By the time of the release of 19-year-old Joan Baez’s eponymous debut album in 1960, folk music had become firmly established as part of the American popular music landscape. In previous decades, artists such as Burl Ives and the Weavers had achieved chart success with interpretations of folk and traditional songs such as “The Blue Tail Fly” and “Irene Goodnight.” The Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” was a major hit, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1958.
Yet, Joan Baez was something wholly different, even as she tapped a similar pool of traditional material. Her pristine and pitch-perfect voice bore a gravitas that the sing-along nature of her folk music predecessors often lacked. She was the first star of the “folk revival” of the 1960s, becoming a counterculture heroine whose political activism was mirrored in her music. Her impact and striking presence landed her on the cover of Time magazine in 1963.
Born to a Mexican-American father (a prominent, Stanford-educated physicist) and a Scottish-American mother, Baez and her family moved frequently before settling in Massachusetts in 1958, where she became part of the thriving Cambridge folk music scene. Influenced by Pete Seeger, she had learned to play guitar while in high school, and began performing at venues such as the celebrated Club 47. After her first appearance at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, she was signed to Vanguard Records.
Joan Baez was an immediate hit, eventually reaching gold status. The sparse production by Fred Hellerman (of the Weavers) places Baez’s voice front-and-center, with accompaniment from her own guitar, or with Hellerman sometimes adding his own. While Baez would become known for her astute ear in discovering songs by up-and-coming writers such as Bob Dylan, the album is comprised primarily of traditional songs. Her young, vibrato-sustained voice delivers them with unaffected sincerity, making them seem as timely and relevant as the latest pop song.
Joan Baez has enjoyed a long and ever-creative musical career, while her voice as an activist for the disenfranchised, for peace, and for environmental causes has never quieted. Her numerous accolades include a 2007 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Through it all, the stark beauty of her debut release has never lost its appeal.
Details of Baez's involvement with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Written on the occasion of her 75th birthday, this article reveals some surprising aspects of her career.
This gallery of photos by Bob Fitch offers a glimpse of Baez's life during the years of her marriage to peace activist and draft protester David Harris.
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE…
“Silver Dagger” - This traditional song, with origins in Britain (as “Drowsy Sleeper”) became one of Baez’s signature pieces. In the song’s story, a mother warns her daughter of the perils of marriage and of the untrue nature of men in general.
“House of the Rising Sun” - This traditional song was first recorded by Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster in 1933, but its roots go back further. When Baez flips genders, the song becomes especially poignant. The song was a number one hit for The Animals only a few years later.
“El Preso Numero Nueve” - This song is similar to the those in the “murder ballad” tradition of the Appalachian mountains, in which the protagonist commits a crime of passion and must pay with his life. Baez would later record a full album in Spanish, which she spoke fluently.
DID YOU KNOW?
In 1951, Baez’s family spent a year in Baghdad, Iraq, where her father taught physics for a UNESCO-sponsored project. Her parents wrote a book about the experience, for which 10-year-old Joan provided illustrations.
Following her arrest for blocking the entrance of the Armed Forces Induction Center in Oakland, California,Baez was incarcerated for over a month. On January 14, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King visited her in prison.
Vanguard Records was founded primarily as a classical label by brothers Maynard and Seymour Solomon, who harbored no expectations of having a hit record. Joan Baez became their best-selling artist, with sales that yielded a total of four gold records for the label.
Listen to Joan Baez in its entirety on your preferred streaming platform or purchase on wax below.
Words: Scott Billington