Joan Baez: 

The Madonna of Folk

*An examination of music and political activism*

By: Leslie Benson

"All of us alive are survivors, but how many of us transcend survival?"
- Joan Baez (And a Voice to Sing With 322)
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Drawing of Joan Baez (c) Leslie Benson 1999

ENG 102-28

March 2000


 
ESSAY SECTIONS:

The Early Years: Music & Politics

Dylan & Other Loves

Joan's Music

LINKS


 
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Joan Baez photo courtesy of Vanguard Records at http://www.VanguardRecords.com/Baez/home.html

 

The Early Folk Years: Joan's Fight for Nonviolence with Music and Her Involvement in Politics

With warm brown eyes, a prominent nose, and bare feet, Joan Baez approached the stage of Mt. Auburn 47, a popular folk music club in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1959.  While strumming an acoustic guitar, she caressed each note with passionate soprano vocals and filled the room with the messages of individuals to weak to fight for themselves.  The audience sat in awe and listened to the shy 18-year-old girl, adoring her unforgettable voice and eventually blossoming into her loyal following.
 
Born in 1941, Baez grew up half Mexican and learned about racial discrimination at a young age.  She struggled to promote pacifism and peace during the turbulent 1960s, and she followed the Buddhist teachings of her mentor Ira Sandperl into demonstrating against the Vietnam War.  According to the Joan Baez Web Pages, Baez withheld 60% of her taxes that were supposed to be reserved for the Vietnam War, and she arranged non-violent marches to support her anti-war cause.  Befriending Martin Luther King Jr. and walking beside him during the march in Grenada, Mississippi, Baez actively protested against the beatings of black school children when schools were being desegregated.  In her autobiography And a Voice to Sing With, Baez addresses Martin Luther King Jr. saying, "You, more than anyone else who has been a part of my life, are my hope and inspiration" (113).
 

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Baez and MLK in Grenada, Mississippi, 1966

Photo from And a Voice to Sing With

 
Baez founded the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in Carmel Valley, California, participated in the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley and in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 (Lutzow 2000).  She confirms, "My foundations in nonviolence were both moral and pragmatic" (And a Voice 41).
 
Baez's dedication to nonviolence and human rights grew as she organized an anti-war demonstration for women and children in 1972 entitled "Ring Around the Congress."  Later that year, she traveled to North Vietnam to distribute mail and Christmas presents to American prisoners of war, finding herself in the midst of the American bombings of Hanoi.  Baez remembers the event as eleven unforgettable days and nights of heavy aerial bombing.  She recalls, "One night as we waited in the [bomb] shelter, someone asked me to sing 'Kumbaya.'  As the verse progressed, we heard the planes in the distance, heading toward the city" (And a Voice 209).  "Men [stood] atop craters banked with mud and trash, shouting out the number of the dead[...].  Such depths of sadness cannot exist.  I crumpled to the ground and covered my face and sobbed" (And a Voice 218).
 
Baez's powerful beliefs on the issue of nonviolence are further explained in the book Daybreak: "The point of nonviolence is to build a strong new floor beneath which we can no longer sink; a platform which stands a few feet above napalm, torture, exploitation, poison gas, A and H bombs, [and] the works.  Give a man a decent place to stand.  He's been wallowing around in human blood and vomit and burnt flesh screaming how itís going to bring peace to the world" (137-138).  Baez believes that by studying, experimenting, and raising awareness of alternatives to violence, in addition to refusing to pay war taxes or by participating in the draft, individuals can create a brotherhood of man with a common belief in nonviolence.
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Joan and her two sisters Pauline and Mimi pose for Draft Resistance 

Photo from And a Voice to Sing With

 
Baez's views against the Vietnam War eventually led promoters to purposely censor and mistranslate her words during a 1967 concert in Japan.  Due to her radical stances against war, police also threw Baez in jail during the sixties for demonstrating against the draft and encouraging the nonviolent movement.  After the Vietnam War, however, Baez not only continued to write music for the anti-war and civil rights movements, but she fought as hard as ever to bring humanity into political life.
 
Using music as a tool for her cause, Baez performed at several benefit concerts in California in 1978 to overcome the legislation known as Proposition 6 (Briggs Initiative), which would ban openly gay individuals from teaching in public schools.  In 1979, she founded a human rights organization known as the Humanitas International Human Rights Committee.  For the next few years, she performed in concerts for the benefit of organizations such as Amnesty International.
 
In 1993, Baez was the first major artist to perform in Sarajevo since the beginning of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Later in the year, she performed in a professional concert on Alcatraz Island to benefit her sister Mimi Farina's Bread and Roses Organization.  In 1994, Baez also performed alongside Janis Ian for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's "Fight the Right" fundraising event in San Francisco (Lutzow 2000).

