Baez, Joan: 1941—: Singer, Songwriter, Activist

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Joan Baez: 1941: Singer, songwriter, activist

She began her career as a talented singer-songwriter, but Joan Baez became an icon of the 1960s civil-rights movement, and the "Queen of Folk Music." Young, sincere, and talented, she was featured on the cover of Time magazine, launching her as a significant folk singer. Baez became one of the leading voices of social consciousness and the civil and human rights struggle of the 1960s and 1970s. Her singing the anthemic "We Shall Overcome" at concerts and protests virtually defined the era. Throughout her career, her commercial success has been greatly eclipsed by her political activism, though she released some of her most commercial music, "The Night They Drove Dixie Down" and Diamonds and Rust, in the early 1970s.

Baez, the second of three daughters of Albert, a Mexican-American physicist, and Joan (Bridge) Baez, a Scottish drama teacher, was born on January 9, 1941, in Staten Island, New York, and raised in various parts of California and New York. She was a talented artist from an early age, drawing her family members and images of their travels, as well as popular Disney characters. Her father, a pacifist, struggled with his conscience as he tried to reconcile his work for defensefor which he was well paidwith the implications of it. He eventually took a job with UNESCO, to teach and build a physics lab at the University of Baghdad. Recalling the violent and impoverished city of Baghdad, Baez speculated that this may be where her passion for social justice was born.

Back in high school in Northern California, Baez was a sensitive and politically aware misfit in a school dominated by football players and cheerleaders. She also stood out for her skin color, a warm brown in a sea of white faceseven her sisters had fair complexions. Though she sang in her school choir, it was rejection from the girls' glee club that moved Baez to improve her singing voice. While also studying the ukulelecountry and R&B tunes were her favoritesit took her one summer of singing in the shower to achieve the "mature" voice she was after.

Met Martin Luther King, Jr.

As her confidence grew, Baez began performing impromptu concerts in her school lunchroom, and her social standing changed from self-conscious outsider to popular entertainer. It was also during this era that she attended a three-day conference on world issues with the American Friends Service Committee, the Quakers' social-action wing. She was inspired in a way she never had been, and soon found herself speaking forcefully before groups and being regarded as a leader. The conference's main speaker was a 27-year-old black preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. Baez was exhilarated by King and his speech, which gave her a sense that she was "going somewhere" with her pacifism, she wrote in her autobiography, And a Voice to Sing With. The two would remain close and often protested together in the struggle for civil rights. It was also through the Quakers that she met Ira Sandperl, who would become her friend and political and spiritual mentor for the next few decades.

At a Glance . . .

Born Joan Chandos Baez January 9, 1941, in Staten Island, NY; married David Harris, 1968 (divorced 1972); children: Gabriel.

Career: Singer, songwriter, activist, 1956-. Performed at the Newport Folk Festival, released first album, Joan Baez, on Vanguard, 1960; first three Vanguard releases certified gold-status for record sales, 1966; published memoir Daybreak, 1968,

Memberships: Founder, Institute For The Study Of Nonviolence, 1965; founder and president, Humanitas International Human Rights Committee, 1979-92; National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS); National Academy of Popular Music; National Academy of Songwriters.

Awards: Eight albums certified gold for record sales; one gold single; nominated for six Grammy awards; BAMMY (San Francisco Bay Area) Awards, 1978, 1979, 1996; two honorary doctorate degrees, 1980; Move For Vietnam Peace Award, Chicago Business Executives, 1971; Thomas Merton Award, 1976; Public Service Award, Third Annual Rock Music Awards, 1977; Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award, ACLU, 1979; Jefferson Award, American Institute of Public Service, 1980; Lennon Peace Tribute Award, 1982; Americans For Democratic Action Award, 1982; SANE Education Fund Peace Award, 1983; Chevalier, Legion d'Honneur, France, 1983; Best Live Album, Academy Charles Cros, France, 1983; Leadership Award, ACLU of Southern California, 1989; Death Penalty Focus of California Award, 1992; Award of Achievement, The Gleitsman Foundation, 1994; Golden Achievement Award, WXPN-FM Radio, Philadelphia, 1996.

