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Upon some self-reflection, I’ve determined that my single most heterodox critical position is that the greatest recording artist of the 1970s is Joan Baez. This is not true because of a lack of heterodox opinions in other spheres—Wish is the best Cure album, the Peter Capaldi/Jenna Coleman era of Doctor Who is the pinnacle of the series, if you’re in an American wine store you’re better off with South America than France—but because on almost every level the critical deck is stacked against Joan Baez. To use a recent example, it’s striking that when Jan Wenner, desperately backpedaling after being called out for writing a book called The Masters consisting entirely of interviews with white guys, tried to think of any women or people of color he had any respect for, the names he came up with were people like Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Grace Slick, or Curtis Mayfield—other singer-songwriters in the mould of his supposed masters. Joan Baez never even gets a look in. To be clear, I’m no more surprised by this than I am that Wenner failed to interview anyone that isn’t a white guy. While certainly an able and at times brilliant songwriter, Baez was largely more famed as an interpreter of other people’s songs, and so doubly excluded from Wenner’s paradigm. (For her part, when asked about Wenner’s comments, Baez’s response was simply “he’s a schmuck.”)
And yet the poptimists who might have embraced Baez in the same way they do Rihanna, Aretha Franklin, Madonna or any number of other stars who made their careers interpreting other people’s songs or working with established songwriters to develop originals also tend to neglect her. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, folk music is a rockist genre; the poptimists don’t go for Peter, Paul, and Mary or Judy Collins either. For another, however, the nature of Joan Baez’s pop stardom is odd. Whether it’s the aesthetic reputation of folk music, Baez’s steadfast political activism, or just her resolute disinterest in performing coolness, she comes off as fussy and stodgy in a way that keeps her from ever having gotten claimed. Indeed, as we’ll see, the particular sort of pop star she was is one that is almost necessarily not going to rise to the top of the poptimist heap. The result is that Baez’s legacy largely sits in the hands of a bunch of rockist twats who view her as a 6/10 historically significant also-ran, as opposed to one that even gets her a look-in as a dark horse pick for something like “greatest recording artist of the 1970s.”
And yet let’s play a game. Consider your pick for the greatest recording artist of the 70s, and then pick their best song. Take your time. Got it? OK, on three let’s each play our cards. 1. 2. 3.
All right. Let’s see what we’ve got. “I Feel Love?” Phenomenal pick, and I promise we’ll talk shockingly ahead of their time singles from 1977 later. “Sweet Thing-Candidate-Sweet Thing (Reprise)?” All right, we can do ten minute sidewinders. “The Chain?” Oh come on, of course we’re doing high-drama breakup songs. “Tangled Up in Blue?” Cute, and we’ll definitely get to you later. As for the rest of you, I’m sure you’ve got entirely worthy picks, but I’ve largely exhausted this bit, so let’s move on.
My pick is “Diamonds and Rust,” the title track off of Baez’s 1975 album. And whatever your pick is, I’m confident that it is not straightforwardly and unambiguously better than “Diamonds and Rust” for the simple reason that “Diamonds and Rust” is an all-timer of a song that can go toe to toe with anything and be a credible contender.
Its core musical element is an acoustic guitar riff around an Em chord (objectively the best guitar chord). The riff is characteristic of Baez’s fingerpicking style, and recorded masterfully by David Kershenbaum, who would go on to produce Tracy Chapman’s first two albums—warm and haunting, achingly beautiful all on its own, and instantly recognizable once you’ve heard the song. The rest of the instrumentation is similarly gorgeous—note in particular the phenomenal synth trill twenty seconds in, which sees Baez herself figuring out how to make a synthesizer arpeggiate well before such a thing was actually easy.
Twenty-seven seconds in, however, all debate about what the song’s defining aspect might be comes to an abrupt halt as Baez’s vocal enters the mix. Baez’s voice is her most legendary asset, and rightly so—a vibrato-laden soprano that seems at times almost limitlessly expressive. Here it’s put to singular use, ringing out with a lush clarity that stands at immediate and compelling contrast with the first syllable to be stretched and allowed the full effect of her vibrato, the held a in “well I’ll be damned.”
Some years ago I found myself hastily drafted into teaching a session on lyrics-writing to a songwriting class. Pondering how I would approach this given that I hadn’t written a song lyric in some twenty years due largely to being bad at it, I decided to focus on the idea that good pop songs trade on the expression of contradictory ideas. This one goes out to the one I love, who is also a simple prop to occupy my time. The po-po want to kill us dead in the streets for sure, but we’re gonna be alright. As the title suggests, “Diamonds and Rust” exemplifies this. It’s a long study of conflicted emotions. Its central event is mapped out efficiently over its first few lines: “Well I’ll be damned / here comes your ghost again / but that’s not unusual / it’s just that the moon is full / and you happened to call.” (And note that marvelous tension between the uncanniness of haunting and the dashed off “but that’s not unusual.”)
What follows is a dizzying and constantly shifting landscape of love, pain, nostalgia, and regret, delivered with a wry wit that only makes the details cut more sharply. “As I remember your eyes / were bluer than robin’s eggs / my poetry was lousy you said / where are you calling from? / a booth in the midwest” offers two breathtaking turns in a row—the cliché of “bluer than robin’s eggs” immediately redeemed by the undermining and self-refuting “my poetry was lousy,” and the unexpected sorrow of “a booth in the midwest,” the vast ambiguity of where that might be making it feel all the more remote and isolated. “You strayed into my arms / and there you stayed / temporarily lost at sea / the Madonna was yours for free” almost obscures the obvious pain of being taken for granted amidst its nautical metaphors and classical allusions. “Speaking strictly for me / we both could have died then and there” doesn’t even need explication.
And then, of course, there’s that final verse, which finally lets a flash of anger into proceedings as Baez challenges her caller’s claim that he’s not nostalgic. “Then give me another word for it,” she says, the syllables suddenly packed in and clattering, “you who are so good with words / and at keeping things vague,” only to pivot again into the rush of emotion, her anger turning to a plea that “I need some of that vagueness now / it’s all come back too clearly” before finally confessing her love, couched heartbreakingly in the past tense, and concluding that “if you’re offering me diamonds and rust / I’ve already paid.” Even if you’re not willing to grant me that it’s the best song of the 1970s, you’ll surely grant that it’s an all-timer.
It is at this point necessary to drop the pretense and fully admit what the song is about, as it represents a giddy high in gossip-centered songwriting that Taylor Swift’s career is in many ways a long and doomed effort to ever match. (Baez, for her part, charmingly tells the story of her granddaughter only really understanding how big a deal she was after getting them backstage at a Taylor Swift concert.) The caller is none other than Bob Dylan, who Baez was romantically involved with at the start of his career—a career she was instrumental in launching, as she was already an established star of the folk scene and so lent instant credibility to him by singing his songs and bringing him on stage.
This, more than anything, has proven the awful millstone around the neck of Baez’s reputation. Dylan, as a songwriter, gets to be the Nobel-prize winning genius. Baez, as a singer, gets to be Bob Dylan’s ex-girlfriend. Never mind that “Diamonds and Rust” is as fine a piece of songwriting as anything Dylan ever did, if not better, whereas you cannot in seriousness claim that Dylan has ever sung anything as well as Baez. Never mind the misogyny of defining a woman by her boyfriends—not that Joan Baez, who also did a turn as Steve Jobs’s MILF girlfriend in the 80s and, if his FBI file is to be believed, had an affair with Martin Luther King, comes off as anything other than a fucking legend there. Dylan is the canonical Great Man of Folk History, and so Baez is cast eternally in his shadow. Ugh.
Although this does get at one of the subtler aspects of my heterodoxy, namely the decision to root Baez in the 1970s and not the 1960s, which most would regard as her more iconic decade. It’s not clear why this should be. Her top single in the 60s was her version of Phil Ochs’s “There But For Fortune,” which made it to 50th (Ochs subsequently introduced the song as “written for me by Ms. Joan Baez”); she beat that twice in the 70s, making 35th with “Diamonds and Rust,” and 3rd with her cover of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Ultimately, one is forced to suspect that it’s Dylan again—the 60s are Dylan’s decade, Joan Baez is only considered as an epiphenomenon of Dylan, and so the 60s must be her decade as well.
This is, however, nonsense. Not only is her best song from the 1970s, her 70s work is consistently more interesting and richer than her 60s work. Still, context matters, and I would argue that a claim that someone is the best artist of the 70s should consider their career as a whole even as it roots them in their most iconic decade. (Anyone disagreeing with me here is invited to try arguing that Morrissey is the best artist of the 1980s and seeing how it goes for you.) So let’s begin at the beginning, which, in Baez’s case, is actually 1959 when, at the age of eighteen, she teamed with her Boston-based friends Bill Wood and Ted Alveizos to release Folksingers ‘Round Harvard Square. Off the back of that she met Bob Gibson, who invited her on stage at the first edition of the Newport Folk Festival, at which point she almost immediately hit it big. And yet from the start there was a perversity to her fame. She rejected the aid of Albert Grossman, the agent and impressario who would oversee Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary’s pushes to fame, and turned down a contract at Columbia in favor of the smaller Vanguard Records, a classical and jazz label that had gotten into folk by being willing to sign blacklisted artists like Pete Seeger, where she released fourteen albums from 1960-71.
Baez’s early 60s work is perfectly good, occasionally tipping into great. Her self-titled first album for Vanguard, for instance, opens with a scorching rendition of “Silver Dagger” that’s rightly viewed as a career highlight. But much of the album is beautiful yet undifferentiated—a long chain of low to mid-tempo ballads given stately but austere renditions–check out her version of “All My Trials” for one of the better-working instances. Certainly, when compared to the generation of folk singers she was supplanting, you can see why she was instantly dubbed the Queen of Folk (at least by white people)—compare her to, say, Pete Seeger and her merits are obvious. The only real point of comparison is Odetta (the Queen of Folk when Black people are asked). But Odetta was at heart a blues singer, rooted in the 1950s, whereas Baez worked in a more classical-inflected style that focused on expressive range and was perfectly poised for the coming arrival of pop music, even if this was not the milieu she started in.
Still, it’s worth unpacking that expressive range, so let’s look at “Silver Dagger” again. Consider the first verse, which Baez delivers in her vibrato-laden soprano right up until she gets to the title drop, at which point her voice crashes down into something far harsher and sharp, allowing the titular dagger to literally cut its way into the song, so that the next line, “she says that I / can’t be your bride”—for which Baez declines to rise all the way back up into her full soprano—becomes rueful and, more to the point, just a little afraid.
Her delivery is similarly nuanced and intelligent throughout. Consider her handling of the pause between the first two lines of the next verse, which she emphasizes by immediately hitting “says” with an increase in volume that forces the recontextualization of the preceding line—you can practically hear the exasperated eyeroll at the domineering mother. And yet almost immediately we can hear her starting to be persuaded by her mother’s rhetoric—there’s a mournfulness at verse’s end for “leave you alone / to pine and sigh,” with an especially precise diction on “pine” that carries the sense that she knows exactly what being left alone to pine and sigh feels like. There’s a similar weary sigh in the third verse beginning at “and on every link,” setting up the final verse’s emotional turn. And yet in that final verse Baez brilliantly carries forward the mournfulness, so that her directive to “court another tender maiden / and hope that she will be your wife” sounds wistful even as her steely resolve against marrying him is entirely believable. It’s an intricate performance that demonstrates what will prove to be one of Baez’s most enduringly useful abilities—her skill at acting and character work within her singing.
I also want to note some of the paratextual elements—the fact that her mainstream debut album opens with an absolutely gorgeous voice exhorting the listener “Don’t sing love songs.” This is a heck of a statement, as is the song’s ending declaration “For I’ve been warned and I’ve decided / to sleep alone all of my life,” all of which serve to emphasize Baez’s sexual unavailability in a way that cuts markedly against the way “nineteen year old girl with a gorgeous soprano” is culturally read. There’s the beginnings of a workable paradigm here, even if the appeal at the moment is mostly “pretty girl sings pretty.”