With Bobby and Joanie Singin' so Bright, Who Needs a Compass with all of that Light?: Bob Dylan & Other Loves

Baez and Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963

Photo from And a Voice to Sing With

 
After appearing as a solo performer in the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, Baez released her debut album, "Joan Baez."  In 1961, Baez met folk singer and songwriter Bob Dylan at Gerde's Folk City while he was the opening act for John Lee Hooker.  Baez's first impression of Dylan held that "he was not overly impressive.  He looked like an urban hillbilly, with hair short around the ears and curly on top" (And a Voice 83-84).  Despite their chance meeting, Baez invited Dylan to join her concert tour in 1963 after she performed with him in the Newport Folk Festival.  In the same year, Joan was nominated for a Grammy Award in the "Best Folk Recording" category, and the two musicians inevitably became close friends, perhaps even lovers (Lutzow 2000).
 
"There were times to come when [Bob Dylan and I] would sing together, laugh and horse around, get crazy, talk, go to movies, ride motorcycles, [and] sleep," Baez confirms (And a Voice 86).  Although it was evident that Baez and Dylan's friendship possessed a warm vitality that emerged from their close, intimate relationship, the true nature of their friendship remains a mystery.  Baez later adds, "Bob had the kind of charisma which never really allowed him privacy.  Although I wished to be the one person that didn't clutch at Bob, I was ferocious in my possessiveness" (And a Voice 89-90).  Baez felt as if she was Dylan's caretaker, and she sheltered him under her wing while they toured in concerts together until he grew into a stronger folk musician and performed in concerts of his own.
 
Baez covered many of Dylan's classic folk songs in her performances.  She comments about her musical interpretations of Bob Dylan's "With God on Our Side,"  in Vanguard Recording Society's "Joan Baez: Rare, Live & Classic" CD collection: "In the beginning, I was split between my personal, political road and my post-adolescent style, singing folk songs. 'With God on Our Side'  became the bridge between them" (9).

After touring together for a few years as the King and Queen of Folk, Dylan and Baez eventually parted ways, and she fell in love with draft resistor and activist David Harris.  Baez married Harris in 1968, and the couple toured the country on a joint concert and lecture series advocating draft resistance.  The next year, Baez gave birth to Gabriel Earl, and her husband began serving a three-year prison sentence for draft resistance.  In August, Joan performed at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, and she later created "David's Album" as a tribute to her husband (Lutzow 2000).  Baez describes the experience of Woodstock as "three extraordinary days of rain and music.  No, it was not a revolution.  It was a technicolor, mud-splattered reflection of the 1960s" (And a Voice 165).  After Harris was released from prison in 1971, the couple filed for divorce.  Baez went on to release the well-loved song and album "Diamonds and Rust" in honor of her relationship with Bob Dylan, and it was certified gold in 1975 (Lutzow 2000).

 

Joan, Dave Harris and baby Gabe in front of Safford Prison, Arizona, 1970

Photo from And a Voice to Sing With

A Voice from the Heavens: Joan's Music 

 
In the 1960s, Joan Baez became the voice of the common people and stood as the epitome of innocence and natural beauty in an otherwise materialistic, business minded society.  Although she often performed songs by fellow musicians including "Blowin' in the Wind," "Simple Twist of Fate," "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall," and "Forever Young" by Bob Dylan, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" by J. Robbie Robertson and "Imagine" by John Lennon, she also wrote original lyrics about sensitive political issues and historical events.  "Blessed Are...," "Prison Trilogy (Billy Rose)," and "The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti," are a few of the songs that she included in her concerts and on her numerous folk albums.  Baez officially wrote and co-wrote 76 original songs (Lutzow 2000).
 
In The Joan Baez Songbook, John M. Conly writes a descriptive introduction about Baez and her unique musical style.  He describes her voice as "truly lucent, vital and lofting, with a timbre that is a resistless distillate of poignancy and pure thrill" (Seigmeister 7-9).  He observes that love and beauty present themselves in Baez's singing and in her view of the world.  She is no different than the common man, because she is "a human being with impulses, frailties, and foibles" (Seigmeister 7-9).
 

Joan performing at Jordan Hall, Boston, 1961

Photo from And a Voice to Sing With

 
Joan Baez's music renders the message of searching for hope in the midst of pain.  Her lyrics reflect the world around us in an attempt to create positive change in certain aspects of life.  Her sound remains timeless, because her songs can be reflective of any generation.  Unlike some musicians who are only in the business for fame and fortune, Baez uses her gifted voice to help promote those in need.  She is a storyteller who sings traditional songs such as "The House of the Risin' Sun," "Silver Dagger," "Stew Ball," "We are Crossing Jordan River," "Amazing Grace," "We Shall Overcome," "Let Us Break Bread Together/Freedom," and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" to instill emotional energy and moral values into her listeners.  One can often find a voice of their own in her songs and relate their troubles to the subject of her lyrics.

Baez reunites individuals with their inner selves using her powerful lyrics and harmonious guitar melodies.  The pure vibrato in her voice erupts deep from within her soul and pours forth the words of love, hope, and truth.  An almost spiritual energy drives Baez's music, and her humanistic compassion and empathy encourages individuals to accept others who are different from themselves.  "I don't relate with feminism.  I see the whole human race as being broken and terribly in need, not just women," relays Baez in an interview (Chonin 1997).

