Much of Joan Baez’s success was down to her ability to transform other people’s songs into something eye-wateringly poignant. In her early years performing as a folk artist around New York’s Greenwich Village, she developed an extensive repertoire of traditional folk songs, hymns, and modern radio hits – all of which helped her secure her status as one of the definitive voices of the folk boom of the early 1960s.
Boasting voice that seemed to come from somewhere deep in America’s past, Baez can be seen to have served as a sort of musical archivist – with her career seeing her collect the greatest songs from her nation’s history and contemporary music scene and immortalise them on reels of magnetic tape.
In doing so, she unknowingly weaved herself into the fabric of American music history, while helping to imbue popular music with the revolutionary vigour that made her and Bob Dylan key bridges between white America and the plight of Black Americans during the Civil Rights era.
Here, we’ve collected five of Joan Baez’s best covers. This selection, spanning from 1960 to 1987, includes some of her most iconic offerings, as well as some tracks that you may never have heard of.
Let’s take a closer look…
Joan Baez’s five best covers:
‘House Of The Rising Sun’ – Unknown (1960)
This folk ballad has been covered by all manner of artists and has taken on iconic status as a result. While its origins are veiled in mystery, Beaz’s cover imbued the old song with an eternal quality – evoking the depth and sentimentality of those scratchy recordings from the 1930s and ’40s
While it was The Animals who eventually turned ‘House Of The Rising Sun‘ into a transatlantic hit in 1964, Joan Baez was one of the first to bring the track into the 1960s – convincing the likes of Bob Dylan and Nina Simone to cover the track for themselves in 1961/62.
‘We Shall Overcome’ – Charles Albert Tindley (1963)
Baez covered this particular song – based on the hymn ‘U Sanctissima’ – during The March On Washington in 1963, when around 250,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C to draw attention to the inequalities and challenges faced by Black Americans.
After landing a hit with the protest anthem in England, Baez also sang it at Woodstock 1969, at which time she was pregnant with her son, Gabriel. The boy’s father, David Harris, had recently been imprisoned for refusing the Vietnam war draft. Serving as the closing act for the first day of the festival, Baez dedicated the song to Harris, who had gained notoriety for leading the anti-war movement known as ‘The Resistance’.
‘Don’t Think Twice Its Alright’ – Bob Dylan (1963)
One of the many Bob Dylan songs that Joan Baez covered in the 1960s, this rendition of ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ has, in my humble opinion, much more warmth to it than Dylan’s original.
There’s a lot of love in covers such as these; showcasing the mutual love shared between Dylan and Baez. “She had that heart-stopping soprano voice and I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” Dylan once said, adding: “Her range of songs was very unusual for that time, just the combination of all the things she did which were put together in such a miraculous way.”
‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ – The Band (1971)
One of the greatest songs written by The Band’s Robbie Robertson and one of the greatest Baez covers, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ has been making grown adults weep since the 1960s. This particular rendition sees Baez bring a certain Nashville charm to The Band’s original recording, with the singer raising its chorus to anthemic new heights.
Unfortunately, Roberston wasn’t a fan of Baez’s version, describing it as being “a little too happy go lucky for me”. Nevertheless, he was grateful that Baez had introduced the song to new listeners.
‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ – Leonard Cohen (1989)
This incredible live performance taken from Baez’s 1989 album Diamonds and Rust in the Bullring, sees the singer rearrange Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ into a lush orchestral waltz.
The glimmering piano and groaning cellos in this rendition succeed in mining all of the subterranean beauty from Leonard’s original 1971 song; highlighting its relationship to the work of Erik Satie and Tom Waits with startling clarity.