Joan Baez | Joan Baez (November 1960)
Folk – 46:02
“I think music has the power to transform people, and in doing so, it has the power to transform situations – some large and some small.”
Throughout history, man has possessed a dream. He has fought for his rights; he has stood up against those who have oppressed, determined to release the shackles and walk tall. From William Wilberforce to Emily Pankhurst, great men and women have battled the establishment in protest at how they have been treated. Sadly, it sometimes feels in the 21st Century that those passionate individuals have become relics of the past. Instead, we have become an apathetic generation, more content to allow the status quo to dictate our lives in the misplaced belief that we can never make a difference. It is a sorry state of affairs. You don’t have to look far back to see battlelines being drawn up; throughout the last 100 years, there have been times without number when this was more than apparent. And the decade which stands out the strongest in terms of making a stand against the man was during the 1960s.
From this position, 50 years later and viewed from the perspective of one who never lived through it, it seems a decade like no other. Talking to my parents, who experienced it first-hand, there was a feeling that it was a time of radical change. Young people were beginning to rally against their parents, wanting to make their own mark on the world. It was the age of the protest song. By the end of the decade, the Hippy movement had turned protesting into an artform; counter-culture had made it a way of life. But in the earlier part of the 1960s, it was folk songs which dominated the cries for justice and freedom. And heading the marching soldiers was a 19-year-old guitarist from New York.
Joan Baez had social justice in her blood. Her father, the physicist Albert Baez, had rejected lucrative offers of work for the military, instead focusing on education, working for a time with UNESCO. According to Joan, it was – and remains – more important to her than music. She was influenced by Martin Luther King, who she eventually befriended, and was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement (her version of We Shall Overcome eventually became an official anthem for it). She was still at school when she committed her first act of civil disobedience, refusing to take part in an air raid shelter. You would expect that anything she turned her hand to take the form of a cry for justice for all. All of which makes her debut album seem something of an enigma, focusing more on traditional folk songs than any outright attempts at protest music.
Things begin at a pace with the plucking of an acoustic guitar; it is the style which I have always dreamed of achieving (while I can play rhythm guitar, anything beyond strumming has eluded me). For much of the recording, this is the archetypal folk album aside from Joan on vocals and guitar, the only other musician to feature is Fred Hellerman of The Weavers on a second guitar. Following the first track, Silver Dagger, a lament from a woman to a would-be suitor – the musical style perfectly suits the lyrics – the album moves on to Fare Thee Well. And suddenly the record starts to grate. Joan Baez has been praised for her beautiful voice; sadly, I’m not sure I concur. At times it has a soothing quality, but on Fare Thee Well, during the chorus, it becomes more of a screech, burning the ears. This effect continues in her version of House of the Rising Sun; a wonderful song, and one that sounds stunning in Baez’s quieter moments. But when she raises the volume, it becomes difficult to listen to.
I always fear in these moments that I’m missing something; that I’m not refined enough – or capable of – understanding a certain style of singing. But as the album progresses into All My Trials, I wonder whether there are simply singers which, not matter how hard you try, you cannot appreciate. I am sure that this is an important folk album; while it isn’t the worst I’ve heard, it isn’t the kind of record which I would race back to either. Baez has become something of a legend in the folk world and you cannot doubt her passion for making the world a better place. And while that passion can be heard in the music, it wasn’t enough to instil me with desire. Music can move you; it can drive you, through emotional resonance, to do marvellous things. Unfortunately, Joan missed the mark for me.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Joan Baez here:
Next time: Elvis is Back by Elvis Presley