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
- Joan Baez (And a Voice to Sing With 322)
Drawing of Joan Baez (c) Leslie Benson 1999
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
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).
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.
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
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
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,
Photo from And a Voice to Sing With
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,"
"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.
Some of Baez's best albums include "Joan"(1967), "Baptism"(1968),
"Blessed Are..." (1971), and "Diamonds and Rust"(1975).
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).
"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"
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
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
Baez, Joan. And a Voice to Sing With. New York: Summit Books,
---. Baptism. LP. New York: Vanguard Recording Society,
---. Blessed Are. . . . LP. New York: Vanguard Recording Society, 1971.
---. Daybreak. New York: The Dial Press,
---. Diamonds and Rust. LP. JCB Productions,
---. Joan. LP. New York: Vanguard Recording
Chonin, Neva. "Joan Baez." Rolling Stone 13
November 1997: 155.
DeCurtis, Anthony. "Foreword." Rolling Stone.
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,
"You don't get to choose how
you're going to die or when. You can only decide how you're going to live."