It’s here that Dylan proves useful to her. For one thing, Dylan’s songwriting is often long on character work of its own. But more important in many ways is simply Dylan’s capacity for and interest in writing roguish songs. For all her reputation as a stodgy figure interested primarily in protest songs—and she’s certainly got the requisite versions of “We Shall Overcome” and “Joe Hill” and, yes, “Blowin’ in the Wind”—the truth is that Baez is at her best when singing more unseelie songs, whether from the perspective of the n’er do well or simply about them. And these, not his early protest songs, were what Baez would most frequently raid Dylan’s catalog to find.
The seminal moment comes on her fourth album, Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2, where she covers Dylan for the first time with “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Her approach is an almost complete 180 from the stately traditionals that make up the bulk of the album. It has to be—the song’s casualness is so overstated as to be affected in places—”if’n you don’t know by now,” “the light I never knowed,” “like you never done before,” and the song’s heavy reliance on “ain’t.” There’s simply no way to deliver this in the register of “All My Trials.” But it’s astonishing what switching into a relaxed register does for Baez, giving her vastly more space to maneuver around her character. The song depends on the tension between its relaxed posture and the emotional turmoil it’s gesturing at. In this regard it’s a solid example of how, for all the limitations of Dylan’s voice, he knew how to write for himself—the song largely benefits from his relatively inexpressive delivery because the lyrics are written from the perspective of someone trying to play down their own emotions. Prettifying it can easily backfire, as Dylan’s other reliable 60s populizers, Peter, Paul, and Mary, reveal on their pleasant but toothless cover.
Baez, however, is in her wheelhouse. Having already framed herself as at once sexually powerful and sexually unavailable with “Silver Dagger,” her restraint makes the emotional space between singer and subject even larger—the dark side of the road feels impossibly far away. Her delivery through much of the song feels sad rather than angry—consider the grimly amused regret with which “it don’t matter anyhow” is offered, or the unexpectedly heartbreaking “where I’m bound I can’t tell.” And yet this does nothing to rob the song of its power. The fact that Baez feels sorry for her inadequate lover only makes her rejection seem harsher and more absolute. It’s worth specifically highlighting the subtle but effective lyric shift from Dylan’s “I wish there was something you would do or say / to try and make me change my mind and stay” to “to make me wanna change my mind and stay,” a move that shifts the sentiment from “I want you to try,” which suggests a desire to be desired, to “I want you to be good enough.”
All of this leads to the climax—the classic Dylan lyric “you just sorta wasted my precious time.” Dylan wields this as a snarling kiss-off—saving the cruelest insult for last. But while Baez crescendos with it, it carries none of the venom of Dylan’s rendition. Instead it’s the culmination of her sentiment—a final judgment that serves less to belittle her lover than to affirm her own power. Where Dylan is writing an unreliable narrator—someone far more hurt than his casual posture is meant to suggest—Baez is finding a narrator for whom the seeming contradictions all disappear—a sort of “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.” In a song that is fundamentally about getting the last word, Dylan’s long harmonica outro ensures that we stay with the singer, walking away in his supposed triumph. Baez, however, cuts off immediately after the final line, getting the last word and then doing exactly what she promised and exiting, so as to leave the listener alone in their defeat. Dylan’s song hurts; Baez makes the listener want to chase after her even as it forecloses the possibility utterly. It’s a tour de force, and miles more interesting than the dutifully soaring rendition of “We Shall Overcome” that follows it, or indeed than anything else in her career up to that point.
But while “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is a turning point for Baez, there’s still a long transitional period. She almost immediately pivots towards a poppier sound on her next album, scoring her first proper hit with “There But For Fortune” and covering “It Ain’t Me Babe,” Dylan’s admittedly successful attempt to make the lightning of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” strike twice. (Baez, for her part, offers a take that swaps out Dylan’s yowling venom for quiet self-loathing; it’s brilliant, obviously.) But these feel like the singles on an album that’s still offering a wealth of Child Ballads and other traditional songs (including “Go Away From My Window,” serving to emphasize that Dylan is, in his own way, just as dependent on the folk music canon as her.) She goes poppier still with 1965’s Farewell, Angelina, moving beyond the solo guitar approach of her first five albums and hiring Dylan’s own guitarist, Bruce Langhorne, to lay down electric tracks on five of the eleven songs. But then she veers in weirder directions, doing a triptych of orchestral albums with Peter Schickele, better known as P.D.Q. Bach, including a Christmas album (fine) and one that sees her doing spoken word renditions of Whitman, Blake, and other poets (fascinating) on either side of a poppier one featuring a dutiful but unnecessary attempt at “Eleanor Rigby” (better than that makes it sound).
It’s worth noting that for all my insistence that the 1960s are not the musical high of Baez’s career, they are the era in which she was the biggest star. It’s worth, however, looking at the word “star,” which carries senses of radiance and visibility. The norm is for this to coincide with your actual musical peak, but they don’t have to, and in Baez’s case they don’t. And so it’s worth pausing and considering the nature of her stardom. Fundamentally, she is a woman whose pop culture image was fixed as an outspoken young Hispanic woman who dates and breaks up with Bob Dylan. Which gets at the root cause for her comprehensive critical burial. Because within a 1960s pop paradigm that character can only ever be the heel. In some perhaps tautological way this is why she’s at her best when she’s singing unseelie songs—because entirely separate from any consideration of whether she was right or good (she is almost always both), regardless of the empirical fact of her popularity, the natural position of Joan Baez with relationship to the wider culture is being hated.
One need only look at the artifacts of her cultural footprint. For instance, Lil Abner cartoonist Al Capp—by this time well into his descent into being a tiresome reactionary blowhard—created the character of Joanie Phoanie, an opportunistic hypocrite singing songs like “Let’s Riot Tonight on the Old Campus Ground” and “On a Hammer and Sickle Built for Two.” But even outside of the actual right-wing Baez came off poorly. Perhaps most notably, Joan Didion wrote an essay for the New York Times in 1966 called “Where The Kissing Never Stops” that is basically one long sneer at her activism, calling her politics immature in the exact way that columnists in the New York Times have always belittled young leftist women. And Baez was a soft target for this. Her activism is driven less by political ideology, which gives Didion lots of room to sniff about her vagueness and emotionalism. And more to the point, as I noted, she was a Hispanic woman. Perhaps the most stunning passage of Didion’s essay comes whn describes Baez as “extraordinary looking, far more so than her photographs suggest, since the camera seems to emphasize an Indian cast to her features and fails to record either the startling fineness and clarity of her bones and eyes or, her most striking characteristic, her absolute directness, her absence of guile.” It’s appalling. But it’s also grimly indicative of the flavor of Baez’s fame.
In terms of the music, however, it’s not until 1968 that she cracks a durable formula that lets her embark on a run of five consecutive albums that are all fantastic. The seeds of this had been planted in her previous few albums, which, regardless of their relative successes (and some of them are quite good), all show a savviness in choosing her collaborators that puts her early embrace of Dylan in context. But in 1968 she decamped to Nashville to record, motivated in part by her desire to make an album of country songs for her new husband David Harris, an activist whom she met whilst arrested for protesting the Vietnam War (as she famously put it, “I went to jail for eleven days for disturbing the peace; I was trying to disturb the war”), and who was imminently going to be incarcerated for draft refusal. Her first studio session there led not only to David’s Album but to Any Day Now, a double album of Dylan covers.
The song to look at here is “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word.” This time there’s no Dylan original—there’s a clip in D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back that sees her nagging him to actually finish the song so she can record it, but he never did, or at least never saw fit to release it even as the fifty year EU deadline to prevent any recording of it from falling into the public domain passed. Although it’s tempting to imagine that Baez’s version was simply so good that it scared him off of it (Baez entertainingly recounts Dylan forgetting he’d even written it when he heard it on the radio, which you can believe what you like about), the more likely explanation (at least to my at best amateur Dylanologist mind) is simply that Dylan always wrote it with Baez in mind. Certainly that explains the jaw-dropping transitions between her upper and lower vocal registers that Baez executes at the starts and ends of of the verses—a trick that is, to put it mildly, not exactly in Dylan’s skillset, and which the song would struggle to function without.
On one level the song is another piece of roguish cynicism akin to “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” and “It Ain’t Me Babe.” But where those songs are straightforward character pieces whose subject is subjected to a constant barrage of beautiful derision, “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word” keeps its subject at considerable distance—the second person pronoun doesn’t even show up until halfway through the second verse, vanishes entirely from the third, and is mentioned fleetingly in the fourth before finally coming back in earnest in the fifth (which, interestingly, Dylan excludes from his official version of the lyrics). Instead it goes on a series of cryptic and poetic jaunts. This risks posing a problem for Baez, at least in terms of the approach we’ve seen her riding on so far. Her expressive vocal acting is fundamentally about clarity, but clarity is simply not on the table with lyrics like “drifting in and out of lifetimes / unmentionable by name / searching for my double, looking for / complete evaporation to the core.” Dylan is leaning so hard into enjambment and idiosyncratic word orders like “a phrase in connection first with she occurred” that even with Baez’s crisp delivery it’s simply hard to make out what’s being said, little yet attach crystal clear emotional beats to its sub-phrases.
In practice, of course, it poses no problem whatsoever. Bhe simply switches gears and leans on the song’s larger structure, which is where her hairpin turns between vocal registers comes in. Each verse opens with a pair of couplets, delivered on alternating D and Em chords. The melody is a simple two note structure—an A moving down a note to a G with the chord change. But as soon as she’s on the Em, Baez drops her voice a full octave, so that, in the first verse, “left my mind behind” and “friend of a friend of mine” are sung on a low G. This has the effect of marking out the song’s range—framing its boundaries.
But after those first four lines comes a section of variable length. These lines each move from a D chord to an Am. Crucially, however, there’s no rise back to her upper register on the D chord. Instead she just shifts up a note to a low A and stays more or less there, with the melody taking only brief sojourns up or down a single note while studiously failing to resolve to anything like the G chord that’s the song’s actual root. Dylan’s rhyme scheme, meanwhile, becomes entirely monotonous—every line in this second part of the verse has the same end rhyme. This is where Dylan unleashes his most convoluted poetry, unspooling chains of chaotically built lines like “After waking enough times to think I see / The holy kiss that’s supposed to last eternity / blow up in smoke, it’s destiny / falls on strangers, travels free,” a tangle of words that, combined with the sudden constriction of range and repetition, makes the song feel desperately claustrophobic and stuck, especially in later verses where, instead of four lines in this section, there end up being five or six. Baez revels in this, letting herself get pulled along the structure and focusing purely on the actually quite difficult task of coherently delivering these inside-out sentences while the tension ratchets upwards. Finally, however, the song breaks free, with the last line of the verse continuing on past its rhyme and breaking back into major chords for “occurred” or “I heard” or “absurd” as Baez bolts out of the lower register and back into her high register, the song suddenly opening up again for the triumphant cynicism of its title drop.
But for the first time in a Baez song we’ve looked at a non-trivial part of the effect is coming out of the instrumentation, which sees Peter Drake’s pedal steel guitar and Hargus “Pig” Robinson’s piano coming into the gaps between Baez’s lines to create a call and response between singer and instrument. In many ways these instruments are picking up the job of offering titanic quantities of roguish charm or to offer emotional commentary—observe how Drake’s guitar moves from a riff that rambles along with the first two lines before quietly constraining itself on the second part of the verse, or the way in which Robinson’s piano, on the second verse, enters low, so that it’s mischievous trill holds a little of the song’s earlier ominousness, only letting itself up into the high register for the refrain.
Crucial to why this works is the simple fact that Drake and Robinson are among the best instrumentalists in country music. Indeed, Baez’s entire Nashville era sees her working with an absolute murderer’s row of talent—not just Drake, Robinson, and other Nashville A-Team veterans like Tommy Jackson, Kenny Buttrey, or Henry Strzelecki, but up and comers like Roy Huskey Jr., along with a guest starring appearance from Steven Stills. Or, to put it another way, the precision and nuance that she had long been bringing to vocal delivery had now expanded to the larger whole, with Baez carefully selecting collaborators who were capable of expanding and reflecting her interpretations with their own level of thoughtful detail.
This brings us at last to the 1970s, and explains why it is she’s so stunningly good over the course of it. At first she simply reiterates her Nashville trick, starting with One Day at a Time. At first glance, this looks like little more than a standard issue Joan Baez album done with her new approach. There’s an spattering of traditionals, along with neo-standards like “Joe Hill,” and recent hits like Steve Young’s “Seven Bridges Road.” Across the board these are tight, engaging renditions—her take on the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations” is startlingly good.