Addresses: Office Diamonds and Rust Productions, P.O. Box 1026, Menlo Park, CA 94026.

Through high school Baez became more politically active. Her boycott of a school air-raid drillon the grounds that it was false and misleadinglanded her on the front page of the local paper and pleased her parents. She also traded in her ukulele for a guitar, and discovered Harry Belafonte and folk singers Pete Seeger and Odetta. As she performed more frequentlyfor friends and family, at school functions, in smoky dives, even out of townshe began to become nauseous and overwhelmed by stage fright that would stay with her throughout her career, though it only once kept her from the stage.

After high school, the Baez family moved to Boston, where Joan attended Boston University's School of Drama. She abandoned Boston University after one failed semester, and began her life as a troubadour, singing serious songs in the coffee houses around Harvard Square. Most notably, she drew a loyal following to Club 47. Her sister, Mimi, often took the stage with her, as she would for years to come. Baez performed barefoot and wearing knit tops from Latin America or India, and this was before the peasant-hippie look of the 1960s had become fashionable. She was first "discovered" by Time magazine at the Newport Folk Festival when she was 18. Though she received an offer from Columbia Records, she opted for the classical Vanguard label, which was less intimidating to a nervous teen-aged newcomer.

Famous Songstress Gave Way to Impassioned Activist

Baez's self-titled debut album was released just as she left the East Coastand her blossoming career thereto follow her parents to California. She was amazed as it rose to number three on the top 100 best-selling albums in the country. She ping-ponged back and forth from the East to West Coast to play sold-out concerts, and developed her reputation as an artist of strong moral conscience who was not interested in making commercial music. When Coca-Cola offered her $50,000 to appear in an ad, she declined on the principle that she did not even drink Coke. Her existence as a rebellious, anti-establishment young woman whose career was thriving almost totally out of context of the commercial music industry elevated her to the level of counterculture heroine. Her albums of the 1960s were highly influential. During this period, she was also battling the nervousness, anxiety, and self-described "demons" that had plagued her since her youth, visiting her psychiatrist up to four times a week.

Soon after its release, Baez's second album, Joan Baez, vol. 2, was doing better than her first. She toured often, and met a folk singer named Bob Dylan in 1961. She fell in love with him and the two performed together over the next few years, until the relationship dissolved. Baez has credited Dylan for moving her "out of the ethereal but archaic ballads of yore and into the contemporary music scene of the 1960s," she wrote in her autobiography. Though she has been known to bristle when Dylan comes up in interviews, the two reunited onstage in 1975 for Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and she appeared in his 1978 feature film, Reynaldo and Clara. By 1963 Baez was drawing crowds of up to ten and twenty thousand, and had added songs of the civil-rights movement to her repertoire, including "Amazing Grace," "Swing Low," "Oh, Freedom," and "We Shall Overcome." She headlined her first Newport Folk Festival in 1963. Her final all-acoustic record, Joan Baez 5, was released the next year. It produced the Grammy-nominated single "There But for Fortune." Her first three Vanguard recordings were certified gold in 1966. She published Daybreak, a memoir, in 1968.

As she became more successful, Baez began to realize that she could use her stardom to further her political beliefs. As she became increasingly politically active, Baez's career as a popular folk singer took a backseat to her activism. In 1964 she began a ten-year battle with the I.R.S., refusing to pay 60 percent of her taxes, the amount determined to be used for military purposes. After performing for President Lyndon Johnson, she urged him to withdraw troops from Vietnam. She was threatened during civil-rights protests with Martin Luther King, Jr., but her presence often drew the news media, which prevented any actual violence. She was jailed twice for her support of the anti-draft movement. In 1965 Baez founded the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence near her home in Carmel, California. Scholars, speakers, and activists visited the institute, and students came to learn about world affairs and the pacifist movement. During the mid-to-late 1960s, Baez embarked on her first tours of Europe and Japan. She was denied permission to perform at Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall for her anti-war activities in 1967, only to respond by playing instead a free concert at the foot of the Washington Monument to a crowd of 30,000. Her albums would later be banned from sale at Army PXs for the same reason. Baez met peace activist David Harris during another brief stint in jail for supporting the anti-draft movement. He was incarcerated for his activism, as well. The two married in 1968it was called "The Marriage of the Century" by Time magazineand had one child, Gabriel, but divorced in 1972.

