Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Joan Baez
“If people have to put labels on me, I’d prefer the first label to be a human being, the second label to be pacifist, and the third to be a folk singer” – Joan Baez
To say that Joan Baez is more than a musician would be an understatement, for it doesn’t capture the immensity of what she is and what she stands for. She is like the horizon that stretches itself further and further as you go nearer. Rightly called ‘Madonna’ in her early days, she is a bold beauty, one who stands for resistance, peace and love.
With Spanish blood boiling in her veins, Baez is a staunch negotiator who fights all forms of discrimination and injustice. Though she believes that her talent is a gift of God and nothing to take credit for, she knew that it should be used for a greater good. “I think music has the power to transform people, and in doing so, it has the power to transfer situations- some large and some small,” said Baez who never sunk into the comforts of fame and never tried to reduce music to just a form of entertainment.
Raging through the conventionalities of age, she turns eighty today, a number that might be intimidating to some but is as negligible as a grain of sand in the vast desert of life in her case. Her career spanning over sixty years is strewn with precious moments that found expression in songs. We have dared to pick only six among them, a nearly impossible task, that melodically voices the essence of her being.
Six definitive songs of Joan Baez:
‘Barbara Allen’ (1961)
Though a self-sufficient composer, Baez is widely known for the reinvention of other’s music. Be it something as traditional as reimagining folk songs or interpreting contemporary works of Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams, Josh Ritter, Natalie Merchant and Joe Henry — Baez has done it all.
As a forerunner of the American roots revival of the 1960s, Baez’s early albums exclusively contained folk songs. As Langston Hughes said in the liner notes of her album Joan Baez/5, “She does not try to be Brazilian in singing a Brazilian song, or Negro in singing a spiritual, or English in singing a British ballad. Maybe that is what is called ‘a work of art’, an individual work of art, a transmutation into self — so that for those moments of singing, Joan Baez herself becomes a work of art.”
Although all of her early tracks are noteworthy, this particular song from her 1961 album demands special attention. A Scottish ballad of heartbreak and regret, Baez turned it into a soothing, meditative, romantic song that keeps one sedated hours after listening to it.
‘Birmingham Sunday’ (1964)
This song is a turning point in her Vanguard Records days. Baez chose the low key label over Columbia as she believed it would give her more creative license. Her freedom to experiment with the content can be seen in this 1964 album, namely Joan Baez/5 where she dealt with contemporary songs and folk.
One of her earliest political songs, it was written by Baez’s brother-in-law Richard Fariña. The song talks about the white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan’s September 1963 bombing that killed four black teenage girls and injured many others in the Alabama Sunday School.
As Langston Hughes accurately noted: “So beautifully understated… so softly sung, Birmingham Sunday is a quiet protest song.” Baez upheld the rampant racism that was prevalent in the US in the most dignified yet emotional manner.
‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ (1971)
Baez decided to cut ties with Vanguard after working eleven years with them. Before leaving, she delivered one last hit Blessed Are… to the label in 1971. From covers of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Salt Of The Earth’, The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be; to country music — she reworked them all in the most fantastic way.
But the one track the floats at the surface of brilliance is ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.’ Diverging for her style, Baez delivered an up-tempo, power-packed number. The song talks about the social and economic distress faced by the first-person narrator, a wretched white southerner, during the last year of the American Civil War.
Her 1975 performance in New Orleans with Bob Dylan and his band the Rolling Thunder is even more interesting than the original version.
Baez didn’t let go of her Spanish roots. She embraced it proudly, even after being the subject of racial slurs and discrimination while growing up, due to her Mexican heritage. If anything, it made her stronger and more aware as an individual. Being fluent in Spanish, she recorded several albums in the language.
Gracias A La Vida was one such album containing Spanish and Catalan songs written as a balm for those suffering under Augusto Pinochet. Baez was bothered by the US Foreign Policy in Latin America for a long time, this album under A&M records allowed her to voice her stand.
The album version of the song is melancholic and relaxed, but the version that is the most celebrated is the one where Baez sang with Joni Mitchell. The event not only records two most iconic female singers coming together but an amalgamation of Baez’s honeyed melody lines with Mitchell’s edgy wailing riffs. This version is a bit breezier than the effort featured on the record.
‘Diamonds and Rust’ (1975)
The quintessential love story of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan though attracts public admiration, distorts one truth. Baez popularised Dylan songs as she was an internationally renowned by then and Dylan was not. With a relationship so deep, there had to be a song dedicated to their love.
‘Diamonds and Rust’ from the 1975 album of same name is that song. Baez’s lyrics is in form of recollection where a sudden call from her ex-lover drags her back a decade when they were together. She recalls giving him a pair of cufflinks and labels the resurfacing memories to be full of “Diamonds and rust.”
This is undoubtedly one of her best writings. It captured the public imagination and turned out to be a chartbuster. Baez’s rendition channels both softness and rage making the song real and relatable.
‘The Altar Boy And The Thief’ (1977)
Baez has been a prominent figure supporting the LGBTQ movements. In 1978 she performed at various benefit concerts arranged in protest to the Briggs Initiative. She participated in the memorial march of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official of California.
This song was dedicated to her gay fanbase and featured in the 1977 album Blowin’ Away. Apart from being a tribute to the queer culture, the song was also dedicated to a local gay bar, The Pink Elephant in Santa Monica. Baez’s writing is particularly praiseworthy in this song: “Finely plucked eyebrows and skin of satin/ Smiling seductive and endlessly Latin/ Olympic body on dancing feet/ Perfume thickening the air like heat/ A transient star of gay bar fame.”