1 Apr 2018

New Horizons: Joan Baez

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 1 April 2018

William Dart shares his thoughts on the music of Joan Baez, a career now of almost 60 years, and features her new album Whistle Down the Wind.

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Photo: Proper Records

I was a gangly schoolboy when I first heard the early recordings of Joan Baez. I remember them being played alongside Peter Pears delivering one of Benjamin Britten’s folksong arrangements.

The point being, I seem to remember, that Baez, singing to her own guitar, had a definite troubadour edge over the English tenor.

Now, listening to 'Silver Dagger' from her first album in 1960, you hear the political implications that this song must have had for some of her women listeners at the time.

In 1964 she was taking on the songs that the world would end up associating with her: the politically charged ballads of Bob Dylan, with whom she’d shared the stage with at the 1963 Newport Festival, and this devastating Phil Ochs plea.

In the late '60s, she was touched by the arty ambitions of the time in her 1968 album Baptism: A Journey Through Our time.

Later on, she’d be proud that this collection of songs and spoken poetry, with some extraordinary arrangements by Peter Schickele (of PDQ Bach fame), made a minor chart impact in the States.

The poems chosen, by writers ranging from Whitman and Lorca to James Joyce and Wilfred Owen, often reflected the times and trials being lived in 1968. Nowhere more so than in this minute of 'Evil' by the French poet Rimbaud.

Until the '70s,  Baez was known mostly as the interpreter of songs by others, but then she started to emerge as a songwriter herself, beginning with a ballad to her husband, the anti-war activist David Harries.

Politics do feature strongly in much of her writing – from the Bangladesh famine in 1974 to the Tiananmen Square massacre, 15 years later.

But not always. 'Diamonds and Rust', one of her best, started life as a ballad about Vietnam veterans and ended up as a love song.

Joan Baez’s new album, Whistle Down the Wind, a welcome return after ten years of CD silence, coincides with a farewell world tour that will take her some months into 2019.

I must admit to having initial misgivings over its title song, which I know and love from Tom Waits’ own 1992 version, in which his carborundum vocals and barebones backing give it an extraordinary poignancy.

With Joe Henry in the producer’s seat, Joan Baez’s vocals are comparatively plush but dispensed with a measured gravity that keeps the sentimental at bay.

It’s clever too how the sounds of pump organ, dark mysterious percussion and ghostly musical saw aren’t so far from the Waits sonic world.

Click on the audio link at the top of the page to hear these and several other songs by Joan Baez.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title
(Label)

'Imagine' (Lennon) – Joan Baez
Tune In, Turn Up, Sing Out
(Golden Gate Performing Arts)

'Silver Dagger' (Trad) – Joan Baez
Vanguard Collector’s Edition
(Vanguard)

'There But for Fortune' (Ochs) – Joan Baez
5
(Vanguard)

'Bachianas Brasileiras No 5, Aria' (Villa-Lobos) – Joan Baez
5
(Vanguard)

'Evil' (Rimbaud/ Schickele) – Joan Baez
Baptism
(Vanguard)

'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' (Robertson) – Joan Baez
Vanguard Collector’s Edition
(Vanguard)

'Diamonds and Rust' (Baez) – Joan Baez
The Best of Joan Baez
(A&M)

'The Altar Boy and the Thief' (Baez) – Joan Baez
Blowin’ Away
(Sony)

'Jericho Road' (Earle) – Joan Baez
Day After Tomorrow
(Proper)

'Whistle Down the Wind' (Waits/ Brennan) – Joan Baez
Whistle Down the Wind
(Proper)

'The Things That We are Made of' (Carpenter) – Joan Baez
Whistle Down the Wind
(Proper)

'The President Sang Amazing Grace' (Mulford) – Joan Baez
Whistle Down the Wind
(Proper)

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