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Music Memories: Happy Birthday, Joan Baez!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Singer Joan Baez performing at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington.

Joan Baez was born on January 9, 1941. Baez was one of the major stars of the 1960s folk music movement, and has been acclaimed for almost sixty years for her songwriting and interpretive skills.

Baez began performing as a child when she was given a ukulele. She taught herself enough chords to play the pop and R&B songs she heard on the radio. Her interest in folk music began when she was 13, and her mother took her to a Pete Seeger concert. She began playing and singing his songs and bought her first guitar at the age of 16.

She graduated from high school in Palo Alto, California, in 1958, then moved with her family to Boston, where her father had gotten a teaching job. At the time, Boston was an important center of folk music, and Baez began performing in local clubs.

Her first major performance came in 1959 when she was invited by Bob Gibson to perform two duets with him at the Newport Folk Festival. That got the attention of the record companies, and Baez released her first album in 1960. Her early albums were made up of traditional folk songs, but she gradually began adding more contemporary music to the mix.

Baez also began stepping away from the traditional folk sound; her 1965 album Farewell, Angelina included electric instruments for the first time. The three albums that followed were an even larger departure; working with producer/composer Peter Schickele, she sang with the backing of a full orchestra. Noel was an understated collection of Christmas music, Joan was almost entirely made up of contemporary songs, and Baptism was a concept album in which Baez read and sang poems by everyone from William Blake to Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Like many folk singers, Baez was a social activist. She was raised a Quaker, which gave her a lifelong commitment to pacifism. Her father was Mexican, and Baez faced racial discrimination as a child. As a result, she refused to play segregated venues, and on many of her early tours in the South, performed most of her concerts at Black colleges. She was involved in protests against the Vietnam War and arrested twice for those protests in 1967. "I went to jail for 11 days for disturbing the peace," she said; "I was trying to disturb the war."

Baez had become known for her interpretive gifts and was particularly praised for her versions of songs by Bob Dylan. Baez and Dylan had been romantically involved for a time, and the Dylan documentary Don't Look Back captures the end of their relationship. She had been recording his songs since her 1963 live album Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2, and her 1968 double album Any Day Now was made up entirely of Dylan songs, some of which he had not yet recorded himself.

Baez began writing songs of her own in the 1970s. She was never a prolific songwriter, and in the late 1980s, she said that she no longer felt able to write, preferring to interpret songs by others. But she had one of her few appearances on the mainstream pop charts with one of her own songs, 1975's "Diamonds and Rust;" it was a bittersweet remembrance of a past love, which she later acknowledged was about her relationship with Dylan. Her biggest hit had come a few years earlier, in 1971, when she reached the top ten with a cover of The Band's, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."

from left, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Youssou N'Dour, Sting, Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen take the stage at the Coliseum for the Human Rights Now! concert.

Constellation: from left, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Youssou N'Dour, Sting, Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen take the stage at the Coliseum for the Human Rights Now! concert, [September 21, 1988]. Photo credit: James Ruebsamen, Herald Examiner Collection

Political activism continued to be an important part of Baez's life, even as she recorded less frequently. In 1978, she performed at several benefit concerts in opposition to California's Briggs Initiative, which would have banned LGBT people from teaching in public schools; and in 1985, she opened the US portion of the Live Aid concerts for African famine relief. Those performances kept her in the public eye, though they did give her a reputation for being somewhat dour and serious, so much so that a 1986 Saturday Night Live sketch took the form of a game show called "Make Joan Baez Laugh."

In recent decades, Baez has focused much of her attention on younger performers. Her 1995 live album Ring Them Bells featured duets with younger women, including the Indigo Girls, Mary Black, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Gone from Danger, in 1997, focused almost entirely on songs by younger writers, some of whom joined Baez on the tour in support of the album. And as she nears her 80th birthday, Baez continues making new music; Whistle Down the Wind was released this year, and it includes songs by Josh Ritter, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Ahnoni.

More of Joan Baez's music is available for streaming at Hoopla. She has written two volumes of memoirs, Daybreak in 1968 and A Voice to Sing With in 1987.