September 24th, 2009
Joan Baez
Fifty Years of Joan Baez

In the summer of 1958, Joan Chandos Baez, a 17-year old high school graduate (by the skin of her teeth) moved with her family—her parents Albert and Joan, older sister Pauline and younger sister Mimi—from Palo Alto to Boston. They drove cross-country with the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” all over the radio, a guilty pleasure of Joan’s. That fall she entered Boston University School Of Drama where she was surrounded by a musical group of friends who shared a passion for folk music.

A stunning soprano, Joan’s natural vibrato lent a taut, nervous tension to everything she sang. Yet even as an 18-year old, introduced onstage at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959, her repertoire reflected a different sensibility from her peers. In the traditional songs she mastered, there was an acknowledgment of the human condition.

She recorded her first solo LP for Vanguard Records in the summer of 1960, the beginning of a prolific 14-album, 12-year association with the label. Her earliest records, with their mix of traditional ballads, blues, lullabies, Carter Family, Weavers and Woody Guthrie songs, cowboy tunes, ethnic folk staples of American and non-American vintage, and much more—won strong followings in the U.S. and abroad.

Among the songs she introduced on her earliest albums that would find their ways into the repertoire of 60’s rock stalwarts were “House Of the Rising Sun” (the Animals), “John Riley” (the Byrds), “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” (Led Zeppelin), “What Have They Done To the Rain” (the Searchers), “Jackaroe” (Grateful Dead), and “Long Black Veil” (the Band), to name a few. “Geordie,” “House Carpenter” and “Matty Groves” inspired a multitude of British acts who trace their origins to Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span.

In 1963, Joan began touring with Bob Dylan and recording his songs, a bond that came to symbolize the folk music movement for the next two years. At the same time, Joan began her lifelong role of introducing songs from a host of contemporary singer-songwriters starting with Phil Ochs, Richard Fariña, Leonard Cohen, Tim Hardin, Paul Simon, and others. Her repertoire grew to include songs by Jacques Brel, Lennon-McCartney, Johnny Cash and his Nashville peers, and South American composers Nascimento, Bonfa, Villa-Lobos, and others.

At a time in our country’s history when it was neither safe nor fashionable, Joan put herself on the line countless times, and her life’s work was mirrored in her music. She sang about freedom and Civil Rights everywhere, from the backs of flatbed trucks in Mississippi to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. In 1964, she withheld 60% of her income tax from the IRS to protest military spending and participated in the birth of the Free Speech movement at UC Berkeley. A year later she co-founded the Institute For The Study Of Nonviolence near her home in Carmel Valley. In 1966, Joan Baez stood in the fields alongside Cesar Chavez and migrant farm workers striking for fair wages and opposed capital punishment at San Quentin during a Christmas vigil. The following year she turned her attention to the draft resistance movement. In 1968, she recorded an album of country standards for her then-husband David Harris. He was later taken into custody by Federal marshals in July 1969 and imprisoned for 20 months for refusing induction and organizing draft resistance against the Vietnam war. As the war escalated, Joan traveled to Hanoi with the U.S.-based Liaison Committee and helped establish Amnesty International on the West Coast.

In the wake of the Beatles, the definition of folk music—a singer with an acoustic guitar—broadened and liberated many artists. Rather than following the pack into amplified folk-rock, Joan recorded three remarkable LPs with classical instrumentation. Later, as the 60’s turned into the 70’s, she began recording in Nashville. The “A-Team” of Nashville’s session musicians backed Joan on her last four LPs for Vanguard Records (including her biggest career single, a cover of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1971) and her first two releases on A&M.

Within the context of those albums and the approaching end of hostilities in Southeast Asia, Joan turned to the suffering of those living in Chile under the rule of Augusto Pinochet. To those people she dedicated her first album sung entirely in Spanish, a record that inspired Linda Ronstadt, later in the 80’s, to begin recording the Spanish songs of her heritage. One of the songs Joan sang on that album, “No Nos Moveran” (We Shall Not Be Moved) had been banned from public singing in Spain for more than 40 years under Generalissimo Franco’s rule and was excised from copies of the LP sold there. Joan became the first major artist to sing the song publicly when she performed it on a controversial television appearance in Madrid in 1977, three years after the dictator’s death.

In 1975, Joan’s self-penned “Diamonds & Rust” became the title song of an LP with songs by Jackson Browne, Janis Ian, John Prine, Stevie Wonder & Syreeta, Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers Band—and Bob Dylan. His Rolling Thunder Revues of late 75 and 76 (and resulting movie Renaldo & Clara, released in 1978) co-starred Joan Baez.

In 1978, she traveled to Northern Ireland and marched with the Irish Peace People, calling for an end to violence. She appeared at rallies on behalf of the nuclear freeze movement and performed at benefit concerts to defeat California’s Proposition 6 (Briggs Initiative), legislation that would have banned openly gay people from teaching in public schools. Joan received the American Civil Liberties Union’s Earl Warren Award for her commitment to human and civil rights issues and founded Humanitas International Human Rights Committee, which she headed for 13 years. She won the San Francisco Bay Area Music Award (BAMMY) award as top female vocalist in 1978 and 1979. A number of film, video and live recordings released in Europe and the U.S. documented her travels and concerts into the ’80s.

