I just watched the PBS “American Masters” documentary about Joan Baez and realized I know almost nothing about her music. Strange because I was about weaned on Bob Dylan (literally! We sang “Blowing in the Wind” in kindergarten song time!).
I like Dylan, Leonard Cohen, John Denver, and old-timey material (Alison Kraus, etc). She seems like she’d be right up my alley. All I know is that I love “Catch the Wind.” So… where to start?
You might start with her older stuff, Joan Baez, Vol 2 and Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2 are both excellent. It’s probably a good idea to listen to some song snippets and see if you like her very pronounced vibrato, though. Not everybody does.
Ah, Joanie and that piercing soprano weapon she wielded. It was almost more power than my young ears could tolerate. Judy Collins (Suite: Judy Blue Eyes anybody?) was another of those great voices, along with Buffy Ste. Marie and Ian & Sylvia, the Canadian duo (Four Strong Winds was written by Ian Tyson).
Joan Baez was (and still is) a staggeringly beautiful woman with an equally staggeringly beautiful voice. She might have achieved her success without the looks – her voice was (and, again, still is) good enough, but the looks didn’t hurt. She wasn’t much of a musician, though. She couldn’t hold a candle, as a musician (not just a singer) to contemporaries like Joni Mitchell, but oh my God, she had that voice. Genetic luck, a God-given gift, however you want to see it.
And in her later years as a singer, she seems to have learned how to tone down the vibrato a bit, which to my ear only makes it more effective. You don’t bring out the big guns for every shot, right?
Odd addendum. I grew up in a household headed by my father, who was a Barry Goldwater conservative. And yet he had every album Joan Baez ever recorded, and listened to them all the time. That’s how I know her work.
As a kid I listened to a cassette recording my mom had made from a record she’d borrowed from the library. I totally fell in love with the lady singing about gypsy boys and the sad wind blowing and riders passing by. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized it had been a Joan Baez album: Where Are You Now, My Son? One of her more obscure albums but the songs are beautiful, if you like the kinds of songs that tell stories.
We saw Joan in concert back in her heyday, and though she annoyed me when she said “you all look so proper” (it was in a brand new auditorium and people were, you know, dressed up, sitting in seats, applauding - I guess she was too used to singing for drugged out naked hippies rolling in the mud!) - yeah, as Chefguy put it so nicely, her voice was just thrilling to hear. She always sang “Joe Hill” acapella, and it was positively enthralling.
I disagree that she was beautiful: striking, absolutely, but not beautiful. Still, her look became popular and through her singing was associated with a certain type of woman. My girlfriend in college in 1965 looked just like her, right down to the hooked beak and being from NYC.
Not to hijack, but I haven’t felt the same about Judy Collins since hearing her sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” on a documentary of music in the Civil War. She changed the line “Let us die to make men free,” to “Let us live to make men free.” It really pissed me off. I realize the sentiment is noble, but it just smacked of the politically correct revisioning of history which I abhor.
Kck, thuh, and other miffed noises. Anyway, back to Joan Baez.
Joan Baez was not “from” NYC although she was born in Staten Island. She moved constantly as a child (even living in Bagdad, Iraq once) and got her start in Boston after her father took a position at MIT.
Yeah, I saw the documentary also. We saw Judy Collins in Anchorage (where all washed up acts go to perform)*, where she did a Christmas concert. She can still put asses in the seats and gave a good performance.
*Our standing joke when the PAC sent out their annual flyer for tickets to the coming season in Anchorage was: well, let’s see which crypts they’ve raided for this year’s lineup. To be fair, they also booked some world-class acts. Unfortunately, they had no concept of what the definition of “jazz” is.
In elementary school, we had Christmas Pageants every year. All the kids in that school were Christian back then, so it was OK. (I graduated High School in 1966; you do the math.) One year our music teacher had us sing the last verse of the Battle Hymn as Recessional–& she told us it was about Civil Rights. Don’t know that it was explained to all the parents. We lived in an unincorporated area, but our school district “belonged to” a small Texas city with “Sundown” policies. (Things have gotten much more diverse there, thankfully.)
We sang “live to make men free.”
Joan Baez had once looked down on the South; seeing what she’d seen there in the 60’s, I can understand. When she recorded “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” it meant she’d broadened her perspective.
I saw her live in a very small venue. Yes, she has the amazing voice. But she also has a healthy sense of humor.
She turned round the corner with music around her,
She gave me the language that keeps me alive, she said:
"I’m so glad that you finally made it here
With the things you know now, that only time could tell
Looking back, seeing far, landing right where we are
And you’re aging, and I am aging, aren’t we aging well?"