Native New Yorker Joan Baez traces the beginning of her career as folksinger and activist to 1959, when her family had moved to Belmont (her father had landed a teaching spot at MIT), and she was a student at Boston University, but realized that she was better cut out to be a performer on the then-burgeoning Boston and Cambridge acoustic scene.
Thinking back to that transition period, Baez, who was born in 1941 and got her first guitar when she was 15, laughed and said, “I was never at B.U. long enough to even make a decision to quit. I was only there about six weeks. I wasn’t cut out for school in the first place. I had no idea about anything, just kind of an instinctive and spontaneous and extremely neurotic life. The guitar was my salvation and the singing was my salvation. I remember one teacher whose class I was flunking. He said if you bring your guitar and sing a couple of songs I’ll pass you. And he did, and that was the only passing grade I got.”
Baez was in her late-teens when she first played at the original Club 47, and was likely one of the first folksingers to perform in what was, at the time, still a jazz venue. But she was an immediate hit, and was soon a regular fixture there for Sunday afternoons concerts.
In later years, she became known as much for her political leanings as for her singing, as she was an outspoken leader in the anti-war movement and for various social causes. This led to her making both friends and enemies. A reference in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music says: “Conservatives hate her, but only fools doubted her integrity.”
Baez has always liked that line. In response to it, she once said, “Make me a bumper sticker!”
But though the politics added an edge, it was really the music and especially the beautiful voice – which she usually accompanied with her battered old Martin guitar, but often also matched up with other singers, including her sister Mimi Farina, Bob Dylan (yes, there was an affair; just listen to her song “Diamonds and Rust” to learn about it) and, in more recent years, with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Indigo Girls, and Dar Williams.
Baez’s hair has changed from long and dark to short and white, she’s entertained on stages all over the world, her set lists range from pure folk to folk-pop (though there’s always a chance that she’ll throw in an a cappella tune), and she’s got a wall covered with gold records.
Career and personal highlights include: her first solo appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959; taking part in the Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965; playing the first night at Woodstock in 1969; being featured on the 1972 soundtrack for the film Silent Running in 1972; founding the Humanitas International Human Rights Committee in 1979; making the New York Times bestseller list with her autobiography And a Voice to Sing With in 1987; performing at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009; having her 1960 Vanguard album Joan Baez inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame in 2011; and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – by Jackson Browne – in 2017.
(by Ed Symkus)