Perhaps most illustrative of the sheer degree of career improvement she’s showing is her take on “Long Black Veil,” a song she’d previously done on Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2. That track is solid—certainly there’s a reason she opens side B of the album with it. It opens in her stately register, but she savvily lets her vocal attack intensify in a way that pleasantly captures the way in which the lyric becomes gradually unhinged, and the song’s unseeliness inherently favors her, but it was never gonna be the song we delved deep into from the album that has “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” on it.
Here, however, she has a new set of tools, and she sets apart breaking the song open with them. She repeats her trick of intensifying her vocal, only with the full might of a studio full of professionals behind her—the vocal track clips in the first chorus with an artfulness that Brian Eno would create overly elaborate microphone gadgets to get out of Bowie. Behind her, meanwhile, the band remains immaculately tight—Kenny Buttrey doesn’t let the tempo budge, so that the music solidifies into a cage for Baez to rattle with the ghostly narrator’s anguish. It’s casually stunning in a way that reminds you of the “imperial” part of this sort of run.
The most significant track, however, is the first one, “Sweet Sir Galahad,” which marks the first time Baez releases a song she wrote. Had we not already talked about “Diamonds and Rust” it would be possible to approach this from any number of angles. With that song approaching, this—a similarly gossipy autobiographical song—can only falter in comparison, not least because, instead of the heartbreaking contradictions of “Diamonds and Rust,” what “Sweet Sir Galahad” mostly offers is extreme sweetness. On its most basic level, this is a song written for Baez’s sister on the occasion of her wedding, tenderly mythologizing a story about the couple’s courtship where her brother-in-law to be would climb through the window (“feet first,” Baez chuckles when introducing the song during her 1am Woodstock set, which she was six months pregnant for). And yet the titular Galahad is, in truth, barely a figure in it. He climbs in through the window at the start and gets the song’s best line as he “told her she’d been working much too hard,” a bit of dialogue that delightfully swerves out of the song’s cod-Arthurian romance into something more prosaic and charming all at once. But after that he all but disappears from his own song.
No, what the song is really about is Baez’s sister, Mimi Fariña. Fariña is an extraordinary figure in her own right—an activist and folk singer as well, best known in each case for Bread and Roses, which is both an organization she founded to provide free entertainment to and advocate for people in prisons, hospitals, and other institutional settings and a famous pro-labor poem by James Oppenheim that Fariña set to music and turned into a standard. Musically she was doomed to sit in two shadows—her sister’s and that of her husband, Richard Fariña, who, notably, is not the titular Sweet Sir Galahad.
Richard Fariña was a fixture of the same Greenwich Village folk scene that Dylan, Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary all emerged through. Specifically, he is the scene’s tragic young madman. Like Dylan, who was one of his best friends, he was legendary as soon as he burst onto the scene, meeting and then marrying folk singer Carolyn Hester before divorcing her two years later to date Mimi, to Baez’s considerable and understandable chagrin given that Mimi was sixteen, although she came around eventually. They married a year later (Thomas Pynchon was best man) and cut two albums together with a couple notable songs, most significantly “Pack Up Your Sorrows” (covered brilliantly by Peter, Paul, and Mary on Album) and “Birmingham Sunday” (Baez’s version of which is used centrally in Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls). Farińa also found time to write a novel, the counterculture classic Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, published in 1966. This, however, was the same year that, on his wife’s twenty-first birthday, he died in a motorcycle accident.
This sets a rather important context for “Sweet Sir Galahad,” which tells of “the day / her crazy man had passed away / to the land of poet’s pride,” a description which, it must be said, is far more vivid than the description of Galahad as having “long hair.” Indeed, the song is far more about her sister’s grief than it is about her new husband, from whom she’d divorce within a year of the song coming out. (His name was Milan Melvin, btw.) It’s this well of sorrow—the descriptions of how “she laughed and talked a lot / with new people on the block / but always in the evening time she cried” or the vivid capturing of her sister’s anxiety in the dialogue “I get myself to work by eight / but oh, was I born too late / and do you think I’ll fail / at every single thing I try?”—that powers the song into the realm of the quietly extraordinary. Sure, there are flaws—the final verse is almost wholly unnecessary, and there’s absolutely no reason to have a construction as labored as “all the sadness of those years that numbered three” when the only thing you have to make it rhyme with is “knee.” But as a songwriting debut it speaks to a powerful new arrow in Baez’s quiver.
1971 saw two releases from Vanguard. One was Carry It On, the soundtrack to a documentary about her marriage to David Harris and his arrest that intersperses dialogue from the film between a smattering of solo acoustic performances mixing her hits (a fine but markedly inferior version of “Love is Just a Four Letter Word”) and new songs including the first of several doomed attempts she’ll make at Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” (admittedly, one of the great traps of folk music, with Cohen’s original sounding for all the world like it should be as easy as a Dylan song to outdo but defeating essentially every singer ever to try—even Judy Collins, generally Cohen’s most reliable interpreter, is only OK on it) and an even less advisible take on the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day. This, however, was a largely disposable novelty, although the basic existence of the documentary spoke to the continued size of her public profile.
The more notable album, however, was Blessed Are…, which sees her returning to Nashville to finish out her contract with Vanguard. The parting was amicable, and Baez makes sure to go out with a bang, offering a double album in which nine originals are interspersed with various covers. In practice there’s plenty to discuss here—the closing track “Fifteen Months,” a moving lament for her incarcerated husband, or a cover of “Let It Be” that probably hit better a year after its release than it does with fifty years of rockist legacy caked onto the original But on an album with Joan Baez’s version of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” there’s only one thing to talk about, so let’s get to it.
Let’s admit up front that this is not a song that has aged entirely well. Let’s also note, however, that it is not a song that has aged entirely poorly. The case against is simple enough: it is, in point of fact, a mournful song about the fall of the Confederacy—what Ta-Nehisi Coates memorably dismisses as “another story about the blues of Pharaoh.” The case for is subtler—never a good sign when the accusation is “this is racist”—and rooted ultimately in the song’s ambiguities, its focus on the human cost of war and its Vietnam War-era context. The case against makes the obvious point that a song about the human cost of the Civil War that focuses entirely on a southerner who “took a rebel stand” and doesn’t mention slavery once can go fuck itself. Both sides agree that Early James’s rewrite of the next two lines from “he was just eighteen, proud and brave / when a Yankee laid him in his grave” into “depraved and powered to enslave / I think it’s time we laid hate in its grave” is fucking embarrassing.
Ultimately, however, moral rectitude is not the most interesting lens to take on a fifty year old pop song. I absolutely understand anyone who just cannot with this song, but for my part Baez’s credentials on antiracist activism—credentials earned, it’s worth noting, as a woman of color herself—are solid enough to withstand getting a number three hit with a questionable song. As dubious things analyzed on this website go, at least it doesn’t have any fucking yellowface.
Unsurprisingly for a song that instantly creates a distance between itself and the Latina woman singing with its opening proclamation that “Virgil Caine is my name,” Baez anchors herself in the character work. This makes the “ambiguities” defense work appreciably better than it does with The Band’s original. This defense hinges on the allegedly celebratory nature of the chorus and the way it cuts against the Lost Cause vibes of the verses. The problem with this interpretation when applied to the original is that the choruses are not especially rousing, with Levon Helm’s vocal frankly sounding more mournful than anything. This is not a concern with Baez’s version, which hits its choruses as rousing singalongs, with Baez roping the entire studio crew into offering backing vocals. This means that the song’s core hook feels unequivocally like something triumphant—there’s simply no way to emotionally engage with the song in a way that doesn’t enjoy driving old Dixie down.
This has a knock-on effect for the verses, which just place Baez’s voice over a relatively straightforward instrumental backing, allowing Caine’s lament an emotional space that’s clearly separate from the giant party of the chorus. Baez works to emphasizes the pain of the verses—note the way she holds the last note in “just barely alive” or her race up her register for the syncopated “like my brother before me,” which communicates the brother’s loss just as well as her actually having heard the right lyric and sung “like my brother above me” would have. And yet the listener is repeatedly dragged from this grief into celebrating the defeat that caused it. The result is an aporia—the song doesn’t let any of its emotions win (although the anthemic chorus does, in point of fact, get the last word), instead holding the entire affair at a remove so that its contradictions can be laid bare.
The more pertinent thing about the song, however—and certainly the reason it marks the biggest chart hit of Baez’s career—is that it’s a goddamn banger. The original has a relatively loose rhythm, not emphasizing much of anything besides the one beat, with Helm singing the vocal like a drunk who’s perpetually lurching to catch up with it. Baez’s version, meanwhile, practically cuts the song down to 2/4, with her backing band hitting the three beat with almost as much force as the one, and then having a guitar line hitting the two and four beats. Baez’s vocal, meanwhile, is ruthlessly tight, adding emphasis to every beat. With an eight second intro that fits in two repetitions of its quite catchy five note riff and a slick little walkup into Baez’s vocal, it’s precision engineered to cut through from the background whenever it comes on the radio, and to be stuck in your head by the second time you hear it.
In the period where she was switching labels Baez found time to contribute to two film soundtracks. First she was tapped by Ennio Morricone to provide lyrics and vocals to several tracks on his soundtrack for Giuliano Montaldo’s Sacco and Vanzetti. The bulk of these saw her working in a more operatic style—the three parts of “La ballata di Sacco e Vanzetti” each see, after a soaring introduction, Baez tackling long three note oscillating stretches of lyrics like “against us is the law with its immensity of strength and power.” A fourth for the closing credits, called “Here’s To You,” is an at once rousing and melancholy toast to the eponymous anarchist martyrs, a song good enough to get covered in the end credits of Metal Gear Solid 4, and then used in its original version at the outset of 5.
Baez also teamed back up with Peter Shickele to do two songs for the soundtrack to Douglas Turnbull’s eco sci-fi film Silent Running, a fellow underrated but respected classic of the 70s. These tracks see Baez retroactively cast as a sweetly psychedelic gaia figure, offering prophecies of ecological destruction about how “what they love will die” alongside counsel on how to “harvest and rejoice in the sun” to avert the fate—the first clear and distinct use of her as a figure of the historical sixties.
Having given Vanguard a hit on the way out the door, Baez decamped for A&M Records. Little else about her approach changed, however—her 1972 album Come From The Shadows was recorded in the same Nashville studio with most of the same musicians who had just scored her a number three single, and she keeps the same basic structure of mixing original compositions and covers of recent hits. What’s different is where the successes are. The covers are mostly forgettable—she extends her losing streaks against both Leonard Cohen and the Beatles. In the former case, she tries to give the same snap she gave to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to “The Partisan,” a 1940s anthem of the French Resistance that Cohen had iconically covered a few years earlier, only to discover that what made Cohen’s version work was its sense of exhausted despair. As for the latter, there’s clearly no universe where she wasn’t going to cut a version of “Imagine,” just as clearly as there’s none where it was going to turn out to be particularly worthwhile; all told, the version we have goes about as well as it could have. Certainly if you’re the sort of person who desperately wants a Joan Baez version of “Imagine” you’ll be happy with it.
But oh, her originals. The highlight is the opening track, “Prison Trilogy (Billy Rose),” a song in which she plays brilliantly with the quiet tensions between her reputation as a leftist folk singer and her current reliance on the production methods of the largely conservative country scene. Its opening verse rings out over her now standard crisp Nashville backing track to set the stage for a standard issue outlaw country ballad. “Billy Rose was a low rider / Billy Rose was a night fighter / Billy Rose knew trouble like the sound of his own name,” the triple repetition of the name making it unambiguous who the song’s hero is.
And then things get weird. At first it seems sensible enough—Rose is arrested (“the local midnight sheriff’s claim to fame,” Baez sneers delightfully) and sent to jail, where he gets into a fight. But by the fourth tercet things are definitely going in an odd direction as Baez tells how the prison guards, “knowing they’d remain the boss / knowing he would pay the cost / they saw he was severely reprimanded.” And then, her setup complete, she plunges the song completely off the tracks and into something entirely different. Smashing into a minor key, Baez’s voice soars into its upper register to tell how “in the blackest cell on a-block / he hanged himself at dawn / with a note stuck to the bunkhead / don’t mess with me, just take me home,” Baez unleashing the full extent of her vibrato on “black” and “hanged” to hammer home the sudden sense of comprehensive despair, so that the song’s refrain, “come and lay / help us lay / young Billy down,” hits with a strange and alienating somberness.
