Joan Baez is the heart of the 1960s counterculture, an artist who gave the movement its beautiful melody. Her voice has become synonymous with social and political activism, both of which she is involved in to this day alongside her music.
While Baez is a pioneering songwriter herself, she has always done a superb job in interpreting the works of other artists. When she was young, her family took her to see Pete Seeger, after which she learned his entire catalogue which first introduced her into the music world. She has never taken credit for her innate ability to sing beautifully, “I was born gifted”, Baez said about her talent.
From the moment Baez hit the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, it didn’t take long for people to recognize her as a leading figure of the folk movement in Greenwich Village and its connection to a larger countercultural movement. Baez performed at the Lincoln Memorial, the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his timeless speech starting with the memorable line, “I have a dream.”
When Woodstock happened in 1969, it was sort of a double-edged sword; some would say it was the beginning of the end of the hippie dream, proving yet again that one cannot try and bottle a social movement into one cohesive tangible format, without sacrificing a certain authenticity that only truly happens in a moment.
Woodstock was only a music concert, after all, maybe that’s all it ever should have been – the issue arises when people try and romanticise into something that it wasn’t. Baez said in an interview with The Rolling Stone: “Even as a cultural event it hasn’t been romanticised. I think it was fantastic. I think the only way it’s been overdone was thinking it changed the world, politically and as far as the war went. It was only a part of things. It wasn’t it.”
The hippie counterculture was very much unified in the spirit of protest: protest against the Vietnam War and protest against civil and racial injustice. During the years following Woodstock, the Vietnam War came to a gruelling end, and unlike the Second World War, there were no feelings of glory or victory – it was an all-around defeat. The American soldiers who came home were humiliated and called ‘baby killers’ (perhaps unfairly so) but then you look at someone like Joan Baez’s husband who at the time of Baez’s performance at Woodstock (she was six months pregnant), was in prison for avoiding the Vietnam draft – it reminds us that there is always a choice even when faced with National mandates.
Baez performed on the Woodstock stage a little after 1am, following a set by Ravi Shankar, whose presence at the festival implied a whole other kind of cultural relevance (the bridging of Western and Eastern cultures).
There was one moment that captured the spirit of Woodstock beautifully, a moment that gave us a little snapshot into what was happening behind the scenes at the festival – Woodstock as a ‘get-together’ and not as a ‘production’.
There was the ‘Free stage’ – a place where anyone can wait in line and perform, regardless of who you are. Baez waited in line, although, given who she was, she probably didn’t have to. When it was her turn to perform, she sang a wonderful snippet of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ by The Beatles. You can hear the fire crackle and a sense of freedom that permeates the air.
Listen to it, below.