do that?
COLLINS: Once in a while. I’m a great fan of the rest, of the gap, you know, of the day or the afternoon where you just let things go. And that’s very healing.
MOYERS: When you are resting or when you’re alone, when the silence is surrounding you, do you ever sing to yourself?
COLLINS: Well yes, I do, because I’m writing in my studio, or music is moving around in my mind all the time. Some of the ways that I look for material is to listen to a group of songs.
And then while I’m resting, while I’m— maybe I’ve just made lunch. And I’m sitting down to read a book or have a nap, that wonderful thing that we don’t get enough of, napping. Then the song will come into my mind.
A lot of my career of my music is letting these things come in, songs I find, songs I write. There’s a discipline. I have to sit down and work. But then where does that come from? Those melodies are floating in from— I don’t have any control over that.
MOYERS: For example, the song you wrote after Clark’s death, when you went back to work, when you came up out of the fog, you wrote a song about him. How did that happen?
COLLINS: I would go into the studio. It was very hard. You know, hearing music after a great loss is very important. But it’s also difficult. Sometimes the thing that happens at a wake, at a funeral, will be the music will let everybody’s emotions loose.
Everybody will keep a stiff upper lip, as they say, until that moment when the organ starts and the choir starts to sing. And then everybody loses it. Which is what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to lose it because that’s how you get it.
Wings of angels tears of saints
Prayers and promises won’t bring you back
Come to me in dreams again
Wings of angels tears of saints
Child of thunder in the dark,
Child whose voice was like a lark
Child of spirit burning bright,
Child of many beauties
When the birds fly to the south
When the wind blows to the north
You are in the falling snow
You are beauty going forth
You are heat and you are light
Sun above the mountain’s peak
I would give it all, give all I have,
For one more chance to hear you speak
Wings of angels tears of saints
Prayers and promises won’t bring you back
Come to me in dreams again
Wings of angels tears of saints
Wings of angels tears of saints
Prayers and promises won’t bring you back
Come to me in dreams again
Wings of angels tears of saints
Prayers and Promises
MOYERS: What is the essence that is consistent with the little girl at the piano and the guitar back in Denver? And the Judy Collins, age 65, here today. What is the train?
COLLINS: I think it’s the story. I think there’s always a new story out there to find and tell. And I think that’s what pulls me. There is something beautiful around the corner. And there’s a new day to find that beauty. That’s what draws me. That’s what I see. And the past is part of the present and the future too. I’m a classicist I guess in some ways. I do not deny or forget or disrespect the past, because it’s a great teacher.
But there are new things coming and new pieces of music to write and new avenues to travel and new friends to meet.
MOYERS: You said once that suicide was a great teacher. What did you learn from Clark’s death?
COLLINS: How valuable my life is. How precious my life is.
MOYERS: Judy Collins, thank you.
COLLINS: Thank you Bill.
BRANCACCIO: Like Judy Collins, my next guest has been on a journey of loss and discovery that’s made her cherish life. Roya Hakakian was a 12 year old living in Iran when the revolution swept through the country in 1979.
At first, she greeted it with excitement, believing the promises of a new and liberating society would come true. They did for a moment, but only a moment.
Now, she’s come out with a memoir that unpacks memories of adolescence, revolutionary fervor and poetry called JOURNEY FROM THE LAND OF NO: A GIRLHOOD CAUGHT IN REVOLUTIONARY IRAN.
Roya Hakakian, welcome to NOW.
HAKAKIAN: Delighted to be here.
BRANCACCIO: You moved to this country about two decades ago, but it was only fairly recently that you were moved to share these memories of adolescence and childhood with the wider world. What did you hope to communicate?
HAKAKIAN: In the simplest terms I can think of, I really wanted all readers to fall in love with Iran. I wanted everybody to love the period that made me the person that I am today. Something huge happened in Iran in 1978— in 1979. I became a better human being as a result of it. I mean, it’s sort of like getting married, falling in love. You know, getting married to a person that you think you’re gonna spend the rest of your life with.