In 1983, she performed on the Grammy awards telecast for the first time (singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind”). In the summer of 1985, after opening the U.S. segment of the worldwide Live Aid telecast, she later appeared at the revived Newport Folk Festival, the first gathering there since 1969. In 1986, Joan joined Peter Gabriel, Sting and others on Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope tour; her subsequent album was influenced by the tour, as it acknowledged artists and groups whose lives in turn were influenced by her, with songs from Gabriel, U2, Dire Straits, Johnny Clegg, and others. Later in 1986, however, she was chosen to perform The People’s Summit concert in Iceland at the time of the historic meeting between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Joan’s 1989 concert in Czechoslovakia was attended by many of that country’s dissidents including President Vaclav Havel who cited her as a great influence in the so-called Velvet Revolution.

After attending an early Indigo Girls concert in 1990 (the year after their major label album debut), Joan teamed with the duo and Mary Chapin Carpenter (as Four Voices) for a series of benefit performances. The experience reinforced Joan’s belief in the new generation of songwriters’ ability to speak to her. When her album, Play Me Backwards, was released in 1992, it featured songs by Carpenter, John Hiatt, John Stewart, and others.

In 1993, Joan became the first major artist to perform in Sarajevo since the outbreak of the civil war as she traveled to war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina at the invitation of Refugees International. The next year, she sang in honor of Pete Seeger at the Kennedy Center Honors Gala in Washington, D.C. Also in 1994, Joan and Janis Ian sang for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Fight the Right fundraising event in San Francisco.

In 1995, Joan received her third BAMMY as Outstanding Female Vocalist. Joan’s nurturing support of other singer-songwriters came full circle with her next album, Ring Them Bells. This idea of collaborative mentoring was expanded on 1997’s Gone From Danger, where Joan was revealed as a lightning rod for young songwriting talent, with compositions from Dar Williams, Sinead Lohan, Kerrville Music Festival newcomer Betty Elders, Austin’s The Borrowers, and Richard Shindell (who went on to tour extensively with Joan over the years).

In August 2001, Vanguard Records began the most extensive chronological CD reissue program ever devoted to one artist in the company’s history. Expanded editions (with bonus tracks and newly commissioned liner notes) were released of her debut solo album of 1960, Joan Baez, and Joan Baez Vol. 2 (1961). The six-year campaign went on to encompass every original LP she recorded while under contract to the label from 1960 to 1972. In 2003, spurred by Vanguard’s lead, Universal Music Enterprises gathered Joan’s six complete A&M albums released from 1972 to 1976 into a mini-boxed set of four CDs with bonus material and extensive liner notes.

The release of Dark Chords On a Big Guitar in September 2003 was supported with a 22-city U.S. tour. On October 3, Grammy Award-winning classical guitarist Sharon Isbin presented her debut performance of The Joan Baez Suite, Opus 144. Written for Isbin by John Duarte and commissioned by the Augustine Foundation, the piece featured songs from Joan’s earliest days in folk music.

On the night of February 11, 2007, at the 49th annual Grammy Awards telecast viewed by more than a billion people worldwide, it was announced that Joan Baez had received the highly prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award, the greatest honor that the Recording Academy can bestow. In turn, she introduced the live performance of “Not Ready To Make Nice” by dark horse nominees the Dixie Chicks. It was an ironic moment, as Joan’s “lifetime” of activism resonated in sync with the trio. They had been blacklisted by country radio and the Academy Of Country Music (ACM) when they criticized the president and the impending war in Iraq back in March 2003.

On Saturday, June 28, 2008, Joan was seen by countless TV viewers worldwide at the 46664 event in London’s Hyde Park, celebrating Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday. After appearing with Johnny Clegg and the Soweto Gospel Choir singing “Asimbonanga,” Joan later stood center stage behind Mandela when he addressed the assembled crowd of 46,664 people. The event coincided with the annual Glastonbury Music Festival that same weekend, where Joan was also performing.

Most recently, on September 4th, in advance of Day After Tomorrow’s release, Joan launches the new 2008-2009 lecture season at New York City’s 92nd Street Y (where she made her official NY concert debut in 1960). The event will be an in-depth conversation with Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis at the 900-seat Kaufmann Concert Hall.

Later, on September 18th, Joan receives the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award at the Americana Music Association’s 7th annual awards show in Nashville. The honor “recognizes and celebrates artists who have ignited discussion and challenged the status quo through their music and actions.” Past recipients include Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Judy Collins, Mavis Staples and Steve Earle, who presents the award to Joan.

“All of us are survivors,” Joan Baez wrote, “but how many of us transcend survival?” 50 years on, she continues to show renewed vitality and passion in her concerts and records, and is more comfortable than ever inside her own skin. In this troubled world, to paraphrase “Wings,” she will always continue to seek “a place where they can hear me when I sing.”