Baez took the stage at Woodstock in the middle of the night, becoming part of history. Vanguard released a retrospective double-album in 1970 called The First Ten Years, and she headed back into the studio in 1971 to record Blessed Are , the first album to feature a number of Baez's own songs. Though her popularity had gotten to a point where she "could sing whatever the hell I pleased, put it out with a homegrown picture on the cover, and have it make it to the charts," she wrote in And a Voice to Sing With, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," a single released in 1971 was her first big hit, earning gold-record status for sales. Parts of her highly political album Where Are You Now, My Son?, released in 1973, were recorded in North Vietnam. Baez herself edited 15 tapes, wrote one entire side of the album, played the piano, and sequenced recordings of bomb raids with her music. Where Are You Now, My Son? was the singer's final recording for the Vanguard label, and she switched to the larger A&M label, which she felt could better accommodate her needs. In 1974, in reaction to the coup in Chile and the assassination of Socialist president Salvador Allende, Baez released an album recorded in Spanish. Gracias a la Vida (Here's to Life ), was intended as a message of hope for the people suffering under Pinochet. She began her affiliation with the human-rights organization Amnesty International in 1972.

As Americans tried to put Vietnam behind them and try to feel good about life once again, there was less and less room for a socially conscious folk singer like Baez in mainstream culture. Baez committed herself further to protests against human-rights violations. She founded Humanitas International, a human-rights group, in 1979, and convinced President Jimmy Carter to respond to the plight of Cambodian refugees. She headed Humanitas until the organization ceased operation in 1992. She was met with bomb threats on a 1981 fact-finding tour of Latin America, where she was forbidden to perform publicly. She later met with U.S. government officials in Washington, D.C. to discuss the state of human rights in South America. In addition to countless solo performances around the world on behalf of the human-rights movement, she toured to support Amnesty International. She also was involved in the 2000 Honor the Earth Tour organized by the Indigo Girls. Baez has earned numerous awards and honorary doctorates for her efforts and influence in the struggle for global human rights.

Made Music for Music's Sake

In 1975 Baez recorded an album that was decidedly non-political. For the first time, she devoted herself to the music "for the sake of the music alone," she wrote in And a Voice to Sing With. Also for the first time, she "relaxed" and compromised with producers about what "would sell" and what would not. She even conceded to include an "up" song on the album, a break from her tradition of very serious songs. The result was Diamonds and Rust, which Baez wrote "in many ways is the best album I've ever made." It eventually achieved gold status for record sales. Later that same year, she appeared at The War is Over! Rally in New York City's Central Park. About this time Baez began having trouble with her voice, which she ignored. Once known as an "achingly pure soprano," her tone was deepening. 1976's Gulf Winds was the first album written entirely by Baez. It was her last recording for A&M before making the move to an upstart record label called Portrait. Her first recording for Portrait, Blowin' Away, was released in 1977, but fell relatively flat, as did 1979's Honest Lullaby. It was during this time that Baez began to consider that her peacenik virtuosity might no longer be relevant in American culture.

The hippies of the 1960s gave way to the activists of the 1970s, but for Baez, things really changed in the 1980s. No longer timely in the United States, Baez found a new audience among young, socially conscious Europeans, whom she dubbed "The Children of the Eighties" in song. She performed for these "children" at the Live Aid concert in 1985. In 1989 she strayed out of her range and released a pop record, Speaking of Dreams, on which she sang Frank Sinatra's "My Way" in Spanish, and which featured guest appearances by Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, and the Gypsy Kings. In the 1990s she resumed her life as a folk singer, and toured regularly.

