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.
In their early days together, both artists seemed to be setting out with the very singular sixties viewpoint of changing the world with music. While Bob Dylan later went on to loath the voice of a generation tag that this brought along, Baez relished in the subversive potential of music forevermore.
This made it all the more notable when she spoke with Rolling Stone and told them her five favourite protest songs of all time beginning with an age-old folk gem of unknown authorship. “This is probably the greatest protest song ever written,” she said of ‘We Shall Overcome’. Adding: “It is an anthem that came out of some kind of depth. I think that is where really good songs come out of. It’s a meeting of politics and social change and music.”
Before bravely concluding: “I don’t sing it much anymore. I just sing it in the context where it makes a lot of sense, but it’s like Woodstock. You can’t repeat those times. I sing it in countries that are under deep distress or totalitarian states.”
The next song on her list was a choice far closer to in a very meta sense. Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ was the song that to some degree lit the fuse of his incendiary trailblazing ways and Baez was right there on the scene to witness it. Baez told Rolling Stones’ Andy Greene: “The message in this is universal. I’ve heard German Boy Scouts singing it at a fire. It’s an anthem.”
Further adding: “If it wasn’t, people wouldn’t latch onto it. It has to do with the main line, ‘The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.’ If they don’t know the song really well, they might know the line. It works because there’s a universality to it. As soon as you throw in something that gives it a time and a place it loses its breadth.”
The seed for the next choice was first sewn when Gil Scott-Heron began propagating his musical mantra that the revolution was in the mind. John Lennon took up that mantle in 1971 with the archetypal spiritual song ‘Imagine’. Baez adores the song for a very simple reason: “I love the song because it’s beautiful; It has a beautiful lilt and it’s easy to sing.” That appeal is amplified for the folk phenom because of the fact that it is beauty that has transcended from the clutches of culture and exists as an ever-present touchstone in society at large.
With her next selection Baez pushed the term ‘protest song’ to its absolute limits, but, in fairness, her comments do acknowledge that when he championed the epic ‘The Boxer’ by Simon &. Garfunkel. “You could consider this a protest song even though Paul Simon wasn’t a political person,” Baez declared. Adding: “This song. is just so singable. I’ll sing it at my concert right after ‘Imagine’ and it becomes a protest song too. It takes on a whole new meaning.”
The last song is ‘Gracias a la Vida’ by Violeta Parra. The song is a remarkable dirge that translates to ‘Thanks for Life’ and was written only a matter of months before Parra committed suicide in 1967 having used her art to establish the folk Nueva Canción movement that thrust social consciousness to the forefront of Latin music.
For Baez the song remains deeply personal: “This is an anthem and a change-maker that’s kind of become my own theme song. It’s a huge protest song and sung everywhere where people are living under a Latin-speaking dictator. It came out of a dictatorship and a woman living with disappearances and killings and torture. Instead of some song of outrage, she sang this beautiful song of thank you. She’s thanking everything.” Before boldly concluding: “Anyone can sing it and they do.”
Joan Baez five favourite protest songs:
- ‘We Shall Overcome’ – Traditional
- ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ – Bob Dylan
- ‘Imagine’ – John Lennon
- ‘The Boxer’ – Simon & Garfunkel
- ‘Gracias a la Vida’ – Violeta Parra