Having built and then spectacularly immolated an entire song, Baez simply moves somewhere entirely different for her second verse, introducing Luna, a Mexican immigrant who entered the country with a family only to find himself quickly arrested, then dies of a heroin overdose in prison. There is no sense of outlaw heroism here—just systemic cruelty, which Baez is withering about, noting dryly that his arrest “left the wife and baby quite alone,” and closing the verse with the note that “he died to no one’s great alarm.” And this time, after we lay poor Luna down, with the song more than halfway gone, Baez finally reveals the song’s true nature when she declares that “we’re gonna raze / raze the prisons to the ground.” A third verse makes the necessary move from the dead to the living, telling of an elderly con named Kilowatt who has his release callously ripped away from him at the last second, changing its refrain to the note that “they might as well just have laid that old man down” before repeating its searingly anthemic call to arms.
It’s a tour de force of songwriting—a phenomenal use of genre expectations and subversion that needs every second of the two and a half minutes it takes setting up its actual thesis. More to the point, it shows an understanding of what her production (and Baez is producing her own album this time) is bringing to the table. She hasn’t just written a song that takes an unexpected turn midway through its first verse, she’s written it for a bunch of session musicians who can craft it a note perfect cloak of outlaw country for it to hide in, making sure that nothing is amiss until everything is. It’s as harrowing as it is necessary, not so much instantly memorable as instantly unforgettable, a song that will haunt its listener forever.
And it’s not even the only great song on the album. Just a few tracks later comes the one-two punch of “Love Song To a Stranger” and “Myths.” The former, as its title suggests, is a melancholy ballad of loneliness. This is no ode to the one that got away, however. Its opening question, “How long since I’ve spent a whole night in a twin bed with a stranger / his warm arms all around me?”, makes clear that this is a song that is very much about being drawn to the emotional tenor of short-term affairs. Her description of her lover as “mainly a mystery with violins filling in space” is striking in the way that it finds genuine warmth in anonymity, and when she describes how he “stood in the nude by the mirror and picked out a rose” it’s clear that this really is a love song, just as it really is about a stranger.
There are two things to note here. The first is that this is very much in keeping with Baez’s prior career. The first track on her first album was literally a song about her disinterest in love. For years she’d been killing it with songs of rogues emphasizing just how in love they aren’t. That she should finally settle on an embrace of the casual affair is a logical growth from this. The second, however, is that it’s somewhat surprising to see a woman who was loudly pining for her jailed husband last album suddenly pivot to declaring her disinterest in hearing about “love everlasting and other sad dreams.”
Which brings us to “Myths,” a song that details the swift collapse of her marriage to David Harris once he was released from prison (Baez summed the problems up as “he was too young and I was too crazy”). In truth the song is only fine—Baez affects a striking posture as she seems to almost gloat that “a myth has just been shattered / upon the four winds scattered/ back to some storybook / from whence it came,” and her note that “the baby laughs a lot / and that’s the most important thing” has a charming human realness to it, as does her hope that someday there might still be happiness to find between them. (Which, in practice, there was—their obvious fondness for each other when jointly interviewed for the 2009 How Sweet The Sound documentary is positively heartwarming.) But the song is musically flat, lacking any real hooks—generally the problem with Baez’s compositions once you get away from the a-listers.
It is, however, the surprising hill upon which the self-proclaimed Dean of American Rock Critics Robert Christgau selected to condemn Baez with a review in which he wonders “how anyone whose concept of beauty is so well-bred can pretend to visionary politics” (which, let’s just pause and collectively vomit at “well-bred”) before complaining about the construction “upon the four winds scattered,” declaring that “plain people say ‘scattered upon the four winds,’ not ‘upon the four winds scattered.’ Actually, they don’t say ‘scattered upon the four winds’ either, but we’ll get to that next time.” This is one of three career reviews Christgau gave Baez, the other two being a one sentence review of Diamonds and Rust that proclaims her “emotionally dumb” (!) and a review of her 1992 album Play Me Backwards that simply proclaims it a bomb with no further comment. This would merely be a profoundly stupid and banally misogynistic review were it not for the fact that Christgau has given Bob “a phrase in connection first with she occurred” Dylan a total of forty-five career reviews in which he has time and sympathy for even the most pointless of albums—and unlike Baez, Dylan has plenty. Christgau is Christgau—not even the best rock critic, little yet the only—but the example still highlights the grim popular reception that greets a heel star when they have the temerity to stick around to become legends. (Although if we’re going to bring up Dylan again we probably have to acknowledge “To Bobby,” a condescending and cringeworthy plea for Dylan to return to writing protest songs because “the voices on the night, Bobby / they’re crying for you,” and one of only two moments of Baez’s career that can be accurately described as outright embarrassing.)
Baez returned to Nashville again in January of 1973 to cut seven tracks for her next album, Where Are You Now, My Son? These tracks are perfectly fine. She’s again got some interesting original compositions with “A Young Gypsy,” which has a probably too clever twist at the end, and “Rider Pass By,” an overly cryptic defense of gay rights, and she offers a rousing take on Hoyt Axton’s “Less Than the Song.” But there’s a clear sense of diminishing returns across them—a sense that this Nashville approach has run its course.
But if those seven songs—which form only the first half of the album—feel superfluous or perfunctory it’s fair to say that virtually anything would have in their place, and indeed that they are probably the correct songs for the job they have, which was purely to provide a platform for the release of the back half of the album, the bulk of which had already been recorded. This constituted a single twenty-two minute track, from whence the album gets its name, and built largely around field recordings Baez had made in Hanoi a month earlier.
We discussed Baez’s activism before, including her arrests at Vietnam protests. This, however, is an easy thing to get the wrong impression of. After all, lefty politics are a mainstay of the folk scene. Whereas Baez was a committed and effective activist to an extent that went far beyond getting arrested at a Vietnam protest and meeting a boy. This began early in her career—she made a policy from the start of refusing to play for segregated audiences, and in 1963 made a point of playing at historically black colleges. The most significant of these proved to be Miles College in Birmingham, where she ended up playing in the midst of a series of mass arrests coinciding with Martin Luther King visiting the city—the version of “We Shall Overcome” on Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2 is from that show, in fact. A few months later she sang the song again, this time at the March on Washington. She continued to be an active force in the Civil Rights Movement, to the point where in 1966 King asked her to go to Grenada, Mississippi, where violence was flaring up around school integration, and essentially hold the fort until he arrived. Her arrival, and the attendant media coverage, immediately reduced the violence.
The news footage goes a long way towards demonstrating her skill at this. She walks calmly, arm around a Black child, carrying a stack of her books for her, while a journalist asks her if she thinks the number of police officers around will make things safe for the children. Baez pivots immediately, avoiding a prediction (where there’s really no good answer) and instead shrugging and saying “it’s just a pity that we’ve had to resort to that” so as to refocus the discussion on the larger structural problem. Asked if she’s afraid of white bystanders only to have a car aggressively drive by honking at her before she can answer she chuckles, “what, like getting run over for instance?” It’s effective communication—warm and charming but focused.
This is a consistent feature of her activism—she’s got a savvy awareness of how her presence in a situation will generate media coverage and a consistent ability to be witty and cogent in her comments to the media while remaining focused on the issues at hand (a highlight comes on a visit to the Cambodian border where she’s asked if people will view her as a publicity seeker and scoffs “oh yeah, I sell all my hottest albums on the Cambodian border). She also repeatedly proves capable of effective and shrewd decision making, such as when, visiting Czechoslovakia in 1989, she successfully got Václav Havel into the venue and on stage by just having him carry her guitar the whole time so that nobody would harass him. And then, when her explicit statement in support of Charter 77 predictably got the power cut to her concert, she just plowed on singing a capella. She’s also got an impressive track record of code switching so that she can both engage with people on the front lines who are affected by whatever issue she’s working on and be the famous celebrity who people with power bother to listen to. And, perhaps most importantly, she’s simply got an impressive track record of consistent activism across her career, from tax protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s through to spending the night in a tree to protest the eviction of urban farmers in the 21st century.
Her trip to Hanoi, however, proved extraordinary, not only because she did it in the first place (she reasoned that it was her responsibility to go because “nobody else would do that; Peter, Paul and Mary were not going to show up there next week.”) but because she was traveling in December 1972, and a mere handful of days after she arrived the United States began an eleven day stretch of nearly uninterrupted carpet bombing of Hanoi. Caught in the middle of it, Baez proceeded to make a series of field recordings, combining them with a spoken word account of what she saw to form the back half of the album.
The result is chillingly effective. The field recordings are unsettling, first simply disorienting, and then profoundly chilling in their horror. Baez’s narration, meanwhile, mixes moving accounts of how “The children on the roadsides of the villages and towns / would stand around us laughing as we stood like giant clowns / the mourning bands told whom they’d lost by last night’s phantom messenger / and they spoke their only words in English, ‘Johnson, Nixon, Kissinger’” along with droll details like how “The preacher read a Christmas prayer and the men kneeled on the ground / then sheepishly asked me to sing ‘They Drove Old Dixie Down.’” It’s an absolutely stunning piece of work—as aesthetically brave as it is just plain conventionally brave.
Baez’s political commitments would inform her next album as well. This was Gracias a la Vida, an album that, fifteen years into her career, saw Baez engage substantively with her Latin heritage for the first time by delivering an album of Latin music sung entirely in Spanish. The occasion for this, as Baez explained, was as a “message of hope to the Chileans suffering under Augusto Pinochet,” who had taken over the country in a coup a few months prior to recording the album. Her selection of music was similarly pointed, most notably in the inclusion of “Te Recuerdo Amanda,” by Chilean activist and poet Victor Jara, who was murdered by Pinochet’s regime shortly after the coup, his body hung outside the stadium in which he and thousands of other political prisoners had been held.
Baez decamped to Los Angeles to record this album, hiring a swath of the legendary Wrecking Crew of session musicians, including Milt Holland, a drummer and ethnomusicologist who had pioneered the use of African and South American rhythms in anglophone pop music, then augmenting them with the UCLA mariachi band and La Rondalla Amerindia De Aztlán, a group of social justice-oriented musicians out of San Diego. The result sparkles as usual—the title track (translating to “here’s to life”—Baez wryly dedicates the album to her father “who gave me my Latin name and whatever optimism about life I may claim to have”) practically explodes off the stylus with a peal of harp the moment the needle drops, then continues galloping along, Baez’s lyric a ratatat burst of syllables that only stretches out into her vibrato as the lines end.
It’s an unusual tone for Baez, who sounds like she’s having fun in a way that even her poppiest and most unseelie songs rarely evoke. This remains true throughout the album—the version of “Guantanemera”—a Cuban song popularized by Pete Seeger—is also indicative as one of the few times in her career that she’s taken a folk standard and offered a version that feels more relaxed and spry than her competitors. Also notable is “Dida,” one of two original compositions, and a functional instrumental for voice, with the title as the only lyric—an approach to songwriting she hadn’t reall demonstrated before—although we’ll talk about that song soon enough.
Unsurprisingly an all-Spanish album (one song is actually in Catalan) faced a significant sales barrier in the United States. But the album sold strongly in the Spanish-speaking world, where Baez also toured it extensively. It’s tempting to say that Baez had done it again, but that’s fundamentally misleading. Baez hadn’t just casually conquered a new genre, she’d made her third major stylistic shift in as many albums, moving smoothly from country to big conceptual pieces to Latin music—none of these, notably, the straightforward “folk” genre she’s critically pigeonholed into. She was, in other words, on a truly legendary run. No surprise, then, that her next album was Diamonds and Rust.