Some of Baez's best albums include "Joan"(1967), "Baptism"(1968), "Blessed Are..." (1971), and "Diamonds and Rust"(1975).

"Joan" features Baez in her early years before 1969's esteemed Woodstock.  The album contains twelve orchestrated songs including an arrangement of Richard Farina's emotional "Children of Darkness" and Don Dilworth's arrangement of Edgar Allan Poe's poem "Annabel Lee."  Although some individuals may argue that Baez covers more songs than she writes on her earlier albums, her classic renditions of contemporary folk songs are unforgettable (Baez 1967).

Baez created "Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time" as an album of traditional poetry recited to music.  The album contains powerful messages against violence and war that are spoken and sung by the Madonna of Folk herself.  Walt Whitman's "Ministers of War," James Joyce's "Of the Dark Past," and E.E. Cummings' "All in Green Went My Love Riding" stand among the twenty-three passages in this collection.  The album's artwork, created by Robert Peak, depicts Baez as a spirit of nature with her hair entwined among tree braches and as a young, innocent girl grasping a pink flower.  The gorgeous artwork alone is enough to influence someone to purchase the album.  "Baptism" is a necessary addition to the Joan Baez musical collection, especially for those who enjoy poetry and spoken verse (Baez 1968).

 
"Blessed Are..." emerged in 1971 as an album dedicated to the human rights cause.  Concerning the title song from the album, Baez writes in "Rare, Live & Classic," "Janis Joplin inspired this song.  After she died, I was thinking about her parents, really all parents in general, myself included, and how some of us do our best and sometimes it's not enough to make a difference in time" (15).  Songs including Baez's own "Gabriel and Me," "The Hitchhiker's Song" and "Last, Lonely, and Wretched" explore human nature and offer a common prayer for individuals who have lost love or experienced poverty or oppression (Baez 1971). 


With "Diamonds and Rust," Baez opened herself to new possibilities and began changing her approach to music.  Catchy finger picked guitar rhythms and experimentation with soul music, pop, and the blues enhances the traditional folk style of Baez's typical albums.  On "Diamonds and Rust," Baez's crystalline voice ranges from the whimsical soprano of the originals "Dida" and the playful "Children and all that Jazz" to the beautiful covers of "Blue Sky" by the Southern rock legends the Allman Brothers and Jackson Browne's melodramatic "Fountain of Sorrow" (Baez 1975). Having evolved as one of Baez's most famous albums, the eleven songs on "Diamonds and Rust" offer a thorough overview of Baez's folk past and musical integrity (Baez 1975). 
 

Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone complements the way Baez's music remains "inseparable from the public events that have shaped our era" (1).  Her songs encourage individuals to view themselves as a part of a larger community "whose fate is inextricable from [their] own, [and] to make that fate better for all" (1).  For artists as honest and down to earth as Joan Baez, their work exists in a contemporary society, but it will live on to find acceptance in societies of the future as well.

Joan Baez has dedicated the majority of her life to her musical fight for the human rights movement.  She has nobly fought for causes in an effort to rejuvenate a feeling of acceptance between different races, sexes, and cultures.  She represents the basic goodness in the human soul and exists not only as a strong role model for other musicians and women like herself, but for humanity in general.  With the help of individuals like Joan Baez, society will break down its racial barriers and begin to live with a sense of shared humanity and harmonious brotherly love.

Works Cited

Baez, Joan. And a Voice to Sing With. New York: Summit Books, 1987.

---. Baptism. LP. New York: Vanguard Recording Society, 1968.

---. Blessed Are. . . . LP. New York: Vanguard Recording Society, 1971.

---. Daybreak. New York: The Dial Press, Inc., 1966.

---. Diamonds and Rust. LP. JCB Productions, 1975.

---. Joan. LP. New York: Vanguard Recording Society, 1967.

Chonin, Neva. "Joan Baez." Rolling Stone 13 November 1997: 155.

DeCurtis, Anthony. "Foreword." Rolling Stone. Joan Baez: Live, Rare &Classic. Santa Monica, CA: Vanguard Recording Society, 1993.

Lutzow, Nancy. "Joan Baez Chronology." Joan Baez Web Pages

Joan C. Baez/Diamonds & Rust Productions, 2000.  <http://baez.woz.org/jbchron.html>.

Siegmeister, Elie. The Joan Baez Songbook. New York: Amsco  Music Publishing, 1989. 

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Joan Baez photo courtesy of the Official Joan Baez Day Homepage at http://www.afn.org/~afn31658/baez/

 

LINKS:

Amnesty International: Fight for Human Rights

Joan Baez Web Pages: Joan's Official Website

Bread and Roses: Helps people living with AIDS 

Vanguard Records: A Detailed History of Baez

 

Go to Leslie Benson's Homepage at:

http://www.wright.edu/~benson.4

E-mail: veda_ravenwolf@hotmail.comorleslie_benson@yahoo.com

"You don't get to choose how you're going to die or when. You can only decide how you're going to live." -Joan Baez