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Music

How Joan Baez became folk’s first trailblazer

Joan Baez was that most sensational of trail-blazers: She was a folk singer determined to bring truth to the masses, using only her acoustic guitar for company. Deeply truthful, and guided by a desire to reach as many people as possible, Baez’s work was seen as comparable to Bob Dylan‘s, both in the way she presented herself to the world at large, as well as the way she sang to them.

For some time, the singer found the comparisons stifling, but she eventually came forward to recognise the virtue in the comparison. Indeed, the singer saw her creative peer as a model, mentor and master of war fables, so to create a body of work that touched as many people as he did was something special indeed.

“Well, what happened recently was that I painted some pictures of him,” she recalled, “and I put his music on, and any stuff that was getting in the way, any jealousies, any resentments, completely vanished. And maybe it was to do with this time in my life, and maybe it was to do with realising that you can hold grudges for only so long. And that it is stupid to hold grudges. The Buddhist training is that you forgive.”

In her own way, she sought to forgive the world for its misgivings, by speaking to the world, not as a woman or an artist of Mexican heritage, but a singer who saw the goodness in the world. “And on top of that, I felt: oh my God, your name is going to be attached to somebody for the rest of your life… and this is an honour because of what that guy created. And you know, he’s not socially gifted, but that doesn’t matter. He can take an artist’s liberties as far as I am concerned.”

But her trajectory began before Dylan, having released her first album, Joan Baez, in 1960, a lo-fi effort, produced by Fred Hellerman of The Weavers. Punctuated by numbers sung in Spanish, the singer took four days to create a new tapestry of work that was shimmering in its ambition. The record was decidedly chirpy in its abandon, creating a more intimate experience between listener and singer. From that point on, she performed with great respect for the listeners, understanding that they were as intelligent, and as sincere, as she was. Great art takes great courage and mutual respect to hit its intended point of destination.

From that point, she grew more popular, playing to a sold-out crowd on November 11th, 1961, every audience member captivated by her shimmering voice, and conviction, the soaring soprano washing through the air to create a new form of intimacy between the singer and the crowd. Caught in the urgency of the performance, and the work, she rose from the performance a star in the making. It didn’t stop with the rise of folk, as her work engaged with pop, jazz, and classical arias, often transposing other people’s works into her own interesting vernacular.

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Soon she amplified the decade, creating a voice that was friendlier than Paul McCartney’s and more immersive than Paul Simon‘s. Yet it didn’t suit her to compare herself to other artists, and even when she performed to people, it was done as if continuing the basic sense of integrity she had long forsaken for the will of truth and triumph of the work.

Baez wound up singing for the civil marchers, singing for peace in a world that was growing more accustomed to hearing about wars. While the voice was strong, it was the way she sang- bolstered by memory, yearning for a more peaceful future – that stood out amongst the myriad singers who were performing to the world at large. What it had was vigour, veneer and humility, something her male colleagues frequently lacked, which likely explains why she had a career that lasted far longer than the usual folk singer.

But the singing and speeches only helped to create a new sense of validity that was strong, and pertinent to the way she wanted to present herself to the world. In 2018, she released Whistle Down The Wind, which saw the singer tackling a new collection of covers for a new generation. The 1960s was a memory in the past, but the truth remained, and her work helped give her a new sense of prescience when she declined an appearance at Woodstock 50 because the instincts that had guided her to this point of vitality were informing her that the concert was a bad idea.

She maintains a frivolity, stealing the attention away from the world at large, by reminding the listeners of the attention that had stapled in the world. Baez continues to work on her art, creating a truth that stems from the purest place of all: hope.