Baez, Joan Chandos

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BAEZ, Joan Chandos

(b. 9 January 1941 in New York City), folksinger, songwriter, and antiwar and human rights activist who began her career in the tumultuous 1960s. Her clear, soaring soprano voice was the clarion call for thousands of disaffected American youth during that decade.

Baez was the middle of three daughters born to Albert Baez, a Mexican-born physicist, and Joan Bridge, a homemaker of Scottish-English ancestry. Both parents came from a strong religious background; their fathers were both ministers. The Baez family converted to the Quaker faith, and their daughters were raised in a strong moral climate. This pacifistic faith was the foundation for the family's activism. The father's work as a researcher, teacher, and consultant took the family to Baghdad, Paris, and many cities in the United States.

Baez was an indifferent student who suffered bouts of anxiety that often kept her at home or in the nurse's office. Her Mexican heritage had given her a dark skin color, which made her feel self-conscious and unattractive. In 1954, when Baez was thirteen, her aunt took her and her younger sister, Mimi, to a concert by the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger in the Palo Alto High School gym. It was reportedly a revelation for Baez, the moment when she realized she could be a professional singer. The Baez girls were all musical, but Joan's musical talent became an opportunity for her to shine, to become the center of attention, and to be well liked. Both Joan and Mimi progressed from ukulele to guitar. Baez graduated from Palo Alto High School as a talented artist who attracted increasing attention for her natural guitar ability and her beautiful soprano voice.

The family returned to the East Coast after Baez's graduation, settling in Belmont, Massachusetts. In the fall of 1958 she enrolled at Boston University. At freshman orientation Baez met some students playing the guitar and found friends who could teach her new songs and guitar techniques. She was soon skipping most of her classes and hanging out with students who were part of the growing coffeehouse scene in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She dropped out of Boston University before the end of her second semester.

Committed to a career as a folksinger, Baez appeared regularly at Club 47, drawing increasingly larger crowds of collegians. She received good reviews in the Harvard Crimson and recorded on the local Cambridge label, Veritas. She also attracted the attention of Albert Grossman, a Chicago club owner and personal manager who later signed Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. Grossman booked Baez for a two-week engagement in June 1959 at his Chicago club, Gate of Horn. Grossman sensed that Baez had star quality and was eager to sign her. However, Baez preferred working with Manny Greenhill.

At the Gate of Horn, Baez met the folk singers Bob Gibson and Odetta, and Gibson invited Baez to share his stage time at the Newport (Rhode Island) Folk Festival in July 1959. The festival, in its fifth year, drew an audience of 13,000 college-age fans. Such folk festivals were an outgrowth of jazz festivals that had originated in the early 1950s.

It rained the first day of the concert, and Baez spent the day backstage to see and meet the performers. Her clothes were soaked, her hair stringy, and her bare feet were covered with mud from her walk over to the tent when Gibson invited her onstage to sing a duet. Then he turned a microphone over to her for a solo. Standing still, with her arms at her side, Baez electrified the crowd of thousands with the power and intensity of her voice, and they erupted in applause. She was the hit of the festival. She signed a recording contract with Vanguard, a small, low-key folk artist label, which had also signed Odetta. Her first album, Joan Baez (1960), became a huge success without promotion or a supporting tour.

Baez met Bob Dylan in April 1961 at the Folk City coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, New York City, and they soon became romantically involved. Baez's 1968 album, Any Day Now, isa collection of Dylan's songs. Dylan had been scuffling around the coffeehouses, singing without much success, and wanted to meet Baez, who already had a successful debut album and was performing to sold-out concerts around the country. In the early 1960s thousands of young people across the country were mobilizing, editorializing, participating in Freedom Marches, and assisting in voter registration in the South. Folk songs like those of Baez were their anthems.

At the Monterey Folk Festival (like Newport, a spin-off from a jazz festival) Baez and Dylan performed together in May 1963. Initially, Dylan was poorly received; his voice was harsh and his guitar-playing discordant. However, Baez joined him to sing and urged the crowd to listen because his songs spoke to all people who wanted a better world. The press anointed them the reigning Queen and Prince of Folk Music. The previous November, Baez had been the cover subject of a Time magazine issue. Baez toured with Dylan in 1965. She was nominated for a Grammy in the best folk recording category and gave her first major concert in Europe at London's Royal Albert Hall.

President John F. Kennedy was tentative about civil rights legislation. On 28 August 1963, following his somewhat belated package of antidiscrimination legislation (subsequently signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson), the Freedom March in Washington drew 250,000 protesters. Baez and Dylan sang "We Shall Overcome" at the foot of the Lincoln Statue, but they soon took different paths. Dylan had little interest in social issues, and Baez became even more involved in them. In 1964, as a protest against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, she withheld the part of her income taxes she believed were designated for military spending—ultimately a symbolic gesture, as the Internal Revenue Service simply placed a lien on her assets. Baez was invited to sing at a salute to President Johnson on 26 May 1964 at the National Guard Armory in Washington. She took the opportunity to urge Johnson to withdraw troops from Vietnam; at the same time, she bolstered his support for civil rights. Her own efforts in support of civil rights included participating in the August 1963 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Baez often marched with her arms linked with those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

While attending Quaker meetings when the Baez daughters were teenagers, the Baez family had become friends with Ira Sandperl, a West Coast pacifist. Baez felt her sense of philosophy was naive and unfocused, which made her feel inadequate. She asked Sandperl to tutor her in pacifist social and political philosophy. In the summer of 1963 the two founded the Institute for the Study of Non-violence at Baez's home in Carmel Valley, California. Sandperl ran the Institute (now known as the Resource Center for Nonviolence) for over ten years.

In October 1967 Baez and her mother were arrested in Oakland, California, for blocking the entrance to the Armed Forces Induction Center, and each served two sentences in Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center. During the October sit-in Baez met David Harris, a former Stanford University student body president and now a draft resistance organizer. Baez and Harris married on 26 March 1968 while touring together in support of resistance to the draft. Harris was later sentenced to three years in prison for refusing induction into the armed forces. After the birth of their son in December 1969, Baez resumed touring and made talk show appearances with a renewed and articulate confidence while Harris served twenty months in prison. In 1971 the two wrote Coming Out, a book of photographs taken on draft resistance tours after Harris was released. The couple separated soon afterward and divorced in January 1974.

Baez's music and albums initially comprised traditional folk songs, but by her fourth album (1962) she was using some of Dylan's material. However, throughout the decades she has sung a variety of material, acquiring a musical balance, but she has rejected rock and roll.

From Birmingham to Bosnia to Berkeley, Baez has used her voice to draw people into the protest movements or humanitarian causes. Czech president Václav Havel credited her with influencing his country's Velvet Revolution. She traveled to Vietnam in December 1972 to deliver mail and presents to U.S. prisoners during the bombing of Hanoi. During concerts in South America she received death threats and required police surveillance.

Baez has continued to sing and speak out, raising money for humanitarian causes and singing in fund-raisers such as Live Aid and on tours around the world. The "barefoot madonna" endures as a celebrated and significant activist of our time.

Baez has written two autobiographies, Daybreak (1968) and And a Voice to Sing With: A Memoir (1987). Additional information on Baez can be found in David Hajdu, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña (2001); and Ray B. Browne, Marshall Fishwick, and Michael T. Marsden, eds., Heroes of Popular Culture (1972).

Rosemarie S. Cardoso