Baez's 1992 album, Play Me Backwards, put her squarely back with her folk roots. It was released to critical and commercial acclaim, and was nominated for a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Recording. She released her follow up, Gone From Danger,in 1997. Interestingly, the album was written by songwriters who credited Baez as a major influence in their artistic careers. Baez reinterpreted the songs of such singer-songwriters as Dar Williams, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, the Indigo Girls, and Tish Hinojosa. These artists had previously joined Baez onstage at the Bottom Line nightclub in New York City for a series of shows that were recorded and later released as the live Ring Them Bells album, in 1995. Baez's sister Mimi, Janis Ian, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle also appear on this recording.

Selected recordings

Folksingers 'Round Harvard Square, Veritas, 1959.

Joan Baez, Vanguard, 1960.

Joan Baez, Vol. 2, Vanguard, 1961.

Joan Baez in Concert, Pt. 2 (Bonus Tracks) (live), Vanguard, 1963.

Joan Baez in Concert, Pt. 1 (Bonus Tracks) (live), Vanguard, 1963.

Joan Baez in Concert, Pt. 1 (live), Vanguard, 1963.

Joan Baez in Concert, Pt. 2 (live), Vanguard, 1963.

Joan Baez 5, Vanguard, 1964.

Farewell, Angelina, Vanguard, 1965.

Noël, Vanguard, 1966.

Joan, Vanguard, 1967.

Any Day Now, Vanguard, 1968.

Baptism, Vanguard, 1968.

David's Album,Vanguard, 1969.

In Concert 2 (live), Vanguard, 1970.

One Day at a Time, Vanguard, 1970.

Sacco and Vanzetti (Original Soundtrack), RCA Victor, 1971.

Blessed Are , Vanguard, 1971.

Carry It On Vanguard, 1971.

Come from the Shadows, A&M, 1972.

Joan Baez Ballad Book, Vanguard, 1972.

Where Are You Now, My Son?, A&M, 1973.

Gracias a La Vida (Here's to Life ), A&M, 1974.

Live in Japan, Vanguard, 1975.

Diamonds and Rust, A&M, 1975.

The Lovesong Album, Vanguard, 1975.

Gulf Winds, A&M, 1976.

From Every Stage (live), A&M, 1976.

Joan Baez in Concert (live)Vanguard, 1976.

Blowin' Away, Epic, 1977.

House of the Rising Sun, Musidisc, 1978.

The Joan Baez Country Music Album, Vanguard, 1979.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Vanguard, 1979.

Honest Lullaby, Portrait, 1979.

Live in Concert: European Tour, Portrait, 1980.

Live in Europe '83: Children of the Eighties, Ariola, 1983.

The Contemporary Ballad Book, Vanguard, 1987.

Recently, Gold Castle, 1988.

Speaking of Dreams, Capitol, 1989.

Diamonds and Rust in the Bullring (live), Gold Castle, 1989.

Ballad Book, Vol. 2, Vanguard, 1990.

Brothers in Arms, Capitol, 1991.

Play Me Backwards, Virgin, 1992.

Ring Them Bells (live), Grapevine, 1995.

Live at Newport, Vanguard, 1996.

Gone from Danger,Capitol, 1997.

Joan Baez (Expanded), Vanguard, 2001.

Joan Baez, Vol. 2 (Expanded), Vanguard, 2001.

Dreams, Gold Castle.



Baez, Joan, And A Voice to Sing With, Summit Books, 1987.

George-Warren, Holly, and Romanowski, Patricia, editors, Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 2001.

Larkin, Colin, editor, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, MUZE UK Ltd., 1998.


Boston Herald, February 19, 2002, p. 35.

Denver Post, November 3, 2000, p. E15.

New York Times, April 9, 2002, p. E1.

San Francisco Chronicle, July 1, 2001, p. 50; October 12, 2001, p. C6.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 1, 2000, p. B3.

Star Ledger (Newark, New Jersey), October 22, 2000, p. 8.

Washington Times, March 9, 2002, p. D4.


The Joan Baez Web Pages, (June 10, 2002).

Brenna Sanchez