I have never met anyone else who owns Judy Collins's debut album. Fans prefer her lusher mid-'60s records, which are indeed some of the best pop-folk LPs of all time. Even though I value it more than any other record I own, I will concede that Maid of Constant Sorrow is mostly a forgettable affair. Its value lies with one song, the third cut on side one, her recording of "Wild Mountain Thyme."
Buying a record unheard and unheard-of is always a crapshoot. I picked up Maid for $.25 at a Goodwill and a few hours later found myself too distracted—I was cooking, of all things—to take it off the turntable after being left cold by Collins's reading of the title song and her lame Kingston Trio-ish "Pricklie Bush." This was a supremely fortunate accident.
Like a solemn apostrophe, it begins with "O." There is no musical introduction. It is not until the end of the first chorus that we hear a few softly plucked notes of Erik Darling's banjo—the only instrumentation allowed to intrude upon proceedings to whose awful dignity no violence is done by deeming them sacral—a faint rustling of leaves. The pauses are long and deliberate. When she is not singing the tape hisses like a wind over the meadow. When she begins again, creation itself seems to pause and harken all around her, as if submitting to the stronger will, the more beguiling enchantment. She is a pythoness, a conjurer of visions older than the hills, a siren, a barely disguised witch, a ruiner of men, an atavistic survivor from the days when the oracles still sounded their grim prophecies for the dubious benefit of heathens who served crueler gods than Cecile Richards and her followers can imagine. She is the figure chased by the huntsman on Keats's urn, one of the abductresses of Hylas as painted by Waterhouse, Housman's Queen of Air and Darkness not in the ruin of her age but in the bloom of her terrible youth, at the height of her high and dreadful powers. Hers is the unwise, pitiless, heedless voice of youth itself, of restless passion, of contempt for infirmity and hesitation. Look in vain for her peers in the clubs of Greenwich Village or on other Vanguard Records releases—they live only in antiquity, in the fairy songs of Yeats and the pages of the charmed scribe who first scrawled "Sumer is icumen in / Lhude sing cuccu" on vellum, to be copied later by the steadier hand of a clerk in holy orders.
I have never been able to trace any of Collins's winsome lyrical changes, the most significant of which is the substitution of "purple" for "bloomin'." So far as I am aware, hers is the first adaptation of the song from a woman's perspective. (Joan Baez copied it word for word a few years later on Farewell, Angelina, and it has since become standard.) Copyright authorities now collaborate in the legal fiction that the song is an original composition by the Ulster folk singer Francis McPeake, a farce that cannot be entertained by anyone familiar with Robert Tannahill and the other early recorders of the ballad tradition. What in the mouth of McPeake and Sandy Paton sounds like a mildly arresting example of a ballad in the carpe diem tradition becomes a mystic incantation, a fairy rota. Set beside "Wild Mountain Thyme," "In My Life" and "Both Sides Now," with their tinsel arrangements and vocal restraint, are trifles. The potted Irish republicanism of "Bold Fenian Men" and the other political numbers on the same record seem almost contemptible, all the more so for the pseudo-gravity with which she attempts to invest them.
Belloc, writing on Homer, said that the business of a great poem was "knocking one down with a verb and a noun and a conventional adjective. … It is done in the Border Ballads over and over again. It is done in the twelfth century, Angevin French singing the burial of Iseult: ‘She by him and he by her.' How it is done nobody knows. If anyone could know, anyone could be a poet." Housman was more succinct when he said that if he shaved after reading a great poem, "my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act." Judy Collins's "Wild Mountain Thyme" is my favorite song for the simple reason that it has all these qualities. It is a perfect poem perfectly recited.