Joan Baez was an icon of the early folk-revival movement, a popular concert attraction back in the early 1960s and the patron of Bob Dylan before Dylan became the sage of his generation.
Baez released her eponymous debut album in 1960, which hit number 15 on the pop charts, and then followed with two other popular records: Joan Baez Vol. 2 and Joan Baez in Concert. They were characterized by her commitment to older folk songs and her remarkable soprano voice.
This early success allowed her to be seen as “the popular face of folk music,” as William Ruhlmann writes in the All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com). She was the darling of the folk set, headlining shows and getting involved in the growing civil rights movement of the early part of the decade.
But just as she was gaining an audience, the folk movement was splintering—first into two camps, one championing older, more traditional songs, the other championing newly written songs, and then again when Bob Dylan went electric. His move toward rock helped bridge the gap between folk—considered a more intellectual music—and rock—then considered a teenybopper genre of simple love songs and party tunes.
What Dylan did was important in understanding the demise of the folk revival. Coming out on stage with an electric band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival set in sharp contrast the growing irrelevance of the folk-revival movement, signaling that rock could offer the kind of intelligent lyrics and political engagement that the folkies were offering, while also exuding the kind of full-force energy the revivalists lacked.
While the revival movement was sudden decline, Baez managed to survive. Part of the reason is that she committed herself to political songs and, unlike many other folkies who were swept aside as the Beatles and Dylan altered the popular music landscape, she used the new sounds in her music, releasing several well-regarded albums and continuing to sell well into the late 1970s.
I listened to Baez some back in college, primarily because I had become a huge Dylan fan. My interest in Dylan led me to explore some of the more prominent artists on his periphery. My sense at the time was that much of that music was far too polite, focusing on the painstaking recreation of older musical styles, but without the blood and sweat that went into the original compositions.
For me, Baez was among the best of that lot, but suffered from some of the same conceits. Basically, I didn’t find much of her work convincing. Her version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from 1971’s Blessed Are lacked the soul and drive the Band brought to the song. At the same time, she has recorded some beautiful music—such as 1975’s Diamonds and Rust, which included her version off Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate”.
On her newest album, Dark Chords on a Big Guitar, released in September, we get some wonderful interpretations of newer songs and some rather lackluster efforts.
The disc’s greatest attraction is its songwriting, featuring tunes penned by an array of younger musicians often lumped together under the alt-country or Americana umbrella. For the most part, Baez captures the mood of the tunes and in some cases makes them her own.
“In My Time of Need” is a Ryan Adams tune from his 2000 disc, Heartbreaker. Baez’s voice—always her greatest asset—takes on a deeper hue, set atop the light country-tinged arrangement, and fills out the song, embracing its story of aging and maturity. “Cause I will comfort you when my days are through / And I’ll let your smile just off and carry me,” she sings,
“Rosemary Moore” continues in the same vein, with a repeating guitar figure that underscores the story of two aging folks in a bar, one of whom is paralyzed by loss. Written by Caitlin Cary, who was in the band Whiskeytown with Adams, and released on her solo debut, the EP Waltzie, the song is sung from the man’s perspective as he implores Rosemary Moore to “put on a pretty dress / and we’ll go out on the town”.
“What are you still crying for,” Baez sings, hanging on the line for emphasis. “I think you’re free now, Rosemary Moore”.
“Elvis Presley Blues”, by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, shows a more playful streak, her lush voice rides on a syncopated beat with softly groaning guitars and a belching bass. She shows the right amount of reserve, holding back just enough to emphasize the truly revolutionary nature of what Elvis Presley managed to accomplish:
He took it all out of black and white
Grabbed it one then the other hand
And he held on tight
And he shook it like a hurricane
And he shook it like to make it break
And he shook it like a holy roller, baby
With his soul at stake, with his soul at stake.
Joe Henry’s uptempo “King’s Highway” is a good midtempo rocker, somewhat uncharacteristic for Baez, whose voice sounds deeper and more full-bodied here. It also features a rare guitar solo and George Javori’s frenetic drumming. The other uptempo tune, Welch and Rawlings’s “Caleb Meyer”, loses some of its edge here as Baez’s voice falters, its natural fragility unable to compete with the guitars and backing band.
The disc’s weaker tracks—“Sleeper”, “Rexroth’s Daughter”, and “Christmas in Washington”—are far too affected, too precious in their sound. “Christmas in Washington”, in particular, suffers from her treatment. The song—written by Steve Earle and originally released by him on El Corazon—is both a mournful and sarcastic broadside on the Washington political consensus that takes both political parties to task for their duplicity and calls on Earle’s heroes to come back and make things right. “So come back Woody Guthrie / Come back to us now / Tear your eyes from paradise / And rise again somehow.”
His acoustic reading of the song was full of cracks and aching, a pained plea for change, while his more recent full-band take on the double-live Just An American Boy turns up the heat and emphasizes the song’s rage and venom. In Baez’s hands, it is once again a mournful elegy, quiet, dignified, but lacking the pain of Earle’s original version or the piss and vinegar of his live performance.
This polished, almost practiced approach (set atop expert playing by her band and deft production) is the disc’s chief flaw and my general criticism of Baez’s career. This reserve is all well and good, but sometimes you just have to let it all hang out.
Maybe I’m asking for too much.