Thus far I’ve contented myself with a couple of highlights per album. Diamonds and Rust, however, is worth taking seriously as a complete masterpiece—a comprehensive sketch of what Joan Baez could do at the creative apex of her career. We have, of course, already discussed the title track at length. But it’s worth lingering in how good the song is—a signature masterpiece that she could play at virtually every concert for the rest of her career and nail every time. Which, in point of fact, she did—it’s impossible to find a bad version of it. Obviously Judas Priest fucking slap with it. (“I love that! I was so stunned when I first heard it,” Baez says about it, noting that it’s rare for people to cover her songs because “I’ve already sung them, and who wants to compete with that?”) In terms of her own versions, there’s the myriad of faithful renditions in the years to follow, the most interesting on her live album From Every Stage, which we’ll get to. There’s the striking version on her 80s Diamonds and Rust in the Bullring (changing the lyric to “twenty years ago I bought you some cufflinks…”) where she’s backed by by strings and washes of synth pads that date the performance but prove the song itself timeless. There’s her gorgeous 90s duet with Mary Chapin Carpenter on Ring Them Bells (“thirty years ago…”) where Carpenter starts the song in a reverential soprano, then Baez enters with a gentle alto harmony on the first two verses before finally taking lead, the ending swapped out for a cheeky “well I’ll take the diamonds”; she’s also been known to sing “I’ll take the Grammy,” as she did at the State Theater in Ithaca on the first US date of her farewell tour. There’s either of two versions with Judy Collins, one on Collins’s 2013 Paradise (“forty years ago…” ) in which the two great chanteuses of the 60s folk scene spar lovingly through it, Collins with formal poise, Baez soaring on the vast melancholy of the emotion, the other at Baez’s 75th birthday concert (“they made cufflinks back then”) in which Collins abruptly upshifts out of Baez’s range, leaving her cackling “sneak” at her. She came out of retirement in 2019 to do it onstage with Lana del Rey, who dutifully drove to Baez’s house to, as she put it, audition—del Rey recalls being “given a vague map to get to a house distinguishable only by its color and the chickens running in the yard”— then went out dancing with her after. Del Rey describes the experience, along with that of six decades worth of female pop stars: “she fucking outlasted me.”
From that auspicious beginning the album moves into “Fountain of Sorrow.” This marks the first time she does a Jackson Browne song—a combination that will prove to always be a winner. Like “Diamonds and Rust,” “Fountain of Sorrow” belongs to the grand tradition of folk singers writing songs about sleeping with other folk singers—in this case a breakup song about Joni Mitchell. In Baez’s hands, and sequenced second on the album, it tacitly becomes about Dylan. The lyric flatters Baez nicely—a four verse run before the first chorus gives her a nice long stretch of storytelling, and she lingers in the details before surrendering the song to the backing musicians, who offer it a production a few doors down from Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.” (Indeed, Rumours is a pretty good point of comparison if you want to see just how well Diamonds and Rust can stack pound for pound against an undisputed 70s classic.)
Baez freely admits that Diamonds and Rust was a swing at a more commercial album, and at times it can feel something like an audition reel, with Baez showing the ways in which she can flex into other styles. “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” sees her tackling soul music with a cut from Stevie Wonder’s 1971 album Where I’m Coming From. Torch songs are largely a layup for Baez, and with a studio full of old jazz vets she’s given everything she needs to succeed. On the whole, this marks a road not taken for Baez, and you imagine she’d have done fine on it.
The jazz influences continue, rather explicitly, on “Children and All That Jazz,” which began in studio when Baez wrote what she describes as “a little jazz ditty” and, egged on by the band, went home and expanded it into a song. Baez’s songwriting consistently has a confessional vibe—you can easily string together a diary of her marriage, divorce, and any number of gloriously tawdry May-December romances from across her albums—and this is no exception. This one falls into the parenting subgenre, beginning with a long run of children’s names before shifting to Baez playing the exasperated parent begging “Gabriel Harris / you go to bed now / it’s quarter to nine / I’m tired I’m tired I’m tired.” It’s a hoot, capped off by a phenomenal Hampton Hawes piano solo.
Baez’s 1975 rise in fortune, along with the studio sessions for Diamonds and Rust, coincided with Blood on the Tracks, Dylan’s own career revival after a dodgy stretch. “Simple Twist of Fate” sees Baez covering one of the songs off the album—a song of doomed romance variously theorized to be about any number of Dylan’s girlfriends, Baez included (although the context of Blood on the Tracks makes that a less favored choice—we’ll get back to that context later, though). Baez rips out Dylan’s simple swing to make it a full-on piece of pop rock and triumphantly closes Side A of the album with it. Her Dylan impersonation on the fourth verse is absolutely hysterical.
If you go and hunt down a vinyl copy of Diamonds and Rust that still has its shrinkwrap you’ll find a sticker boasting that the album features the single “Blue Sky,” an Allman Brothers Band cover that the label pushed for and indeed released as the lead single. Baez dusts off her Nashville chops to deliver it as a big country banger—you can transition it into “Jolene” on a mixtape without embarrassing yourself. It ended up getting to 57th on the Hot 100, versus the title track’s 35th, and that roughly captures their respective qualities.
Baez stays within the realm of country for “Hello in There,” a cover of John Prine’s heartbreaking song about aging and isolation. As usual Baez excels given a narrative—her throwing off of “don’t matter anymore” to cap the first verse is marvelous, as is the mournful horror of “all the news just repeats itself / like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen.” Her choruses begin to kick up into the sort of triumphant country anthem she can do so well for “old trees just grow stronger / old rivers grow wider every day” before deflating utterly for “but old people just grow lonesome.” Baez kept it in her setlists through her farewell tour, and even did a post-retirement version on YouTube a few days before Prine passed from COVID.
“Jesse” sees Baez turn to her contemporary Janis Ian, whose Between the Lines came out a month before Diamonds and Rust and took Ian to the top of the album charts off the strength of “At Seventeen”—an impressive comeback from an artist who had looked to be a 60s one-hit wonder with “Society’s Child,” a song about interracial dating that’s far better than Ian had any right to be penning at fourteen. “Jesse” hails is from Stars, her album from the year before, and had been previously covered by Roberta Flack as the second single from Killing Me Softly. Baez’s version makes deft use of the mournfulness of her vibrato, nailing the ending through her immaculate capacity for a dramatic pause—just look at her delivery of the final “hey Jesse / I’m lonely / come home.”
Baez returns to writing about Dylan with “Winds of the Old Days,” which narrates her reaction to the news of his return to touring in 1974. In effect it’s an apology for “To Bobby,” conceding that “the sixties are over so set him free.” It undoubtedly suffers from being the second best song she wrote about Bob Dylan on the album, and from a few dud couplets like “thank you for writing the best songs / thank you for righting a few wrongs,” but there’s real charm to the final chorus, which transforms the wistful “take me down to the harbor now / grapes of the summer are low on the bough / ghosts of my history will follow me there / and the winds of the old days will blow through my hair” of the preceding cycles into a direct address to Dylan, “get you down to the harbor now / most of the sour grapes are gone from the bough / ghosts of Johanna will visit you there / and the winds of the old days will blow through your hair.”
The album closes with a pair of technical demonstrations focused firmly on Baez’s vocal chops. First is a remake of “Dida.” Like the original on Gracias a la Vida, Baez is joined by Joni Mitchell on harmonies; beyond that, however, much has changed. Where the original flowed like a soft breeze on a lazy afternoon, this one is upbeat and playful. Instead of coming in late and staying in the background Mitchell enters immediately, setting up a call and response structure with Baez. Baez’s band already included Larry Carlton and Joe Sample, and here they’re augmented by the rest of the L.A. Express, who had served as Mitchell’s backing band the year before on Court and Spark and her subsequent tour (documented on the Miles of Aisles live album). Old pros, they let the song spiral gloriously upwards, a platform for two of the best there’s ever been to flaunt that fact.
After an album that sees Baez demonstrating a range of contemporary styles she closes on home territory with a medley of “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Danny Boy.” It’s the sort of thing she’d been doing for fifteen years—a pair of standards that let her do straightforward balladry—although the picks are undeniably populist, and the medley structure means that she gets a big tone shift at the midpoint so that things never get too sleepy. At the end of the day, even if this is nowhere near the most interesting stuff she does, her ability to nail a soaring high note ensures she’s always going to be good at this, and it serves to ensure that Diamonds and Rust is a true showcase of her talents—a proper all killer no filler classic of an album.
Joan Baez’s tour for Diamonds and Rust was documented in a live album the next year called From Every Stage. The title was a double meaning, both referring to the fact that it’s culled from several live performances and to the structure of Baez’s setlists, which were set to work as a retrospective of her career. This was captured with the structure of a double EP. The first half is a solo acoustic set—the live setup she’d used for her entire career thus far. It’s not exclusively made up of old material—there’s a delightful sequel to “Love Song to a Stranger” in which she recounts various other affairs, culminating in a callback to the first song as she describes “that black eyed beauty from Boston town / two days were never too long / he stood by the mirror and picked out a rose / but I already wrote him a song”—but it certainly features plenty of stuff she recorded in the 60s like “Stewball” alongside covers of 60s songs she wasn’t associated with like “Blowin’ in the Wind.” This disc also features the bulk of the set’s overtly political material, with its closer of “Joe Hill” preceded by a song about Soviet dissident Natalia Gorbanevskaya and a run at “The Ballad of Sacco & Vanzetti.” It is, I stress, a perfectly good disc—Baez is engaging live, and there’s a steady stream of approachable songs among the more demanding picks. It’s also, however, nothing save for the opening act for the second disc.
As the back cover of the record stresses that the album’s goal “was to faithfully recreate the music as it was experienced by the audience at those concerts,” it is worth slowing down and considering the precise details of the moment captured at the start of side three. After a short intermission Baez has re-emerged.. “There’s a number of ways to look at what I’m doing,” she says, her smile audible. “The best one is that I’m having a vacation. I’ve not really had a vacation in about ten years, so I decided to do it musically.” (Baez would later call this aside “embarrassing,” noting that it sounded like she felt “guilty for eating three meals a day, not living in a jail cell, making money in concerts and making love to Carlos.”) And then she launches into “Love is Just a Four Letter Word.” For the first bar she remains backed by a simple acoustic guitar. And then the backing band hits.
It fucking slaps. This is not a surprise, not least as Baez had quietly assembled an absolutely gobsmacking backing band. She’s kept Larry Carlton from Diamonds and Rust, along with drummer Jim Gordon, better known as the drummer of Derek and the Dominos. On keyboards she reached back to her Nashville days to grab David Briggs, while on bass she had James Jamerson, a motown legend who routinely tops lists of the greatest bass players of all time. It’s the sort of band that leaves vinyl nerds with favorite 70s session musicians drooling with envy. They come into “Love is Just a Four Letter Word” with immediate vim. Jamerson’s bass, the first thing to enter the mix, is a seemingly endless procession of sly walkups and walkdowns slipping between the gaps in the dueling guitar lines like a lover out the back door. Baez’s vocal practically dances atop the orchestration—note her delighted and delightful scat singing in the second verse.
From there the disc moves from strengths to strength—a version of “Diamonds and Rust” that subs Briggs’s piano in for the synth lines while and anchors things in Jamerson’s bass, which sounds deep enough to drown in, a better-than-the-album version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and a take on “Oh, Happy Day” that sounds like a formal apology to the entire genre of gospel music for the unfortunate events of Carry It On. The highlights of the disc, however, come in a series of covers unique to From Every Stage. To the extent that this tour could be called a vacation, it was presumably that it afforded her space to tackle a wealth of new material—setlists from the era included covers of The Penguins’ “Earth Angel,” the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” and a run at Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” (the latter expressly for Jamerson, who played on the original).
From Every Stage meanwhile offers three songs Baez had never tackled before. First among these is “Boulder to Birmingham,” the one original composition on Emmylou Harris’s just out debut album Pieces of the Sky. This saw Baez tackling her own legacy for the first time—Harris was openly influenced by Baez, to the point of saying she’d led her to pick up the guitar as a teenager. Harris’s original sets a high bar—she wields a powerful soprano of her own, and yet sounds as fragile as glass. Baez tries for none of that delicateness, instead entering with power and letting her band build the song up around her over the first verse until finally crescendoing into “the canyon was on fire,” lifting Baez up into the sky to soar. Where Harris sounds overcome by her grief at times, Baez maintains a touch more distance. On the one hand this can make it feel slightly like a technical exercise, or worse an act of one-upmanship, especially when she brings the full force of her vibrato to the chorus. But ultimately Baez’s approach serves to move the emphasis from the emotional sincerity that Harris projects to the emotion conveyed by the songwriting. Baez plays her usual deft games with pauses and timing—observe her delivery of “I don’t wanna hear your sad stories,” where she emphasizes the line by lagging the rhythm slightly so that she’s chasing it the entire way. It’s a queenmaking performance, Baez practically naming an heir as forcefully as she’d annointed Dylan a decade earlier.
