Joan Baez performing in Hamburg, 1973. By Heinrich Klaffs, originally via Flicker. [black-and-white photograph, portrait of Joan Baez playing the guitar and singing in front of a mic.]
Joan Baez is the folk singer legend who enchanted our ears in the 60s and 70s, the activist whose voice Martin Luther King described as that of an angel – a voice that helped her fight against racism, wars, homophobia…
And today we celebrate Joanie turning 76! Last year she regaled us with a star-studded concert for her 75th birthday, featuring Paul Simon, Mavis Staples, David Crosby, Emmylou Harris, Judy Collins, Indigo Girls (just to cite a few).
Nowadays, people point out that her high notes aren’t quite up there, that her voice is sometimes grainy, but you could see, and hear, that she stil has it! She was having fun, and took great pleasure as always in sharing her love of singing with her peers and her public.
Performing Diamonds and Rust with friend Judy Collins, on her 2016 birthday concert
I, for one, do enjoy her early songs, but completely fell in love with her latest recordings, with her deeply moving, slightly rough voice, deeper and full of experience. If you haven’t listened to her lately, I urge you to do so.
You can see her perform live at Sing Sing Prison “I Shall Be Released” and “Viva Mi Patria Bolivia” with her sister Mimi Farina in 1972. You can also listen to her covers of “Brothers In Arms“ by Dire Straits (1988) and “Motherland” by Natalie Merchant (2003)
Joan Baez was born on the 9th of January 1941 in New York, from a Mexican father and a mother born in Edinburgh, Scotland and raised in the US. She spent some of her childhood in Redlands, California, where she was marginalised at school both by ‘Anglos’ children for her name and darker skin, and by Mexicans children for the fact that she couldn’t speak Spanish at the time. The experience left her with an aspiration for social justice, and the desire to shine in her very own way – she would become a talented artist, and started working on that beautiful voice with its distinctive vibrato.
She started to perform rather young, but her breakthrough came with the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 and the recording of her first album for Vanguard in 1960 – the first of many. Although she is a songwriter, she is mostly known for her covers of traditional folk songs, and for appearing barefoot on stage like a Madonna with her Gibson acoustic guitar.
She was an important part of the American roots revival. She introduced Bob Dylan to the public by singing his songs and giving him a stage to perform, and sang at Woodstock in 1969, barefoot and pregnant.
Still considered the Queen of Folk, her music has nonetheless evolved and now also covers folk rock, pop, country and gospel music.
Joan Baez speaks onstage at the 49th Annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center on February 11, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. (Source: Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment)
But make no mistake. Joan Baez isn’t just pretty voice and words. The barefoot Madonna is also one of the first musicians who used her fame for social protest, giving her the coverage she needed to draw attention to the many causes she defended.
She participated in many Civil Rights Movement demonstrations, including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where she famously sang “We Shall Overcome”.
She has also always been anti war. Her position against the Vietnam War led her to fund the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, and be arrested twice in 1967. She even spent eleven days in jail, “for disturbing the peace”! In December 1972, she joined a peace delegation and travelled to North Vietnam, where she was caught in the ‘Christmas bombing’ of Hanoi, which lasted 11 days.
She also defends human rights alongside Amnesty International, which she has actively (and financially) supported since the 1970s. She even received the Ambassador of Conscience Award in 2015, and the organisation named an award after her!
Let’s not forget that she is a defender of LGBT rights. She opposed the Briggs initiative in 1978 (which was supposed to ban all gay teachers from schools in California), performed at a benefit concert for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and at the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride March.
Her activism often translates by going on tour or appearing in protests to sing – against the death penalty, poverty, or for environmental causes. And although her voice is less heard by the new generation, she is still a great support.
Joan Baez in her tree house, in the backyard of her home in Woodside, California. By Patrick Fraser, for the Observer, August 19, 2014.
What is often little known about her, is that she once had a lesbian relationship. In the spirit of this blog’s topic of choice, let’s explore this part of her past.
Joan Baez and Kimmie didn’t hide their relationship, but didn’t flaunt it either, leaving people to assume they were two friends rooming together. Joan Baez remembers this relationship in her autobiography And A Voice To Sing With and explains:
“There are pools which run deep, bathing pools for ladies only. In those cool and private places we can go undefended. In the quiet and non-resistant waters and on the warm shores beside them we can go and let out a lifelong sigh of relief and know that we are understood at last. We have white underbellies of softness which we expose only to the gentlest touch. Along the shores is an unspoken alliance of “us against the world” which purges resentments innate in us, resentments we have inherited form centuries of myth.”
She is well-known for having had a romance with Bob Dylan, with Steve Jobs, and being married to political activist David Harris, with whom she had her only child Gabriel. But she writes: “I had an affair with a girl when I was twenty-two… I assume the homosexuality within me, which people love to say is within all of us, made itself felt at that time… since the affair with Kimmie I have not had another affair with a woman nor the conscious desire to.”
Perhaps one day, the portrait of Kimmie will also appear along those of Dylan, Jobs, and MLK in Baez’s art studio, where she now started to paint. What a beautiful, multi-talented, and inspiring lady. Happy Birthday!