If 20 years later you decide that it was a mistake. That doesn’t make the original decision to get married, initially, wrong. The Iranian revolution was kind of similar to this. We stormed, you know, the palace. We swarmed into the streets, for all the right reasons. For all the reasons that every nation, throughout history, wanted to have a revolution.
BRANCACCIO: Well, like what?
HAKAKIAN: We wanted freedom, you know, we had no civil liberties. You can’t have a society that’s on the verge of modernizing as Iran was in 1978 and 1979, and not desire to have freedom of press, you know. To have, you know, a diversity in political party and opinions.
And that we were entitled to have that, in those years. And we’re entitled to have that still.
BRANCACCIO: In your family, there was a lot of discussions of words, of ideas, of poetry. But at a time when the wider society, before the revolution even, didn’t allow that kind of open discourse.
HAKAKIAN: You know that’s sort of the dilemma of being an Iranian. I mean, you’re talking about a nation that has embraced literature, primarily poetry, as its way of communication for hundreds of centuries. If you get close to an Iranian, the first thing that is going to happen, if they really love you, and if they begin to embrace you, is that they’re either going to compose a poem in your honor or they’re going to read some to you.
This is how we communicate as a nation.
What has always been really fascinating about Iran is that we have become accustomed to this life of codes and obscurity. That there has been very few moments in history where we have had freedom.
BRANCACCIO: Poetry could help there cause poetry can sometimes be read as a code, and be read in many different ways.
HAKAKIAN: Sure. I mean you refer to the time of the Shah, and because those codes had been so profoundly established during his time, that they, then, came back and said, “From this point forward, we’re going to slash ‘red rose’ from poetry.” That no poet was allowed to use the, you know—
BRANCACCIO: The phrase “red rose.”
HAKAKIAN: The phrase “red rose.”
HAKAKIAN: Because people had come to understand it as an illusion to possibly, you know, leftist aspirations and, you know, communism. And, you know, “dark night” was supposed to be a symbol of dictatorship. Whereas morning or dawn, you know, was supposed to carry with itself the idea of freedom. So here’s a culture that has really established its way of communicating through, you know, these illusions. And therefore, you know, poetry.
BRANCACCIO: So the revolution happens, and for a while, is it what it’s cracked up to be?
BRANCACCIO: In what way?
HAKAKIAN: First of all, it was the most hopeful time that I had ever witnessed in Tehran. And we had all cast away our selfishness as individuals, to embrace a bigger idea which was the collective society. I have not, to this day, met an Iranian who lived in Iran in those years and doesn’t still think that Iran of 1979, and the revolution of 1979, is the most exciting, delirious event of their lifetime.
BRANCACCIO: Now, in case we haven’t pointed out, you’re Jewish. And the Jewish people have had a very long history in Iran. Fact, I was looking at the timeline at the end of the book, back at the sixth century before Christ, essentially. And there you are at school during this revolutionary period. And being Jewish starts to become, I think, a liability.
HAKAKIAN: One of the first things that happened was that divisions of what later became the New Intelligence Ministry in Iran, were established in high schools, and especially in high schools. Because the new regime knew that it was the intellectual classes, the educated classes, that brought on the revolution in ’78 and ’79.
BRANCACCIO: So they put spies into high schools?
HAKAKIAN: Exactly. And so you know you really began to not trust your peers in the classroom.
The early 80’s in Iran were some of the most tragic years that Iran has ever seen in its history. They were the years that the radical clerics in Iran were trying to firm their grip on power. And they really didn’t relent at anything.
And so, slew of younger kids were arrested. I’m talking about 13, 14, 15 year old kids who were arrested, rounded up from schools and probably never returned home. These kids were also executed. I mean, the general idea in those years was either you’re a sinner, in which case we have arrested you for the right reasons or we have executed you for the right reasons. Or you’re not a sinner and you are innocent in which case, you know, even if we execute you, you will land in Heaven.
I mean, it is not so much different from what happened probably in, you know, Stalinist Russia. Iran had that period in the early 80’s.
BRANCACCIO: Well, that’s what Americans don’t often understand is how quickly these things turn. A flourishing of a revolution like that, in which there’s civil liberties and so forth, and divergent viewpoints respected, and then you don’t have to fast-forward very far to see it turn so quickly.