Baez also draws from recent country music for “Please Come to Boston,” the one career hit of Kenny Loggins’s cousin Dave. The song is a triumph of songwriting, and yet also manages to defeat virtually everybody to tackle it, its songwriter included. The central problem is also its core strength—the tension between the three verses, each written as letters from a man who relocates to a succession of cities and then pleads his lover to come be with him, and the chorus, which switches the perspective to his lover as she refuses. Inevitably singers nail one or the other, but not both. Loggins’s original, for instance, feels utterly sincere in its verses only to collapse into vapidity on its chorus. When Reba McEntire tackles it on her 1995 album Starting Over, meanwhile, the chorus hits with the anthemic force it’s obviously capable of, but McEntire’s jaded disdain spills over into the verses, robbing them of their power.
Baez has no such problems. Always comfortable with storytelling and character work, she squares the circle by, in effect, dueting with herself. She enters the song with a quiet longing, her band switching to minimalism so that large swaths of the first verse are carried by Jamerson alone. It’s an entirely credible bit of character work—one that puts careful emphasis on the little details that flag the letter writer as an unreliable narrator such as the description of “the cafe where I hope that I’ll be working soon,” one of Baez’ signature pauses bracketing off the beautifully undermining “hope,” and each time Baez returns to the character his romantic longing feels genuinely attractive. And then, at the end of each verse, she calmly cuts that character off at the knees with “I said no / won’t you come home to me,” at which point Baez effortlessly shifts gears and becomes a Nashville diva to rival Tammy or Dolly. Each time through the band pushes things a little further, forcing her to go bigger and bigger with each chorus until there’s no way to dispute her assertion that “there ain’t nobody like me.” It is, simply put, the definitive version of a country classic, dashed off as the opener to side four of a live album.
And then, immediately after, comes “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” which may be the single greatest performance of a narrative ballad ever recorded. The original comes off of Blood on the Tracks, where it is the longest song—an epic spanning nine minutes and fifteen verses. (“So if I run out of words I’ll just mumble,” Baez notes introducing it.) This poses something of a challenge to Dylan’s production style, which was infamously focused on spontaneity and quick execution—doubly so because this was one of the songs he went back to hastily recut a month before the album came out. His goal in these rerecordings was to up the energy of the album, and the song tears along with his characteristic gallop—a tour de force in its way.
As usual, however, it takes Baez to slow down and bother figuring out what the fuck Dylan was on about. Dylan’s raucous gallop is chucked in favor of a stately canter befitting the queen, with the instrumental intros and outros excised so that Baez’s version can still come in at nine minutes. This slower pace gives Baez space to work, and she uses her rhythmic variations to successfully give life and depth to the song’s outsized cast—there’s five separate viewpoint characters along with a narrator. Dylan’s voice was simply never going to be up to this task, and he doesn’t try, but the result leaves scads of nuance for Baez to bring out of the song.
Chief among this is her uncovering of the song’s lyrical structure. Like many of Dylan’s compositions, “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” uses a refrain instead of a full chorus. Verses are five lines, four of which use an AABB rhyme scheme, while the fifth always ends with mention of the eponymous Jack of Hearts, quickly established as a gentleman thief type. In the first two verses this is relatively straightforward—the first verse does some scene setting of a western town and a cabaret before revealing its character “standing in the doorway looking like the Jack of Hearts,” while the second focuses on the Jack before having him “move into the corner, face down like the Jack of Hearts.” Having been turned face down, however, the Jack of Hearts initially vanishes from the third verse, which instead moves backstage where “the girls were playing five-card stud by the stairs / LIly had two queens and she was hoping for a third to match her pair” before, inevitably, she “called another bet and drew up the Jack of Hearts.”
The song continues in this vein—the next verse swerves over to Big Jim, who “was no one’s fool, he owned the town’s only diamond mine,” but whose “bodyguards and his silver cane, they were no match for the Jack of Hearts.” Then comes Rosemary, who enters “through the side door, lookin’ like a queen without a crown” before she greets Big Jim, who pays no attention as he’s “staring into space, over at the Jack of Hearts.” The structure is that of a card trick—each verse begins at some place in the song’s deck and moves through the narrative only to, in its fifth line, once again surface the Jack of Hearts. Dylan approaches this development with a sense of triumph—a giddy thrill at once again bringing the character he obviously identifies with to the forefront. Baez, however, does not identify with the Jack of Hearts—instead she sings the song as though she fancies him, letting her vibrato ring on “hearts” to give the name the auditory equivalent of the magician’s smirk as he pulls his trick yet again.
This allows Baez to reveal a larger structure within the song—one compatible with the character she most plainly identifies with, namely Lily, who “had that certain something; there was a kind of flash every time she smiled” and who’d “come away from a broken home and had lots of strange affairs,” but who’d “never met anyone quite like the Jack of Hearts. And, more to the point, who after the twelfth verse herself vanishes from the narrative. She’s last seen with her “arms around the man she dearly loved to touch,” telling him that she missed him, “and he thought she was sincere / but through the doorway he felt jealousy and fear / just another night in the life of the Jack of Hearts.” But she’s not mentioned at all in the next verse as “the door to the dressing room burst open and a Colt revolver clicked” (a line followed by an absolutely delightful clomp of piano notes from Briggs, one of dozens of clever ways her backing band evolves the instrumentation throughout the song to compliment and augment Baez’s storytelling), nor as the bank robbers who had quietly been drilling through a wall in the background of the song get into the bank vault, nor as Rosemary goes to the gallows for the murder of Big Jim, who’s been “killed by a penknife in the back.” It’s not until the final verse that she finally reemerges, after the cabaret has been shut down, having “already taken all of the dye out of her hair,” where she’s “thinking about her father whom she very rarely saw / thinking about Rosemary and thinking about the law / but most of all she was thinking about the Jack of Hearts.” In Dylan’s version this is full of ambiguities—exactly who planned what and whether the Jack of Hearts actually escapes is largely unclear amidst the blitz of harmonica that closes the song, and the final verse’s initial establishing line about the cabaret being closed for repairs nudges the listener towards assuming Lily remains in town. But Baez’s version goes a long way towards making the mystery a solvable one, with Lily’s disappearance and resurfacing firmly allying her with the character who’s been doing that all song, making the establishing line a clear piece of misdirection away from the fact that Lily has obviously run off with the Jack of Hearts. Which, as it happens, she was about to, at least for a little while.
Baez introduces the song with the note that “I really love this thing, it’s on Dylan’s last album.” This, however, gives a misleading impression of where she first heard “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” which was not on Blood on the Tracks but several months earlier when Dylan called her to excitedly read the lyrics over the phone. Where was he calling from? A booth in the midwest. Well I’ll be damned.
It is here that we need to talk about the context of Blood on the Tracks. Creatively speaking, the reason that Dylan was able to snap out of the creative torpor that had led to such bombs as Self Portrait and New Morning was that his marriage was rapidly collapsing, which gave him a wealth of subject material. More to the point, the woman he would soon be divorcing—Sara Lownds—was the woman he’d left Baez for a decade earlier. (Baez, recounting her disastrous 1964 UK tour with him during which he’d snubbed her without explanation, recalls going to Dylan’s hotel after he’d taken ill to deliver a present and being surprised by Lownds, whom she’d never met before, but who had been flown in to care for him. She describes how “Everyone had carefully avoided telling me she was there. She took the package from me with a patient and quizzical look on her lovely face, blinked her massive black eyes, thanked me softly, and shut the door.”)
So with his marriage on the rocks, Dylan calls his ex and reads sixteen verses of lyrics about a rakish con man and his convoluted love triangle down the phone at her. She writes an all-timer of a song about the smoldering wreckage of their past together then rolls into a concert tour where she performs the song Dylan read her, so completely she includes the extra verse he’d cut by the time he recorded it for the album. There’s not even subtext here; this is just text.
Any veneer or pretense that this was not what it looked like was quickly stripped away by the fall when Dylan put together the famed Rolling Thunder Revue—a gigantic tour that, at various times over its seven month run, saw Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Roger McGuinn, Rambin’ Jack Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, and Mick Ronson (formerly a Spider from Mars with Ziggy Stardust) joining Dylan on stage. Its star attraction, however, was the fact that Dylan and Baez would take the stage together for the first time since the 1960s. Indeed, this was largely the tour’s showpiece moment–after a first set that saw the backing musicians featured and a brief run of Dylan songs the curtain would fall for a brief intermission. When the show resumed, Dylan and Baez would commence singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” from behind the curtain, which would lift to reveal the two of them standing at a mic together to inevitably rapturous reception.
In truth this did not especially flatter Baez, who would do a few more songs with Dylan followed by a brief solo set that typically opened with “Diamonds and Rust” (In what is easily the funniest moment of her 1987 memoir Baez recalls Dylan asking if she was going to sing “that song about robin’s eggs and diamonds” and bluffing him by claiming it was about David Harris. “Who did you think it was about,” she asked him, prompting a panicked “oh, hey, what the fuck do I know”) and closed with “Please Come to Boston” before the focus shifted back to Dylan. For all that her duets with Dylan carried an iconic power, the fact of the matter is that they were lousy duet partners. Dylan’s voice inevitably dominates, with any details of Baez’s performance washed out by the monolithic tone of his vocal delivery. It ends up being like getting Itzhak Perlman to accompany a buzzsaw.
But whatever it lacked as a showcase for Baez, the Rolling Thunder Revue more than made up for as a showcase for Dylan. It’s a legendary high in his career, eventually spawning a fourteen disc behemoth of a box set chronicling it alongside a Martin Scorcese film that’s about nine parts documentary to one part mockumentary. Longtime Dylan afficionados raved about his career-best performances—Baez recalled it as “a stellar performance every night. I went down into the crowd. Sometimes people noticed me, but I’d just look at them and say ‘sssh’ and they’d not bother me.” And for her own part, she enjoyed the madcap atmosphere of what she called “a floating ship of crazies,“ noting that the tour gave her “freedom to sing and dance in a way that I didn’t do on my own stage.” And footage bears that out—she’s a singular presence, joyful and uninhibited as she gyrates upon the stage, finally having that vacation she was talking about a few months earlier, albeit still musically.
It’s impossible, however, to overlook the emotional element underpinning all of this. Baez takes pains when recounting the tour in her 1987 memoir to stress her respect for and loyalty towards Sara Lownds, and while there’s photos of her and Dylan kissing on stage during their performances neither he nor Baez have ever said anything to suggest they rekindled their romance—Baez in fact largely suggests otherwise, telling at least one story of going and finding Lownds when Dylan started flirting with her. And yet the tension underlying the situation is inescapable, not least because of Renaldo and Clara, the film that Dylan spent much of the tour shooting. The film is a legendarily incoherent disaster—Baez describes it as “never written, and barely directed. Bob would stand in back of the camera and chuckle to himself and get everyone to run around and act out his mind movies. The filming happened in gleeful little happenings, enacting whatever dream Dylan had had in the night.” But it’s clear enough what these dreams centered on—a love triangle among Dylan and Lownds’s title characters and Baez’s “Woman in White,” who Baez described as “a Mexican whore—the Rolling Thunder women all played whores.”
If Renaldo and Clara’s incoherence makes it difficult to pin down the actual emotional circumstances, and only really reflects Dylan’s view anyway, the backstage footage of the Revue makes it clear enough where things stood. In one clip Dylan and Baez stand, recalling how Baez “I used to feed you salad and red wine while you wrote” and mentioning “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which she calls “one of the best songs you ever wrote.” Dylan comes back at her with “I think it’s one of the best songs you sing,” and she smiles before laughingly asking why it is he performs it instead of her. “Cause you won’t sing it!” Dylan protests, and they both laugh before she very sweetly says, “Oh Bob. Sure I will.” Dylan’s reaction, somewhat stunningly, is to immediately declare that “it really displeases me that you went off and got married.” Baez, clearly hurt, points out that Dylan got married first, and, worse, didn’t tell her. He stammers for a moment, then says that “I married the woman I loved.” Baez looks down for a moment, then sadly replies that she married the man she thought she loved. There’s another pause, and then an impish grin crosses Dylan’s face. “See,” he says, “that’s what thought has to do with it. Thought will fuck you up.”
