Joan Baez: The Complete A&M Recordings

[4 December 2003]

By Rob Horning

It’s easy to see Joan Baez as a historical artifact, a nostalgic icon capable of evoking a misty, sanitized vision of social protest without forcing one to address any of the divisive politics that motivated her. So she can be heard in Forrest Gump singing “Blowing in the Wind”, functioning as an empty signifier, denoting her era without calling up any of its troubling substance. It’s easy to see her as a folk-festival stereotype, as someone whose humorless stridency soured a generation on protest music, and came to symbolize why political music in general is held to be a failure. When Baez rose to prominence in the early ‘60s, she heralded the national moment for the folk music revival, and for that moment it must have seemed possible that folk, with its earnest commitment to social justice and respect for traditional, communal forms of music and performance, was going to displace commercial entertainment product and instill a generation with wholesome values of sympathy and self-sacrifice. Selling thousands of copies of her first two records, spare, solemn collections of ballads and laments, and appearing on a Time magazine cover, Baez, along with Dylan, with whom she was romantically linked, became the popular face of the folk movement, and she lent her clear, resounding voice to a host of protests and political causes. While Baez toed the line, Dylan, of course, abandoned folk, turning instead to involuted, murky poetics that defied interpretation, and to a blues-based rock sound that seemed designed to broaden his audience beyond those who shared the folkie ideals. With his abandonment, folk’s moment in the cultural eye more or less ended, and its brief appeal dismissed as something of a peculiar fad.

Rock journalism tends to celebrate Dylan’s move, depicting the betrayed fans who balked when Bob went electric as doctrinaire dinosaurs, as effete eggheads who put politics above music and who were swept aside by the wave of true creativity that marked the music of the late ‘60s. In rock criticism generally, political music is regarded as inartistic propaganda, inherently dogmatic and crude. Instead, they look to praise those musicians who touch on “timeless” and “universal” themes, which are typically of the personal, private, or psychological variety. They make “true art” that transcends their time, which marks them as individual geniuses. (Of course, this is dogma itself, the kind of crypto-formal criticism actively promoted by the CIA in American universities to discredit left-leaning intellectuals, but that’s another story.) It’s easy to polarize Dylan and Baez, and make them represent two opposing paths, so that while Dylan broke out of the political chains in which the protest movement would have had him shackled to become a true artist charting new realms of tripped-out consciousness, Baez, who broke with him, came to appear increasingly strident, the embodiment of a kind of intolerant liberalism, her pitch-perfect, nuance-free soprano itself becoming the most visceral symbol of folk’s starched, blanched orthodoxy. The shrill voice seemed to tolerate no questions, admit no doubts, summing up in its forbidding, impossible purity an elitism disguised as egalitarianism. The failure of the folk movement to achieve mass popularity would be seen as her failure in particular, and ever after, she would be consigned to playing catch-up with the personal, confessional singer-songwriter types like Joni Mitchell, whose introspective musings were more attuned to art’s proper aims. From this perspective Baez’s work for A&M from 1972-1976, collected in its entirety on this four-disc set, shows her struggling to become relevant again long after her moment had passed, trying belatedly to balance the personal with the political, with very mixed results.

Is that a fair picture? Not really. Much of it seems a by-product of the oversimplification that comes from measuring her against Dylan, a comparison that Baez encourages by covering his songs and by writing songs of her own (e.g. “To Bobby” and “Diamonds and Rust”, both collected here) which pick over their relationship with a ruminative obsessiveness. Certainly the stereotype of Baez being the anti-Dylan influences the way her A&M albums will be heard by those who come to her by way of Dylan (as opposed to, say, Judy Collins). And Dylan fans should be interested in her: her versions of his songs are compelling in their own right, realizing possibilities his own versions hardly hint at while obliterating others Dylan seems to stress. On this collection her versions of “Simple Twist of Fate”, “Forever Young”, and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” are especially provocative, and her reading of “Love is a Four-Letter Word,” a song Dylan himself never recorded, is definitive.

But the stereotype of her as a moribund folkie will encourage these listeners to scoff at her efforts to remain politically engaged. If you already believe that Baez proves political music can’t really be popular and relevant, neither the 21-minute “Where Are You Now My Son?”, a suite of song fragments, stilted poetry reading, found sounds, and conversations she recorded while hiding in a Hanoi bomb shelter, nor “Song of Bangladesh”, a relentlessly grim portrait of that country’s famine, will change your mind. They already veer toward heavy-handedness; they scold and fulminate rather than explore or illuminate. Her adoption of a more contemporary, less austere musical backdrop does nothing to make her sentiments more palatable to those not already converted to her point of view. Similarly, her Spanish-language album, Gracias a la Vida, (also included in this collection) viewed unsympathetically, can easily seem a sentimental exercise in identity politics, an evasion of the dilemma presented by trying to make political music a commercial success.

Her last studio album for A&M, Gulf Winds, shows how ill-suited she was for the singer-songwriter mold she tried to force herself into: The disparity between her taste in other people’s songs and her ability to write her own suggests that only a misguided marketing ploy could have led to this entirely self-penned record. The awkward, hook-free songs, often wordy and stilted, are thrown into harsh relief by her sure-handed singing, which invests them with a dignity they can’t support. David Kershenbaum’s production, which seemed to liberate and invigorate Baez on the preceding album, 1974’s Diamonds and Rust, is enbalming here; rather than challenging listeners to put aside received notions about her vocal prowess and hear her in a surprising context as Diamonds had, these arrangements seem sterile, overfamiliar, flattening that powerful voice into musical wallpaper.

