A singer, an activist, a peacenik, a beauty, a lover; Joan Baez has been a central figure in the culture and politics of the United States for more than 50 years. Not only did Baez’s emergence musically, to a large extent, propel the folk-music boom in the early 60s, but also if you name a significant date in American politics since that period, she will either know the characters involved or was involved in some way herself.
Having got her start playing music while going to college in Boston and performing regularly throughout the dingy Cambridge coffeehouse scene, Baez made her big stage debut at the Newport Folk festival’s inaugural year in 1959, as a guest of popular folkie Bob Gibson. Baez was not interested in entertaining people so much as in moving them, making them feel. And in this, she was true to the spirit of the times. Her first two albums were of traditional songs, melancholic ballads about love and murder, which were filled with sadness and sung with unbelievable control. Not only was her debut self-titled album the least likely album to crash the Top 20, but both her first and second albums went gold. Baez became an icon and influenced a generation of rising singers.
Baez stayed on the same folk-purist path for her first half-dozen record. By the time she came out with 1965’s Farewell, Angelina, she had moved into modern protest songs, introducing the world to the music of Phil Ochs, her brother-in-law Richard Fariña, and Bob Dylan, with whom she had a beautiful yet tumultuous romantic relationship with, in the mid-Sixties. While Dylan’s songs blew people’s minds, the way that Baez started interpreting them, took them to a whole other level.
When it comes to politics, she has always known where she stood. The world has never measured up to her ideas of fairness and equality, not today and not when she was a 23-year-old on to the national stage as one of the principal performers at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the day on which Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. In 1964 she publicly refused to pay the proportion of her income tax that went to the defense budget, in protest against America’s deepening involvement in Vietnam. And the following year, she established the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in her hometown of Carmel, California, to teach peace studies.
Baez has always had the kind of bravery that could kick down doors. Dubbed the “Mother of Folk,” she made for a commanding presence, captivating audiences at festivals and rallies alike and exuding a New Frontier vigor.
“Her voice was like that of a siren from off some Greek island,” Bob Dylan said a few years ago. “Just the sound of it could put you into a spell. She was an enchantress.”