The camera holds on Dylan’s face here, and we don’t get to see how Baez reacts to the attempt at charm. But we can guess well enough by her account of the tour’s final days in the spring of 1976. She recalls Dylan coming to see her “at the table where I was dining with some of the other inmates” and trying to persuade her to extend the tour indefinitely. She declines, saying that she wants to go home and “start getting uncrazy,” and Dylan proceeds to go off on “a stunning tirade about how wonderful and special I was. In fact, I was the only one, and all them others didn’t never count anyway. They didn’t mean shit.” Baez points out that Dylan is drunk, but he insists that they need to become blood brothers, pulling a pocket knife out and “sawing away aimlessly at his wrist. I asked him to wait a minute and got a clean steak knife from the waiter, dunked it into the Scotch and made some little scratches on our skin, just deep enough to draw blood, and we stuck our wrists together. He nodded happily and drunkenly and said that now it was for life.”
But by 1976 Baez was not the young girl in love anymore, and the divorced writer (twice over) of “Love Song to a Stranger,” while still clearly charmed by her Jack of Hearts, was also quite clear that “for life” wasn’t something she was interested in, even if Dylan’s drunken promises had been worth the paper they were printed on. For all the emotions and heartache, and all that her career would be doomed to being treated largely as a footnote to his, at the end of the day the fact remains: she left him.
Their paths would cross a few times more—most notably an aborted 1984 tour of Europe with Carlos Santana in which every one of the promises made to Baez in booking it went up in smoke as soon as the tour began, her co-headining status slashed to an opener and her blood brother for life declining to have her on stage to sing together until she finally abandoned the tour in Copenhagen. Her account of their parting is withering—Dylan, looking like hell, summons her to his dressing room before she leaves, tries to feel her up, vaguely suggests that she should stick around and they’ll sing together, then finally lets her go, all without ever bothering to get up off the sofa. And that was that. She saw him once more, at a 2010 White House event celebrating the music of the Civil Rights, but declined to greet him, reasoning that “the chances of him just walking past me would be too awful a scenario.” Besides, that was the same event where, when Michelle Obama asked her to sing “If I Had a Hammer,” she proclaimed it “the most annoying song” and told the First Lady “if I had a hammer I’d hit myself in the head. Ain’t gonna do it.” She’d clearly outgrown him.
One side effect of the Rolling Thunder Revue was an unusually productive period of songwriting for Baez—enough so that her final album for A&M, 1976’s Gulf Winds, would be the only one of her career to be comprised entirely of her own compositions. Unsurprisingly given the circumstances many of these were about Dylan—a response to his “Oh, Sister” called “O Brother!” where she laments how he’s “surrounded by parasites and sycophants” and declares that “if I had the nerve / to risk it or to break it / I’d put our friendship on the line / and show you how to take it,” and a number called “Time is Passing Us By” that she described as “a dumb song about Bob” and sniffs that “it was fun for the first few years / playing legend in our time” before concluding that “I hate it for though / you’re a big part of me / our time is passing us by.” But though the final tercet of “Time is Passing Us By,” which concludes, “cast us adrift / and cross a few stars / and I’m good for one more try,” is at least witty, the Dylan songs are far from the highlights of Gulf Winds—ultimately a bunch of songs about her slowly withering emotional connection with Dylan can’t possibly compare to the one about robin’s eggs and diamonds.
The consensus favorite of the album—or at least the only song from the album to make A&M’s 1977 Best Of compilation—is the opener, “Sweeter for Me.” On the one hand this is a ballad to an absent lover—standard territory for Baez. And yet there’s a vein of self-recrimination running through it. Baez offers intense declarations of love, including describing how she “thought I was pregnant by you / but I didn’t care / I just talked to my son / would he mind another one?”, but also flags the emotional distance between them and how she “cannot be / what you want me to be / when you are next to me.” Ultimately she concedes the affair’s doom, referencing folk classic “The Water is Wide” (which she recorded on Farewell, Angelina) when she sings about how “every folk song that I ever knew / once more comes true / as love grows old / and waxes cold.” But the song’s most compelling lyric comes with its chorus as Baez croons “You suffered sweeter for me / than anyone I’ve ever known,” the sentimental tone of the title turned to a rawer, more wounded thing with the realization that the thing that’s sweet is her lover’s suffering.
Also notable is the song’s instrumentation—it’s a piano ballad built around yearning arpeggios backed with washes of strings, as if they’re trying to get Baez to compete with Elton John or Carly Simon. This gimlet commercial eye is omnipresent on Gulf Winds. Take “Caruso,” one of the singles, which is a poppy MOR number that tries to position Baez in a sonic space somewhere between “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Rhiannon.” Its chorus is a proper earworm, the drums kicking up a notch as Baez swings through some agreeable nonsense lyrics—“bring infinity home / let me embrace it one more time / make it the lilies of the field / or the voice of the great Caruso.” This lyric also, however, gets at the problem here, at least as far as A&M is concerned. The great Caruso is Enrico Caruso, an Italian opera singer who was one of the first popular recording artists—Baez’s song is about the profound beauty she finds in listening to his voice. This is genuinely interesting—certainly, at this point, moreso than another Dylan song, and the production is great, but there’s no universe in which it was ever going to be a hit; it’s simply too weird and idiosyncratic.
And this is, in the end, that makes Gulf Winds the first proper misstep of Baez’s 70s career. It’s an entirely understandable one. She’d just scored the standout song of her career with her own songwriting; moving further in that direction was an obvious thing to try. But at the end of the day the reason that Diamonds and Rust worked so well on an album level is that it was supported by songs like “Fountain of Sorrow,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” and “Jesse.” Baez could ever write at that level, but not with the frequency to support an album’s worth of originals. And so Gulf Winds was doomed to be a momentum-losing followup—an unquestionably weak album compared to the rest of her A&M run.
And yet within it there are still gems—“Sweeter for Me” and “Caruso,” but perhaps more interestingly the title track, which closes the album. After an album of at times overproduced efforts at pop, this song sees her pare the instrumentation back to her fingerpicked acoustic guitar working a simple structure—pairs of long lines that move out into a minor chord before loping back to their starting D Major. The choruses are similar, but simply pick a different minor chord and route back. What’s remarkable is that she does this for ten and a half minutes long.
If a Dylan comparison is inevitable—she’s said she wrote the song in Corpus Christi, which means you can date it to the May 10, 1976 date of the Rolling Thunder Revue—it’s also unhelpful. Yes, “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” gets similar mileage out of a similarly simple and repetitive chord structure. Yes, those long, leisurely lines are a Dylan structure through and through—you can see them in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” in fact. But Dylan got the tune for that song from “Mary Hamilton,” a Child Ballad that Baez had done a version of all the way back in 1960. Which is to say that at the end of the day Baez is just working in her native folk milieu.
Ultimately, however, discussion of influences is the wrong way to go about “Gulf Winds.” What’s remarkable about the song is not the structural elements Baez drew upon but what she brings to the table. As she tells it on the back sleeve of the album, she walked out to the ocean one night and thought about the warm wind coming off the ocean, and how it originates in Mexico, when the first line came to her: “it’s only when the high winds blow that I wish my hair was long.” (She had in fact only recently cut it short, to Dylan’s considerable consternation when the second leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue started up.) And from there what unfolded for her was a long meditation on her Mexican heritage—the first time in a song she expressed sentiments like how “it’s hard to be a princess in the States when your skin is brown,” and on her family history. It’s a moving song made more powerful by an elliptical ending in which, after musing on how the past disappears, she talks about her parents’ divorce and how her father is moving to India. It’s a quiet and still sort of melancholy—utterly personal, and something only Joan Baez could do.
And that, perhaps, is the real lesson of Gulf Winds. Yes, Baez is capable of making all manner of genres work. She’s an astonishingly versatile singer who can make all sorts of genres work. She absolutely could have been a great pop vocalist. But that wasn’t who she was. She was a politically minded folkie who chased her own muse, most interesting not for her flexibility but for her singularity. And though she hadn’t drawn on it beyond Gracias a la Vida, part of her singularity was that she was a woman of color who had grown up with a startlingly diverse background. It wasn’t just how, as she describes on the back of the album, as a teenager she would “befriend underdogs. In my school, they were the Mexicans,” or a childhood that involved a lot of moving including a stretch living in Baghdad (she recalled that she fit in better there because her skin was darker and she could pass). It was also the fact that she always stood apart within the folk scene she existed within. Talking about the Rolling Thunder Revue’s stop by New Jersey prison, Baez recounts how “I’m pretty good at penitentiaries. I kind of get what the inmates want, what they’re missing, and how to relate. They’re usually Latinos or Black, and I have that repertoire. I remember Joni singing something wordy, long and white, and they weren’t interested, they got restless”—an important reminder that Baez’s differences from some of her peers ran far deeper than simply having the sense never to appear on an album cover in blackface. Her album cover disasters are of a different sort.
Anxieties about Baez’s pace in the pop landscape shifted into overdrive with her next album. She moved from A&M to Portrait Records, a newly created division of Columbia, in a move she would later call “the stupidest ‘career move’ of my life, and in 1977 released Blowin’ Away, an album that positively drips with anxiety about its commercial prospects. Its most infamous element is its cover, which sees Baez posing awkwardly in a puffy silver flight jacket and aviator goggles (Baez describes it as “the worst, ugliest cover, not just in my career but a lot of people’s”). It’s spectacular in its embarrassment—as clear an image of an artist flailing to find her place in the commercial landscape as pop music has ever thrown up. (Baez, for her part, blames Quaaludes, “the only unprescribed drug I’ve ever used. I loved Quaalude, and found that a tiny dose would decrease stagefright and enhance lovemaking.)
The sense of existential crisis is only increased by the insert of a cartoon drawn by Baez in which a crowd of record company guys all attempt to give Baez guidance on her “first album for Portrait,” in which they variously note that ”in the past, although god knows your material has been beautiful… even great,” and that the album “should contain Joan’s truly intimate, hard-core Baez renditions” they also hope that “another style, another treatment as it were…”—perhaps something “a little more palatable to the general masses” with “some material that’s much more… that’s somehow in the category of… that’s more openly… more… blatantly…” until Baez, standing on the far side of the page holding a guitar, just finishes their sentences for them: “commercial?”
The guitar is ironic, given that Baez doesn’t actually have a guitar credit on the album–the only music credit she gets is “synthesize strings” [sic] on one track. Blowin’ Away is instead an effort at giving her an outright pop album. Nowhere is this clearer than the choice of opening tracks, which sees her tackle “Sailing,” originally by the Sutherland Brothers but more substantively associated with Rod Stewart, who used it as the lead single off his 1975 album Atlantic Crossing and scored an international hit, although it only made 58th on the US charts–one position lower than “Blue Sky” had.
In the course of largely savaging Stewart’s version of the song Tom Ewing complains that “Stewart seems to be trying to create something that’s expressing yearning in as straightforward and widescreen a way as possible, but all subtlety’s been boiled away and we’re left with a great voice being put to dreary use.” Much the same can be said about Baez’s version, which gives the song a simple and plodding anthemic quality for Baez to belt lyrics over. She’s good at it, but of course she is. Her voice is a precision instrument capable of breaking down and clearly expressing all the key beats of “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.” The question of whether it can just deliver a sledgehammer blast of pure yearning is uninteresting. The problem is that the song is too.
And yet it’s just as clear that the problem here isn’t Baez, lost in the changing winds of popular taste as she may have been. For all that the big vapid pop numbers are big and vapid, several of the deeper cut covers are perfectly lovely. But–ironically after Gulf Winds–it’s Baez’s own compositions that stand out. The most straightforward of these is “Altar Boy and the Thief,” which sees her revisit the topic of gay rights that she’d previously tackled in “Rider Pass By.” There the topic was so laden in symbolism as to barely be recognizable; here it’s impossible to miss the subject matter. Baez plays a fairly direct observer, simply describing a variety of people within the gay community from a respectful distance—the first person pronoun occurs only twice, and then only in the context of identifying “my favorite couple.”
