The gift of interpretive insight outside of the jazz idiom is a rare commodity in music these days. The ability to breathe life into some long forgotten melody and impart it with a renewed sense of relevance has been lost in recent years. Sadly, the art of folksong, where this skill is an integral element, has lost much of its luster, save for a few fleeting examples of passing public fancy, as in the case of the unexpected critical and commercial success of the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? earlier this year.
Likewise, the folk singer is a dying breed. Most pundits point to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival as the precise moment the deathblow was struck by a certain unorthodox Minnesotan with the gift of reinventing himself and his craft. There are a number of legends that circulate about the day Bob Dylan took the Newport stage with an electric guitar strapped to his chest and backed by a fully amplified blues band. Some claim that Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax, representing the two great clans central to the story of the American folk revival in the 20th century, were both physically restrained from taking an axe to the band’s power supply in a fit of rage. Another account tells of Seeger locking himself in the back seat of an automobile with his hands pressed firmly to his ears against the din. And the crowd, confused by the darling young son’s traitorous turn, booed and heckled Dylan off of the stage.
In terms of the fallout from this defining moment in Dylan’s career, the actual facts mean little. The result was the same; the deed was done. The focus would shift from a collective, politicized movement towards a newfound emphasis on the action of the individual. The resulting divergence of philosophy and fragmentation of the movement’s audience would trigger the slow demise of the American folk music revival.
“A Girl of Constant Sorrow”
Only six years earlier in 1959, a barefoot, raven-haired, 18-year old made her debut at Newport. Patiently waiting in the wings for her chance to perform, she finally got her shot when invited onstage in the middle of Bob Gibson’s set. In the short span of three songs, her shimmering soprano captivated the crowd and helped her carve out a name for herself within the scene. Joan Baez had arrived.
A year earlier as a freshman at Boston University School of Drama, Baez had become less and less interested in her formal studies and instead could be found fastidiously studying night after night with the collective of coffeeshop folkies around Boston and Cambridge. In that year and a half leading up to her Newport debut, she collected and carefully crafted countless folk standards into unique personal statements and slowly began building a reputation as capable performer.
After Newport, her next steps were obvious. With the help of folk impresario Albert Grossman, Baez signed on with the fledgling Vanguard label and immediately set out to record her eponymous debut in the summer of 1960. In a youthful display of relentless energy and drive, the same sort of intensity and single-minded focus that had already marked her short career up to that point, Baez completed her work only four days later. A year later, her follow-up album would be released to even greater accolades than those that greeted her first.
Joan Baez and Vol. 2, both recently remastered and reissued by Vanguard with the addition of three previously unreleased tracks on each disc, are eclectic collections that traverse the back hollers of Southern Appalachia and the rich expanses of the wide Ohio River Valley to the dark recesses of a Mexican prison and that infamous brothel in New Orleans. Along the way are fleeting glimpses of the Scottish lowlands, the lavish luxury of the French court and the endless steel rails that slice across the American countryside from coast to coast.
The folk process so dear to the purveyors and performers of the style is evident here as Baez shows an appreciation for the specific pedigree and lineage of each lyrical element and melodic turn. Her lilting soprano, drenched in that unmistakable vibrato, soars one moment and whispers the next, capturing the unique mood and character of each work. The raw vigor of her talents in their prime is inspiring and incredibly powerful.
The standards of Appalachia, like “Silver Dagger”, “Railroad Boy”, and “Wagoner’s Lad”, are demanding to say the least, requiring the narrator to switch between multiple characters over the course of only a few bars. Not only does this require flexibility and maturity on the part of the performer, but it also asks for a depth of understanding that Baez is remarkably comfortable in providing.
“Fare Thee Well”, complete with its obvious ties to the rich British folksong tradition, is rendered with delicate compassion. The vows of lovers made at their parting ring clear and true as Baez transforms these gentle promises into something immediate, as if the promise made centuries ago and captured in verse to be passed from generation to generation were uttered only yesterday by Baez herself.
The distinct blues dirge opening of “House of the Rising Sun” is unmistakable, though it is interesting to note that Baez’s version predates the Eric Burdon/Animals rendition by a few years. The subtle change in the narrative’s meaning that comes with the obvious switch in gender from that better known version is chilling, while the narrator’s warnings of lost innocence become even more painfully personal.
The unreleased gems on these two discs include some old folk favorites (“Longest Train I Ever Saw” and “Poor Boy”) as well as some unexpected additions. “Girl of Constant Sorrow” is the traditional basis of the tune that plays such a central role in the O Brother, though with another switch in gender. Also included is a conventional turn on “I Know You Rider”, a tune brought early on into the touring repertoire of the Grateful Dead.
However, all of these other associations disappear when listening to these tracks as Baez finds her own way of telling these ageless tales, each becoming an intensely personal confession that could only originate from this young woman with the divine voice. In the end, this is the gift of Joan Baez as a performer, to be able to make the chameleon-like shift from scorned lover to destitute prostitute or just weave an intricate tale of some lost moment in history or lore with the same sort of weary eye of someone who witnessed it all happen firsthand.
“Once I Knew a Pretty Girl”
Ultimately, it is this gift that has also kept Baez from wider acceptance. Where Dylan abided by the understood mandates of the folk community for as long as he could before mounting his personal coup at Newport, Baez remained content with finding her own voice in each song she studied and absorbed into her repertoire. Where Dylan eventually needed to use his own words, Baez had the rare gift to be able to use the words of others and make them sound like her own.
To a lesser degree, it also came down to the ability of each to set aside the politics of tradition established by modern revivalists. Dylan reminded anyone who would listen that there are no set rules to revolution and that the same “folk process” that was responsible for creating the “Dylan” persona could also be used to define it further by being defiantly abandoned. So nearly 37 years later, after the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan is being praised for releasing yet another deeply personal statement with Love and Theft and though Joan Baez continues to garner critical accolades, she is relegated to reissues and a measure of obscurity.
While perhaps it’s not a fair comparison to set these two gifted artists against each other in terms of their creative output and the direction of their respective careers, it does become a fascinating insight into the maturing psyche of modern America in the 1960s as one gave voice to the past and the other to its ambiguous and uncertain future. After all, in the end they are different sides of the same coin.