Highway's Song

Joan Baez: In the Flow of History

Joan Baez today


Baez with Bob Dylan in the early 1960s.

Over the last six decades her voice is forever etched in the consciousness of the American spirit. Hers is the voice our truest heart, tapping into our sense of justice and equality.
—Anonymous

With a career born in the fire of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, Mexican-Scottish-American folk icon Joan Baez was well-prepared for her times. Her Mexican-American father, Albert Baez, was a committed pacifist who took his young daughter to anti-war demonstrations during her childhood. Her family converted to Quakerism, which she still identifies with to this day. Along with pacifism the Quakers have long advocated social justice, which must have been a healing force for her during a childhood that included racial discrimination due to her Mexican heritage.

She has always been about social justice over pop success in the music business. While many in the world of rock music will identify her historically with Bob Dylan, who was her friend, lover, and peer in music, she has gone on record in a PBS documentary to say that social justice is the true core of her life.

But, one look at the scope and depth of her 60-year career makes it clear she has effortlessly woven together her love for the song with social activism.

At 77 years old and now embarking on her final tour she has titled the Fare Thee Well tour, with a performance this month at Humphrey’s, she has come full circle to a time that in many ways parallels the world of the late ’50s that saw the rise of her career.

The America of the 1950s was an openly racist society. Segregation and its subsequent companions of inequality and discrimination were the stated and covert laws of the land in many parts of the country.

When she first appeared at 1959’s debut Newport Folk Festival as a guest of Bob Gibson, Baez was a very nervous 18-year-old with little on-stage performance history. In existing recordings of her duet with Gibson, she already sounds like a seasoned folk singer with decades of experience. While she reports a beginner’s stage fright, it is never revealed in her performance, which sounds unforced and authentic.

Her subsequent 1960 Vanguard album releases found an immediate audience in 1960, resulting in her first two albums going gold, an unusual feat for a solo folk artist of 19 years old. While her debut eponymous album took two years to hit the Billboard gold mark, her follow-up, Joan Baez Vol. 2 (1961) was an immediate chart success, a result of her burgeoning reputation and the popularity of the folk revival.

Her description of recording her first album reveals how eager Vanguard was to release her debut album:

“It took four nights. We were in some big, smelly ballroom at a hotel on Broadway, way up by the river. We couldn’t record on Wednesday nights because they played Bingo there. I would be down there on this dirty old rug with two microphones, one for the voice and one for the guitar. I just did my set; it was probably all I knew. I just put ’em down. I did ‘Mary Hamilton’ once and that was it. That’s the way we made ’em in the old days. As long as a dog didn’t run through the room or something, you had it.”

Her first three albums, from 1960 to 1962, were made up of traditional American and European folk songs—most of the ballads from the British Isles. However, her love of social justice finally showed up on her third album, Joan Baez Live, Vol.2. Notably, it included two songs by then up-and-coming songwriter Bob Dylan. Baez merged her civil rights passion with her love for song by recording Dylan’s “With God on Our Side,” a song that covers America’s history of injustice toward Native Americans and in war.

But, it is the iconic and essential American folk song “We Shall Overcome” that would send Joan Baez beyond the Billboard charts into a place in history.

On August 28, 1963, in Washington DC, the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington D.C., a historic gathering in protest of the treatment of African-Americans, attracted thousands to the Washington Mall. As Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Joan Baez rallied the audience on the steps of the Capitol building with the anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

Written as a hymn by Charles Albert Tindley in 1900, the song was rewritten during a tobacco strike led by African-American women workers in 1945. Two years later the song was published by the Pete Seeger’s People’s Song Bulletin, thanks to Zilphia Horton, who, in 1947, learned the songs from union workers in Tennessee.

