The Greenwich Village folk revival scene represents a fascinating chapter in American history. Seemingly everyone in the land with a guitar and an outlook of peace and love descended on the borough, and it can be said that from there, the sixties began in earnest. Joan Baez epitomises everything about that tough but sanguine page in culture more than most.
The times were a-changing in more ways than one and as Bob Dylan proclaims, Joan Baez (or Joaney as he calls her) was at the cutting edge of the movement: “Joaney was at the forefront of a new dynamic in American music. She had a record out that was circulating in the folk circles, I think it was just called Joan Baez and everybody was listening to it, me included, I listened to it a lot,” he declares in the 2009 documentary Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound.
Her prominence at the heart of the sixties movement made her appearance on BBC’S Desert Island Discs all the more noteworthy. For those who perhaps don’t know, the show is a British institution that has featured some of the biggest names in history over the course of its 79-year history. Over the course of the show, guests pick eight songs, a book, and a luxury item to be cast away with to be left in solitude on a desert island.
Many of Baez’s choices venture down the classical route. “Any classic music was really my mother’s doing,” she explained. Adding that songs like ‘Goldberg Variations’ entered her “into some kind of trance”. While it is not necessarily a style of music that you would associate with Baez, the trance-like state that she suggests moves from performer to the audience in Glen Gould’s humming recital of the piece is very much in line with her captivating stage persona. As Bob Dylan said himself, “she had crowds of thousands of people enthralled with her beauty and voice.”
Regarding the inclusion of her own work on the island, she explained that, for a long while, she struggled to come to terms with her own music and the fame that surrounded it. “I underestimated the gift [her own talents] for many years. The gift is really enormous. There’s nothing egotistical about saying that because it is a gift.” The gift given to her resulted in her being crowned the Queen of folk long before Dylan was the king.
“People had told me about this incredible guy, writing these incredible songs,” and when she met him, she recalled he “was just scruffier than I had pictured, he was very scruffy. But, what they had said to me about the songwriting to me was true.” Thereafter, their forces came together, but ultimately, they would part and ‘Diamonds and Rust’ was Baez’s look back on the incident ten years after the fallout.
While a song about Dylan may well have made it onto her island, it was a couple of different male troubadours in her record collection. “I listened to Astral Weeks every single night for I don’t know how many weeks before I had my son, and I think ‘Madame George’ was the one I was addicted to,” she said of her next choice. “It occurs to me that this is a song that son knows by heart somewhere in his system, whether he’s ever listened to it in his conscious life or not.”
The last choice was the singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, known for originally penning ‘These Days’ covered by Nico and more, when he was only 16 years old! However, the song she championed was ‘Late for the Sky’, she described the record of the same name as “a very beautiful album and one that is pretty well lodged in my heart.”
You can check out her full list of choices below.
Eight songs that Joan Baez couldn’t live without:
- ‘Salut! Demeure Chaste Et Pure’ – Charles-Fancois Gounod
- ‘Goldberg Variations’ – Johann Sebastian Bach (Played by Glen Gould)
- ‘O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings’ by George Frideric Handel
- ‘Scottish Fantasy – 4th Movement’ – Max Bruch (Played by Jascha Heifetz)
- ‘Diamonds and Rust’ – Joan Baez
- ‘Madame George’ – Van Morrison
- ‘Gypsy King’ – Sin Ella
- ‘Late for the Sky’ – Jackson Browne