This fall, I finished watching some program on the DVR, and the TV defaulted back to the PBS station. I wasn’t really paying attention, but, even with my back turned, I knew INSTANTLY that the speaking voice I was hearing was that of Joan Baez. It turned out to be a rebroadcast of Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound, “American Masters explores fifty years of folk legend and human rights activist Joan Baez,” which originally aired in October of 2009.
There was an album in our household that was played quite often when I was growing up, the oddly-named The Best of Joan Baez from 1963, an edited version of Folksingers ‘Round Harvard Square from 1959. The original came out before her “official” first release, “Joan Baez” on Vanguard Records in 1960. The Best of album, in fact, was the template the Green Family Singers (my father, my sister and I) used when we sang So Soon In the Morning.
Watching the PBS show, I was reminded how some people now may not have known that when she hit the national spotlight, it was her fame and connections that helped popularize her boyfriend for a time, Bob Dylan. She performed several of his tunes over the years, including a whole album, originally released as 2 LPs, called Any Day Now, which I own.
But it wasn’t just her beautiful and distinctive soprano that made her iconic. She believed that music could be used as a tool for change in the areas of civil rights, nonviolence, and worker’s rights. She (and Dylan) performed at the March on Washington in August of 1963, just one of a string of events where she put her voice, and occasionally her body, on the line for issues of justice.
I remember in the mid-1970s when I was at the home of one of my professors. He was playing Joan’s then-new album Diamonds and Rust. I was half listening to A Simple Twist of Fate, a Dylan song, when, at about 2:19, she breaks into this wicked Dylan impression. I howled with laughter.
She performed at the Troy Music Hall in the fall of 2010. I didn’t get to go, as the show sold out quickly. But I hear it was a great performance. The only time I KNOW I saw her perform live was August 9, 1998 in Saratoga Springs, NY as part of the Newport Folk Festival along with Lyle Lovett, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Nanci Griffith, Marc Cohn, Lucinda Williams and others; THAT was for sure a great show.
Anyway, Joan is 70 today, and I thought I needed to acknowledge that. Here’s one of the relatively few songs she wrote, the title tune to the aforementioned Diamonds and Rust album.
“Action is the antidote to despair.” – Joan Baez