On that day in August 1963, through Joan Baez, the song helped to galvanize the participants and the movement at large. Baez’s performance has become an important part of the song’s legend since, and it has been a favorite during her live performances. One of those performances includes singing the song at the White House for A Celebration of Music of the Civil Rights Movement in 2010.
The 1963 march was also, for Baez, a crossroad that allowed her popular success and her passion for social justice to merge. That day became a symbol of what her career and her life would be over the decades as she continued toward legendary success in popular music and an important role as a social activist.

A similar moment happened after midnight in August of 1969 when Baez appeared at the historic Woodstock Festival, delivering to the audience of 500,000 attendees songs like “We Shall Overcome,” “Joe Hill,” and “Amazing Grace.” Her performance of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” appears in the Oscar-winning documentary film Woodstock. It was a mere ten years since her first public performance at 18.

But, for Baez, this moment was but one stop along the way as she continued to be an activist and an artist.

In 1966 she began to be vocal about her opposition to the Vietnam War. The following year Baez met anti-war activist David Harris, which led to her only marriage. Harris would go to jail for resisting the draft. Baez made Harris protest public, drawing attention to the injustices of the war. The couple of would divorce following Harris’ release from prison in 1969. But, Baez’s activism in opposition to the was continued throughout the ’70s.

While her pop success was uncalculated, it grew out of her love for the American song, old and new. Her chart success with a chain of successful albums and such hit songs as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Diamond in Rust” would eventually land her a place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame (2017). Her albums since have followed a familiar pattern of mostly contemporary songs by such writers as Warren Zevon, John Stewart, Eliza Gilkyson, Steve Earle, Gram Parsons, Jackson Browne, and Patty Griffin.

While Baez has championed many current causes, her approach has been less political than it’s been social. Like the old-school activists of times past, she has sought to educate and mobilize people to positive action rather than divide according to tribal and political party lines.

In 2008, for the first time, she publicly supported politician Barack Obama’s successful run for the presidency. Since that time, she has made statements of disappointment about this. In a 2013 interview for The Huffington Post she said, “In some ways I’m disappointed, but in some ways it was silly to expect more. If he had taken his brilliance, his eloquence, his toughness and not run for office he could have led a movement. Once he got in the Oval Office he couldn’t do anything.”

However, she was inspired enough to record a song in 2015 after President Obama spontaneously sang “Amazing Grace” during a eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who had been murdered in his own church by a racist during a prayer meeting in South Carolina. The song, “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” demonstrates how, once again, Joan Baez’s musical path crossed with history. It was written by Zoe Mulford, a singer-songwriter whose work is built on the vintage music of the Appalachians and the British Isles, much like Joan Baez’s early career. The song appears on Baez’s latest album, Whistle Down the Wind.

While the recording on album effectively resonates the soul of the song with a piano arrangement reminiscent of Ken Burns’ Civil War, there is a poignant performance of Baez singing the song on a Scandinavian talk show during an interview available on YouTube. This is worth seeking out. It shows Baez bringing to life a song of sorrow and hope as she did in 1963. It is vintage Baez. She has not lost her touch.

The song and this performance serves to bookend a career that began with a shy 18 year-old girl quietly stepping into the spotlight and merging a passion for social justice—which was in short supply in 1959—with a love for the unifying power of song.

On her latest album she brings this home by gifting us with Zoe Mulford’s song about a racial tragedy and the inspired response of America’s first African-American president. It portrays a president who seeks to heal and comfort with empathy and compassion in the face of tragedy.

There is a bittersweet irony to the sunset of Joan Baez’s career as she bids fare-thee-well to her touring life. It seems she is leaving our culture’s stage in much the same state as when she began six decades ago. Racism has made a comeback, the basics of human compassion and decency are in question, and many people, once again, are finding good causes to protest and fight for justice. As an artist and an activist, the work will never be done, as Joan Baez would be the first to admit. In the years to come she will be missed, but she has done more than her share of helping to create positive change in the world.

Now it’s our turn to speak up, to sing and to act in ways of peace, love and tolerance.

Joan Baez will appear at Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay on Tuesday, October 30.

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