Joan Baez was a big part of the 1960s and played a major role in defining the entire protest singer genre. I didn’t like her. I liked Donovan, Dylan and Arlo Guthrie, all artists who were supporting causes and writing songs very similar to Baez, but I could never quite get past her often prickly, preachy personality. Apparently, I was not alone. A recent Rolling Stone piece (The Fighting Side of Joan RS 1285) recalled a period in her career when, “Baez had come to be seen as a humorless scold – to the point of being parodied more than once on Saturday Night Live, such as the 1986 fake game show Make Joan Baez Laugh.” Baez own assessment of that part of her life is pretty simple: “My name was like a jinx. It took years to get past that.”
My opinion about Joan Baez evolved over time. When I heard the song she now says is one of her finest creations, Diamonds and Rust (1975) from the album of the same name, I had already begun to hear more of her music and less of her politics. I bought the album for my wife the first year we were married, but I played it almost as much as she did. The title song covers what she considers to be the happiest part of her relationship with Bob Dylan and, she says, “The really, really good stuff comes from down deep and that was how strongly I was affected by Bob in the relationship and everything. I’d be stupid to pretend otherwise. If the only thing to come out of that relationship was the best song of my life . . .”. She still had moments when her brutal honesty hits like a sledgehammer, but I began seeing a kinder, gentler side of Baez. She wasn’t beyond making fun of herself as in the time a reporter asked her if Steve Jobs was dating her because he had a serious Dylan fixation. “No,” she replied, “He is dating me for me, not for Dylan.” It still makes me laugh to hear her imitate Dylan in the middle verses of Simple Twist of Fate. The voice and phrasing are deadly accurate to the point where one has to check the album liner notes to see if he is named as a special guest.
Dylan certainly owes her a debt of thanks because many people think that his profile as a songwriter began a steep upward climb when Baez began performing his songs. She doesn’t hear from Dylan these days, but singer-songwriter Bob Neuwirth says that, “… when Joan started interpreting them (Dylan’s mind blowing songs), it went to another level. They should give her the [Nobel] Prize!”
Perhaps I couldn’t connect with Baez in the 1960s because of the thirteen year difference in our ages. As she was laying the foundation of her career singing folk songs, Baez was influencing a new generation of artists. At that time, I was digging in the pop and psychedelic music mines, unearthing and learning gems with a little less depth than her protest material. She released her first album (Joan Baez 1960) at age nineteen and to everyone’s surprise, it cracked the Top 20 album charts. While her first albums were pure folk, they were influential enough to spawn a lot of new singer-songwriters. Emmylou Harris says of the Joan Baez record, “That album was the reason I picked up the guitar and the reason I’m a singer. There she was, alone on stage, completely composed and in control, She emerged fully formed.” On stage, this was the image that Baez wanted to convey. What she didn’t want people to see was the emotional wreck she was backstage before she went out to perform. I can see now the part of her personality that I didn’t like was an outgrowth of her not wanting to let this weakness show through. It took until 1990 for her to get into ‘deep therapy’ which means she spent 30 years fighting various phobias and her general feeling that her life, “was seriously dark and painful.” That she was able to conduct a high profile career, be deeply involved in a host of social issues during this period of time, and influence a new generation of artists speaks of a woman made of uncommonly strong fiber.
As the mid-1960s segued into the second half of the decade, she began to include the music of Phil Ochs, Richard Farina and Bob Dylan on her albums and in concerts. This was the golden period where she was anointed the queen of protest music (much to Dylan’s chagrin) and Baez became the focal point of the anti-war and social justice movements. At Woodstock, she spent some time telling the crowd about her husband David Harris’s arrest and imprisonment for draft evasion (they divorced in 1973) before performing Joe Hill, a song about labor strife that name checks “the copper bosses” who have him killed. This was one of the earliest moments when I began to listen to what she was singing about, thus starting the initial thaw in my negative assessment about her music). In her 1987 book (And a voice to sing with), she candidly discusses the how and the why of her relationship with Dylan becoming more distant. She was not a drug person, so some of the friction came from that direction. She spent much of the late 1970s and 1980s in what she calls her ‘badass period’ that she now says, “Was a total failure.” She tried to rock up her style. She dated Mickey Hart from the Grateful Dead for a time and tried recording an album with the Dead. Jerry Garcia’s slide into heroin use deep sixed the effort but the non-druggie Baez wasn’t aware of the impact the drug use was having on the sessions.
She began to rebuild her career with her 2003 album Dark Chords on a Big Guitar and 2008’s Day After Tomorrow, with the second being nominated for a Grammy. She still performs 60 concerts per year and has attracted younger fans including Rhiannon Giddens, Sturgill Simpson and Marcus Mumford. When her voice began losing the top end a decade ago, she had to learn how to hit the high notes quickly before dropping to a lower register. She began thinking it might be the time to stop singing, but her vocal coach told her, “Your voice will tell you.” Baez keeps herself on a steady regime of water breaks every 30 minutes which she says has helped her retain her voice even at age 76. “All those years you think, ‘I want it to sound like it did 10 years ago,’” Baez says. “It ain’t gonna happen. The upper register gets less and less power to it. If the public has a problem with it, it’s their problem. I said, ‘This is it, this is me.’”
What does the aging queen of folk do to pass her time? This year, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She told the R&RHOF crowd that many of them probably don’t even know who she is. She admitted that even her own granddaughter didn’t get who grandma was until she accompanied Baez backstage at a Taylor Swift concert they attended. She has one more album she wants to finish and perhaps one more world-wide tour as her music career winds down. She is a mother and grandmother who likes to travel and spend time with her family. She has converted her pool side room into a painting studio. She prefers hanging paintings of friends, musicians, family, and social activists around her home instead of the usual golden records and awards. She still takes no prisoners when it comes to her opinions. In 2010, Michelle Obama requested Baez sing ‘If I had a Hammer’ at a White House celebration of music from the civil rights era. Baez refused, saying, “That is the most annoying song. I told them, ‘If I had a hammer – I’d hit myself on the head, Ain’t gonna do it.’”
It is always interesting to go back and assess one’s ‘soundtrack of their life’. I have found that it is equally interesting to look at the music I didn’t like at certain points of my life. In this case, finding that I understand Joan Baez better now gives me license to rediscover the music she made when I wasn’t a fan. She has been writing a new song about the politics of the present day (and she freely admits that she hasn’t been able to write much new music lately). At this point, it is a silly song that may only make it out on YouTube, but it just goes to show that once a protest singer, always a protest singer. It seems like there will be plenty of material to write about this year and maybe, just maybe, she will find enough material to push out one more album before she hangs up her musical career.
Top piece video: Hmmmm – at this moment, no videos of Joan Baez seem to be ‘available’ – so as long as we mentioned
her working with the Dead, we will use the Dead instead!