HAKAKIAN: Yes. Yes. It’s devastating. And it’s also very, very intriguing to see that the way they turn is probably, at least in Iran, began with the way the rights of women began to diminish.
People often ask me, “You are Jewish. What happened to you first to know that Iran had become unsafe to you as a Jewish person?” And my answer often is that it wasn’t so much… The signs that came to me weren’t so much the signs that came to me as a Jew, they were mostly the signs that came to me as a woman.
You woke up in Tehran, and all of a sudden, the city had vastly changed. Why? Not because the grocery store wasn’t where it used to be, but because 50 percent of the population suddenly looked different, after the Islamic dress code was enforced.
BRANCACCIO: Now, Americans, of course, look at the Iranian Revolution through a very specific prism, the taking of the 52 American hostages. Do you often run into this with Americans, that you’d like to teach them a wider lesson about the Iranian experience than just that?
HAKAKIAN: It’s a marvelous, marvelous reference point. I say marvelous not so much because I think it’s wonderful but because I think it’s such an important watershed. Somehow, a 2,500 year civilization went down the drain on November 4th, 1979. That somehow the Iranian history began with the day that the embassy was taken over in the minds of the international community.
And what I’m hoping I can accomplish, perhaps, or we as Iranians can accomplish, is to remind the world of that larger history. That there was a history before 1979, before the take-over of the American embassy and perhaps that can inject this conversation that we need to have with more texture and depth.
BRANCACCIO: About five years ago, you started seeing the movement for reform in Iran, essentially against the present government, flaring up from time to time. What do you make of that movement now? Where is it?
HAKAKIAN: It’s there. There’s no doubt that it’s there.
Look at the official statistics that an official in Tehran gathered. Eighty-six percent of Iranians do not pray. I mean, you’re talking about a government that wanted to create a generation that would take the lead, and would be indoctrinated by its ideology. Certainly, they’ve failed at that.
BRANCACCIO: But the secular impulse still holds.
HAKAKIAN: Exactly. I mean, it’s very important to see that, you know, in 1979, 98.2 percent of Iranians voted “yes” in a national referendum to chose Islamic Republic as their form of government. There is a widespread demand these days for another referendum. Why? Because the public has come to the conclusion that the idea of mixing religion and state, of bringing the clergy into the arena of politics was a wrong one.
And so the demand for a referendum is to give the public a chance to reconsider the decision that it made in 1979. I think the impulse is there. I think what has happened is that the presence of the United States, both in Afghanistan and Iraq, has made it really complicated for Iran to really make its own decision, and to go about its own independent—
BRANCACCIO: Both sides of Iran, if you look at the map of the Middle East, why has it made it complicated?
HAKAKIAN: Well, we are sandwiched in between two troubled spots, or the most troubled spots in the Middle East right now. It’s made it difficult because you know the best way is just wait for the Americans to overthrow their dictators. Why bother? Why, you know, take the risk of taking to the streets and, you know, chanting— risking their lives for something that the American military may very well do for them.
BRANCACCIO: But they don’t want the kinda mess that is coming in from the pictures we see from Iraq. I mean, they must be rethinking that, given the disruption and instability that’s clearly going on there.
HAKAKIAN: I certainly hope so. But I’m not certain that people are thinking that far. Because if you are suffering on a daily basis, if you are living in a country where once you leave your home, you’re told, you know, how to cover your hair and, you know, how long or short your sleeves must be whether or not you’re allowed to, you know, hold your wife’s hand on the street or not, whether your kids can mix together and go to a party, drink what they want or not, if you’re facing these questions which shouldn’t be questions in, you know, in a civil society on a daily basis, I’m not sure you’re— you know, you manage to keep that foresight to say, you know, what happens three months after we are occupied? You think that, you know, if these people go, that’s the best thing that could happen.
BRANCACCIO: Roya’s book, THE JOURNEY FROM THE LAND OF NO. Roya Hakakian, thank you very much.
HAKAKIAN: It was a pleasure to talk to you.
MOYERS: That’s it for now. Thanks for joining us. David and I will be back next week.
This transcript was entered on August 20, 2015.