—Arthur Levy

  • Alan Plum

    This must be an everyday story. When I was a freshman at the University of Florida in 1960, my roommate and I “discovered” Joan, and when we moved into our own apartment, a 2×4 studio with home built furniture, her voice became a part of that young yearning time of college and early romance. We used to play her loud, and gather ’round the gas heater, such that I’ll always associate her ringing voice with the smell of gasoline. In any case, she’s been an influence for my own 50 years, and as one who once visited her Dad, on an expedition to see if he wanted to be academic V.P. of the college where I taught, I salute her and her rigorous steadfast beliefs in herself and her wonderful music. What a voice!

  • June Woodall

    Heard that voice coming across the TV on a summer day and it stopped me in my tracks. My tracks then had only been through 14 years of wandering. School was out. Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin was on. The TV was black and white of course and we got 2 maybe 3 channels if the weather was right. Amazingly, I am still listening. Fifty years later and I hope for a hundred more if I could, but Joan made a dent in the life of this young girl in southern Virginia. She spoke with her heart. She listened to life and lived her life without fear it seemed, though now I know she must have endured much fear at times. But she sang gloriously with all of her heart and I saw in her a person who dared to live life to her fullest. She will never know, but she gave me a gift that day. And that gift still grows and brings me joy to this day. I salute PBS,certainly there have been “snippets” in the past,but I am more than pleased to know someone has taken the time to say thank you to this woman for what she has meant to so many in the past including a 14 year old girl who heard a voice that said “believe.” June Woodall

  • Judy McWillie

    Joan is one of those rare people who has been consistent in her beliefs and practices for all of her life regardless of opportunities and disappointments that might have made it otherwise. She is a great American and one of the most beloved human beings of our time. Thank you, Joan.

  • Lynn Weisen Grossman

    I was a student at Boston University from 1960 to 1964. I also played the guitar and sang in the Harvard Square in Cambridge. I met Joan on a few occassions and just loved her and her voice. When her first album came out I bought it the very next day and believe it or not, I still have that album. Watching the PBS special about Joan brought back so many memories. I still have my Martin guitar.

  • Francesca Porter Kinsman

    Often, Joan’s chosen music has been the prayer at my back. I took her seriously back in the early ’60’s, and entered in, spoke out, showed up and tried to live up to the ethics evinced. Still do. Certainly makes life never-endingly interesting. She’s always been an older sister, leaving a bread-crumb trail to follow…out into the whole, wide world. She always has something worthwhile to say. I lean in close, as to not miss a word…or a note. Grateful, grateful I remain.
    Especially when the best laid plans fall apart, all seems lost, and I’ve made a pitifully poor job of it, there is her music, always hitting exactly the right spot in my soul, lifting up a weary spirit to try, one more time. I owe her a great debt for her many sacrifices in this life, as they’ve taught me well.

  • Fred P Seifried

    Joan was life changing for me. Early ’60s’,Pittsburgh Pa. Fred,a M C Hoodlum [no crap Harley ] on A Vincent Black Shadow -even today the coooolest of them all-EVER- pulled up in front of the Syria Mosque because he’d never seen so many beautiful girls in one place! We parked damn near on the steps because even the cops wouldn’t mess with us back then [the times they are a-changin]. We hooked up with a few very bright ‘ scholarly’ young ladies and went inside with them. [they actually did go to Carnegie Tech] It turns out there were no seats left so they put us right up on the stage.Hardly anyone under 60 believes that part-oh well-. Best $2 seats I ever had. I was a “sort-of” fan of Joan ‘ but I’d never heard of this guy Bob Dylan.At the time I realized they were covering some my “a little older time favorites”but it never occurred to me the incredible number of my”new favorites” were covering both of THEM ! Fast forward ‘68 69′ ? Joan would know ; she was very pregnant . She stopped by to support a bunch of now “trouble making longhairs” who didnt want to carpet bomb anybody.[Fred was one] I was there when she try’d to go into the Hilton Hotel to pee & they threw her out ; she even had short hair ! Thanks Joan, My gnd. daughter T.J. (1yr) will love you as much as I do some day.You’ve made my small spot in the universe a better place.

  • Lina

    I think Joan has an excellent voice and American Masters needs to her to do a duet with Linda Eder (a master duet )! They’re very different styles but together it would be fantastic!!!!

  • Shiloh Bardach

    Dear Governor Allen,I am appalled by the audacity of the EPA officials declaring the very air we breathe as toxic to life. It is as if truth does not matter in any realm of government todayonly the implementation of an agenda to take control of all aspects of life in the US and around the world. Much of what they propose will in fact be detrimental to life on earth in real ways that “too much” carbon dioxide will not. Their use of preemptory acts such as this in order to have leverage to pass legislation they know is opposed by the population and even most in Congress should be considered a criminal act. We cannot and must not accept lies as truth just because a bureaucrat declares it is so.Donna Lauderdale


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