Joan Baez Biography

Joan Chandos Baez, 9 January 1941, Staten Island, New York, USA. The often-used cliché - the queen of folk to Bob Dylan’s king - her sweeping soprano is one of the most distinctive voices in popular music. An impressive appearance at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival followed the singer’s early performances throughout the Boston/New England club scene and established Baez as a vibrant interpreter of traditional material. Her first four albums featured ballads drawn from American and British sources, but as the civil rights campaign intensified, so the artist became increasingly identified with the protest movement. Her reading of ‘We Shall Overcome’, first released on In Concert/Part 2, achieved an anthem-like quality. This album also featured Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ and Baez then took the emergent singer on tour and their well-documented romance blossomed. Over the years she interpreted many of his songs, several of which, including ‘Farewell Angelina’ and ‘Love Is Just A Four Letter Word’, Dylan did not officially release. In the 60s she founded the Institute for the Study Of Nonviolence. Baez also featured early work by other contemporary writers, including Phil Ochs, brother-in-law Richard Fariña, Tim Hardin and Donovan, and by the late 60s was composing her own material. The period was also marked by the singer’s increasing commitment to non-violence, and she was jailed on two occasions for participation in anti-war rallies. In 1968 Baez married David Harris, a peace activist who was later imprisoned for several years for draft resistance. The couple were divorced in 1972.

Although a cover version of the Band song, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, gave Baez a hit single in 1971, she found it hard to maintain a consistent commercial profile. Her devotion to politics continued as before and a 1973 release, Where Are You Now, My Son?, included recordings the singer made in North Vietnam. A 1975 collection, Diamonds And Rust, brought a measure of mainstream success. The title track remains her strongest self-written song. The story of her relationship with Dylan, it presaged their reunion, after 10 years apart, in the legendary Rolling Thunder Revue. That, in turn, inspired the self-penned 1976 album, Gulf Winds, on which her songwriting continued to develop, often in new and unexpected directions.

From the late 70s onwards Baez began to concentrate her energies on humanitarian work rather than recording. In 1979 she founded Humanitas International, a rapid-response human rights group that first persuaded US President Carter to send the Seventh Fleet to rescue Boat People. She has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates for her work. In the 80s and 90s Baez continued to divide her time between social activism, undergoing therapy and singing. She found a new audience among the young socially aware Europeans - ‘The Children Of The Eighties’, as she dubbed them in song. In 1989, she released an album celebrating 30 years of performing - Speaking Of Dreams - which found her duetting with her old friends Paul Simon and Jackson Browne and, surprisingly, with the Gipsy Kings in a rumba-flamenco cover version of ‘My Way’.

Baez retains a deserved respect for her early, highly influential releases. At the end of 1992 Play Me Backwards was released to universal acclaim; this smooth country rock album put Baez very much in the same bracket as Mary Chapin Carpenter. She sounded confident flirting with rock and country and in the mid-90s began to dally with African rhythms and sounds. Baez appears a relaxed individual, although still capable of being a prickly interviewee, especially if the subject of Dylan is broached. She remains, largely through her achievements in the 60s, a giant of folk music.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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