She may not have been as prolific a songwriter as Bob Dylan or as commercial as Joni Mitchell, but without Joan Baez, the 21st century folk scene would be a very, very different place. Without her, Dylan would never have left the coffee shops of Greenwich Village. Mitchell, Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris, and countless other female artists would sound very different than they do or would never have broken through. A rebellious trailblazer with the voice of an angel, her legacy and influence are as daunting as they are impressive. Here, we take a look back at her career with our pick of the 10 best Joan Baez songs of all time.
10. There, but fortunately
Phil Ochs’ career may have ended in tragedy, but his legacy lives on. One of her most charming and moving pieces is There But For Fortune, a song that has been covered by countless artists over the years, but rarely as beautifully as that by Joan Baez on her 1964 album, Joan Baez. /5.
9. In the quiet morning
After being with Vanguard for nearly a decade, Baez moved to A&M in the early 1970s after deciding to make music with a more commercial bent. His first album on the label, Come From the Shadows, isn’t his best, but there’s still plenty to enjoy. One of his highlights is In the Quiet Morning, a song written by his sister Mimi Fariña as a tribute to the late Janis Joplin. Compared to his previous songs, the arrangements and production are full and lush, but not big enough to dwarf his always incredible voice.
8. Amazing Grace
There can’t be many singers, folk or otherwise, who haven’t cracked a few lines from Amazing Grace at some point or another. But neither can there be many who have sung it with as moving conviction and effortless grace as Baez. In his hands, it ceased to be about God and became about justice, transforming from a song for the religious into a song for all who have been beaten, repressed and vilified but found redemption in the struggle.
7. O Freedom
Many protest singers of the 1960s talked the talk, but few followed suit. Baez didn’t just walk, she marched. And while she marched, she sang. When Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Civil Rights March on Washington on August 28, 1963, Baez was there to sing to the crowd. With the lines “Before I’m a slave, they’ll bury me in my grave,” her choice of song from her, the anthem Oh Freedom, couldn’t have been more apt.
6. Birmingham Sunday
As GQ magazine points out, the 1964 album Joan Baez/ 5 was a crucial turning point for Baez. Until then, he had relied almost exclusively on traditional folk, but five albums into his career, he was starting to run out of material. Rather than go back further into musical history, he turned to the charts, with the result that Joan Baez/ 5 is made up of almost as many contemporary songs as there are folk standards.
The album is packed with gems (her operatic rendition of Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras, in which she duets with herself, is magical), but Birmingham Sunday is perhaps the most moving. Written by Baez’s brother-in-law, Richard Fariña, the harrowing account of the deaths of four black children by KKK bombers at an Alabama Sunday school is sung softly, beautifully understated, yet somehow more powerful than a locomotive.
5. The Virgin Mary had a son
Baez’s big break came at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1959, where his two duets with folk heavyweight Bob Gibson wowed the crowd. The first, We’re Crossing the Jordan River, is joyously upbeat, but it’s in the grieving Virgin Mary Had a Son that Baez can really show his singing skills. The contrast between his seraphic strident and Gibson’s deeper tone is utterly captivating.
4. It’s All Over, Baby Blue
Despite being unfairly cast as a bit player in Bob Dylan’s show, it was Baez who discovered him, Baez who dragged him from the coffee shops of Greenwich Village onto the world stage, and Baez, more than any other singer, who helped to popularize her songs during a time when she was the star and he was the protégé. Her star would eventually eclipse hers, but his early performances of her work helped ensure her legend. One of Dylan’s best covers of her is It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. Taken from Farewell Angelina, an album devoted solely to Dylan material, her ethereal soprano lifts what was already a good song into another dimension. Awesome.
3. Blowing in the wind
Another Dylan cover to follow, this time the glorious Blowin’ in the Wind. It takes a brave soul to tackle such an iconic masterpiece. Baez doesn’t just tackle it, he masters it. As liveabout.com says, her extraordinary vocals, along with the song’s provocative and poetic lyrics, make it particularly moving.
2. The Night Old Dixie Got Shot Down
She may have started her career as a purist who resisted recording anything with even a hint of modernity, but by the 1970s, Baez had ditched her fur shirt, shed her disdain for anything commercial and he began to have fun with his song choices. One of the best covers of her from her time is The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, a song originally recorded by The Band. Not many artists can come within a hair’s breadth of surpassing any of The Band’s originals, but here, Baez does. A big, daring triumph of a song, it’s one of the highlights of her wonderful latest album with Vanguard, Blessed Are…
1. Diamonds and rust
Arguably his best-known song, Baez (or anyone else) has rarely delivered a song that captures the nostalgia and disappointments of lost love as well as Diamonds and Rust. Written about his relationship with “the original hobo” (or Bob Dylan, as he prefers to be known), he rages with a quiet emotion that is utterly convincing. Beautifully written and even more beautifully sung, it is, as All Music rightly points out, her best moment as a songwriter and one of her best performances, period of hers. Even Dylan, a man who makes you feel unimpressed easily, has sung his praises, telling the filmmakers in the 2009 American Masters documentary “Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound,” “I love that ‘Diamonds & Rust’ song.” I mean, being included in something Joan had written, ugh, I mean, to this day it still impresses me.”
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