It’s obvious on all the A&M albums that Baez never really embraced the ideology—individualism by way of hedonism, introspection, lifestyle consumerism, self-penned songs, etc.—that rock, even the soft rock she gravitates toward, incessantly promotes. That she was even trying to fuse her politics to a more commercial sound at all seems a belated, hedging sell-out, and nothing stokes a music critic’s derision more than a half-hearted sell-out: the later albums, especially, feel too calculated even when they are aesthetically successful, as on the best tracks from Diamonds and Rust: her straight-rock take on “Simple Twist of Fate”, the part-propulsive, part-desperate fusion-inspired, “Children and All That Jazz”, the wordless tone-poem “Dida”, on which she’s joined by Joni Mitchell, and of course, the title track, easily the best thing she ever wrote, elevating her relationship with Dylan into something flexible and metaphorically resonant through the strength and clarity of its images. Despite such triumphs, it’s hard not to always be aware of the compromises she’s making, the token concessions to commercialism that seem to undermine her whole project. It’s impossible to imagine she’s not sincere in her causes; her passion never comes across as inauthentic. But the tension between that passion and her apparent interest in mainstreaming herself is an uncomfortable one. This compilation starts to seem useful primarily as a case study, exemplifying why politics and entertainment are best kept separate, reassuring us that we are right to consume entertainment product as if it were value-free, as if it could have no other ramifications other than pleasing ourselves. (Pop music reviewers often embrace this view as well, writing as though the only thing worth saying about an album is whether or not they liked it, thereby willingly reducing the practice of criticism to shopping recommendations.)

Her ‘70s work is not only likely to be unsatisfactory for people coming to it from rock, but also for those coming to it from her earlier, pure-folk Vanguard albums. They, too, are likely to have something invested in the Dylan/Baez dichotomy, they too have their reasons for resisting the idea that the crossover she attempted could ever really fly. For true believers, that folk was rejected by the masses shows precisely its value, and Baez’s attempts to cross over threatens to destroy that value, blast apart their little club. Thus they are likely to decode her ‘70s albums looking for the reassurances that her message will ultimately remain too radical to be widely accepted, thus reserving their exclusive right to eventually say I told you so on that long anticipated day when nuclear war, or some such disaster finally happens. The last thing they would want is for Baez to succeed in bridging the politics/entertainment rift; because the separation lets them believe that they have transcended mere entertainment, that listening to her constitutes a defiant political choice. Hearing Baez’s smug between-song banter before “Natalia” on the live album included here, 1976’s From Every Stage brings this home. After explaining how the heroine of the song, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, was routinely imprisoned in the Soviet Union, or “the U.S.S.R.”, as Baez insists on referring to it, for writing poems critical of the government, Baez declares, “It is because of people like Natalia Gorbanevskaya, I am convinced, that you and I are still alive and walking around on the face of the earth.” Now this statement is absurd hyperbole to casual listeners, instantly dismissible hype, but it’s exactly what her folk fans want to hear. It elevates the ability to appreciate poetry to the most supremely important human skill, one on which the fate of the race depends, and this noble ability is precisely what Baez’s fans believe they demonstrate by listening to her in the face of popular indifference. To her credit, these moments of complete loss of perspective are infrequent; often she is completely non-political, coming dangerously close on occasion to conveying actual ambivalence or moral ambiguity. Fans counting her for clarion calls to righteous indignation could not have been pleased.

Throughout these albums one senses Baez trying to cater awkwardly to two separate audiences, both of whom she must have known at some level were hoping she’d fail. She doesn’t ever seem convincing as a Joni Mitchell impersonator, despite employing much of her band, but she no longer sounds entirely convincing as herself. Fortunately, her relation to her own folksinger legacy is not the only context for the A&M albums. One can try to downplay her activism (and the impossibility of assimilating it to soft rock) and stress other things instead: for instance, her prescient adoption in the late ‘60s of a country/western style (typically credited to the tastes of her husband, draft-resister David Harris), which led to her charting a single, her version of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (which here appears in a live version). That story, anyway, better prepares listeners for what they will hear on this collection, which is far more reminiscent of country crossovers Anne Murray or Lynne Anderson than Peter, Paul, and Mary or Pete Seeger. Compared to those country songbirds instead of Dylan, Baez seems completely successful, a thoughtful interpreter of well-chosen songs who never panders the adult audience drawn to her by the chills her multi-octave voice can bring. Really, the more you listen to Baez’s ‘70s material—and this four CD set has several hours of it—the more structuring narratives start to fall away and a listener is just confronted with the sheer fact, the palpable presence of her voice. How one responds to that will ultimately determine how much Baez one can stomach.

Its hard to listen to as much of her singing as is compiled here and not end up impressed, whether by her sheer range, the uncanny purity with which she hits her notes, by the insane durations she sustains those notes, or by the powerhouse way in which she can abruptly move up and down octaves. Most revelatory to me is her Spanish album, which finds her working with different phrasings, frequently shifting registers, permitting her to perform a whole different set of vocal acrobatics than one hears on, say, the Dylan covers. (That she sings in Spanish also allows non-hispanophones like me to avoid becoming hung up on the words and their implications). Hers may be too strong a voice to ever be as subtle or supple as one might hope—every song, no matter how intimate, sounds like its being shouted from the mountaintop—but this collection still gives a chance to see what force it could have. (A practical note about the packaging: The case is very handsome and the accompanying booklet well-designed—though the liner notes are cloyingly fawning, as they tend to be for box sets. My main complaint is with the way the material is divided through the discs—the producers have chosen to preserve the chronology at the expense of continuity, so that disc three, for example, begins in the middle of Diamonds and Rust. If in returning to this collection you just wanted to hear that album—which would likely be the case—it leads to a sequencing nightmare.)

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/baezjoan-completeam/