Instead the focus is firmly on the characters she describes, who are sketched in striking detail that speaks to the degree Baez was actually paying attention to the community. This is hardly a surprise given that she’d been singing about it since 1973 and had been in a same sex relationship in the 1960s (Baez declines the label bisexual on the grounds that there was never a second). For that matter, it’s hardly a surprise for someone as consistently drawn to underdogs and marginalized people as Baez. But the result is still profoundly moving. Lines like “your mother might have tried to understand / when you were hardly your daddy’s little man” are at once witty and insightful, feeling like they’re capturing real emotions held by real gay people, as does her description of how “a trucker with kids and a wife / prefers to spend half of his life / in early Bohemian motif / playing pool and getting relief.” This last line forms the song’s refrain—the recurring image that what these men are doing is finding relief. It’s a potent choice of words—one that echoes the more straightforwardly orgasmic “release,” but that also gestures at the wider pain of desires that are incongruent with societal expectations. To make an obvious point, Baez—by this point in her life firmly committed to an unmarried life of short term affairs—would have had plenty of grounds to relate to this.
Musically speaking the song makes better use of Blowin’ Away’s instrumentation than most. It’s unusually harmonically adventurous for Baez—gesturing at the fact that it was surely written for the piano it’s played upon. The flowing melody, which rises and falls intricately over the verses, gives the song a clear cabaret vibe that fits with its subject matter. It’s clearly designed for its musical context—and indeed designed at all—in a way that much of Blowin’ Away is not, a sign that Baez, while clearly not entirely at ease with her current musical milieu, still had clear and interesting ideas of what she might do with it.
The most interesting of these ideas, however, was “Time Rag,” which closed out the first side, and which is surely the most musically fascinating track in Baez’s entire catalog. I’m going to encourage you, before we get into analysis here, just take a moment and listen to the song, because being surprised by it is an experience worth having in life. Certainly when I snagged a $4 copy of Blowin’ Away at the record store and tossed it on I was left with my jaw on the floor. Indeed, discovering this song was probably what tipped me from “really enjoying Joan Baez lately” into a critical frenzy of bashing out twenty-six thousand words on her. So yeah. Put it on.
What those of you who are good sports have just discovered is the absolutely astonishing spectacle of Joan Baez releasing what sounds for all the world a completely credible rap song in 1977, two years before the Sugarhill Gang dropped “Rapper’s Delight.” Playing them back to back, it’s astonishing how spot on Baez got the structure. Her flow isn’t as developed as Master Gee or Wonder Mike’s, but she understands the basic concept of “if you deliver spoken word over a disco backbeat it’s catchy as fuck” and she’s unsurprisingly deft at the mechanics of it.
It’s fair to ask how this happened. Doing an a capella rendition on Johnny Carson, Baez describes it as a “talking disco blues,” (“Phwoosh,” says Carson) which is certainly true—she’s drawing on the longstanding folk music structure of the talking blues. The form dates back to the 1920s, with country singer Chris Bouchillon, the “Talking Comedian of the South,” and they continued throughout the pre-pop era of folk music—Woody Guthrie’s “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues” are notable. They stuck around into the 1960s—Baez never actually did one, but plenty of her contemporaries had. Dylan has one with “Talkin’ World War III Blues” on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul, and Mary do “Talkin’ Candy Bar Blues” on A Song Will Rise (one that’s aged, to say the least, poorly given Peter Yarrow’s conviction for sex with a minor, though it’s a Noel Paul Stookey track). The prospect of updating them to forms of music other than extended fingerpicking had been broached—Dylan got his first Top 40 hit with “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which is just talking blues over a rock beat, although Dylan was quick to note that Chuck Berry had already basically done that. If you put the talking blues over disco you will, in fact, create something very much like rap music. That is a very different thing from any “Joan Baez invented rap” claim.
That is not to say, however, that it was simply a coincidence. The biggest barrier to any “Joan Baez invented rap music” claim is simply that it had already been done. By 1977 it had been four years since the Bronx party at which DJ Kool Herc is generally agreed to have invented hip hop as a genre. There were still things to settle on the path from a thing that happens at parties to a genre of popular music, but the thing that is rap music existed. More to the point, Joan Baez is clearly aware of that fact. The key tell is in the outro, where Baez delivers a closing “well okay fellas, this is a rap.”—a spelling that’s confirmed by the liner notes. Sure, you could try to claim she was just working off the common slang of “rap” for casual speech—the same etymology that would eventually become canonized by the Sugarhill Gang as the term for spoken word over this sort of beat. She notably had changed “you were talking while I hid” to “you were rapping while I hid” when singing “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word” on From Every Stage, and trying to argue that was a reference to the emerging hip hop genre would clearly be a stretch. You could argue that this is some sort of beatnik affectation, but ultimately… come the fuck on. This is a woman who has repeatedly proven to be thoughtful and attentive in her selections of collaborators, and for that matter who enjoyed young lovers from a wide variety of backgrounds. The idea that she was aware of the emerging hop hop scene, whether because she’d gone to a party or because she’d talked to someone who had, is eminently plausible. For all its intensely middle class reputation, the 60s and 70s folk scene was always more plugged into Black culture than people give it credit for—see Joni Mitchell being the first artist to release a song that used sampling in 1975. These were not two scenes that existed in strictly segregated bubbles. The overwhelming likelihood is that the reason Baez put the talking blues over a disco beat and called it a rap in 1977 is that she was referencing the emerging musical practice of rapping that sounded exactly like the idea of “talking disco blues” would, and the reason that’s so likely is because she was an intelligent fucking woman who knew what she was doing. Certainly she recognized it was a good enough idea to drop it as a single and go sing it on Johnny Carson. It isn’t inventing rap music, but it’s certainly an interesting and significant moment in its emergence into the public sphere.
It did not, however, sell. And there’s a very good reason for that. The Sugarhill Gang is rapping about how much fun their song is to dance to. Joan Baez, meanwhile, is rapping about how she was “ripping along towards middle age / when my music career kind of missed a page.” The entire song is an extended comedy bit about a disastrous effort to get her a cover interview with Time to revitalize her career (she had notably gotten one in November 1962 that helped launch her career—it used a painting of her that she posed for while ill—as she describes it, “I felt like death and was portrayed accurately”) that sees her making self-deprecating comments like fantasizing that maybe shea nd the interviewer will “forget all about the assignment due / formalities, photos, and the interview / we’d hop on into his big rent-a-car / go for a lovely drive, not far….maybe France,” then describing how she went on a long spiel about “motherhood, music and Moog synthesizers / political prisoners and Commie sympathizers / hetero, homo and bisexuality / where they all stand in the nineteen-seventies” before calling the reporter an idiot for asking a question about Dylan. She ends with a declaration that “I really should tell you that deep in my heart / I don’t give a damn where I stand on the charts.”
It is, in other words, a spectacularly uncool song. This is consistent with the talking blues, which did of course begin as a standup act, and the choice of an ultra-current disco backing and a style that referenced the absolute cutting edge of music improves the joke. But as a single, it did nothing on the charts. Ultimately, one is put in mind of that skit on the second Eminem CD. “Do you know why Dre’s record was so successful? He’s rappin’ about big-screen TVs, blunts, 40s and bitches. You’re rappin’ about homosexuals and Vicodin.” Baez didn’t actually rap about the Quaaludes, but the point stands. As with her previous album, where she hit on the idea of pop songs about turn of the century historical figures but went with an Italian operatic tenor instead of Russia’s greatest love machine, Baez is at once astonishingly close to and far from the mark. The world was ready for rap music to enter the pop charts, but nobody wanted Joan Baez to be the one to do it.
This takes nothing away from “Time Rag,” however—if anything, it’s a song that’s trying to flop, and so the sheer galaxy brain scale with which it did only enhances it. So let’s call it what it is: absolutely brilliant, a jaw-dropping accomplishment, a testament to just how sharp Baez actually was, and a total bop to boot. Even at her commercial nadir, delivering what what you can literally tell at first glance is a disaster album, Baez has a flexibility that can both deliver “Altar Boy and the Thief” and prematurely invent rap as a popular genre. What the fuck is your favorite 70s artist’s worst album doing that’s so impressive?
Blowin’ Away was, however, the emphatic end of her commercial appeal. She had one more album in the decade and on Portrait, 1979’s Honest Lullaby. Baez, as she put it, “killed myself over that album,” going to Muscle Shoals and working with the same producer and band with which Dylan was doing Slow Train Coming—as reputable a set of session musicians as she’s ever found. And the effort largely shows—the album is stacked with impressive tracks. The title track is at once sweet and moving, a narration of Baez’s life that centers on a chorus about how “often have I wondered / how the years and I survived / I had a mother who sang to me / an honest lullaby” that turns to Baez doing the same for her son in the final verse. It’s solid—a long slow shimmer of a verse that spins up into a nice earworm of a chorus.
Also solid—wildly moreso than you’d have any reason to expect—is a cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” a phrase that sounds like almost as good an idea as Joan Baez trying to invent hip hop. Baez figures out how to tackle the problem that fells other non-Jamaican singers—how to handle a song whose rhythms are structured around those of Jamaican patois—by just letting her vibrato stretch out over any portions of the song that expect a Jamaican accent, and then just leans hard into the underlying melancholy nostalgia of the song. For a song with an infamously terrible studio version, it’s hard to call it a remotely bad cover.
The album’s high point, however, is a cover of Jackson Browne’s “Before the Deluge.” This is the sort of meaty narrative song she’s always known how to sink her teeth into—a case of her pandering unreservedly to her own instincts for, in some ways, the first time in two albums. The song wasn’t even remotely current—it’s from Late to the Sky, the same 1974 album she’d drawn “Fountain of Sorrow” from, and a lifelong favorite of hers—she cited the title track as one of her eight favorite songs in a 2021 interview. But Browne’s long verses and capacity for developing and iterating themes and images work for her. At the end of the day, sheer tonal quality of her voice aside, the thing she’s best at has always been her ability to do a densely thoughtful and nuanced performance. Give her a pleasantly wordy song with some crescendos and there’s no one who can touch her. It’s a trick good enough to build a decade long run of incredible albums on, especially if that decade has as solid a crop of singer-songwriters as it did. And she did.
But as the queen’s best decade came to an end, it simply didn’t matter. As Baez tells it, she found out that CBS had booked her for an Israeli concert in occupied territory and did the same thing she did in the 1960s around segregated venues—canceled and booked elsewhere, in this case for two shows in Tel Aviv. She mentioned this on a call with the President of CBS, Columbia’s corporate owner, and when he defended Israeli policy with a comment about how “he would fight to the death to keep that land from the fucking Arabs who were going to push him into the sea” shot back with “don’t you mean the Hudson?” As she put it, “I didn’t stop to think that I no longer had enough leverage to talk like that to a company president and also keep my job.” But as she freely admits, if it hadn’t been that it would have been something else—she was unfashionable, on drugs, and at a label that didn’t want her. She was sacked from Portrait, and found herself unable to secure another US label.
Just as her imperial phase—and that is, I’d argue, what the imperial phase for a pop star who was forced to play the heel for the first twenty years of her career should look like—was only possible because of the decade before it, its legacy is only secured by what followed. This is not the ending of her story. Joan Baez is not some Grace Slick figure who simply exited the game, and certainly not some Syd Barrett burnout; for one thing, she was never into fun drugs. The period in which popular culture was willing to credit her as a major figure was emphatically over, but at the end of the day the thing about a baby boom is that there’s enough people in it that even someone filed as a 6/10 historically significant also-ran can dine out on that fact into a graceful retirement. In practice, Baez did better than just that, successfully navigating a “legend” status over four further decades of career.
First, however, came an eight year period in which she did not release an album. But though the eighties were a tough decade for her, they were not an especially bad one. She stayed in the public eye enough that Nora Dunn on Saturday Night Live bothered honeing a killer impersonation. The highlight is a skit called “Make Joan Baez Laugh”—it’s a solid take, sweet in its pastiche, and certainly kinder than Al Capp’s old “Joanie Phoanie” character in the 60s. She toured and did activism work. She played the Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope tour and Live Aid, having the taste at the latter to be stunned by U2 (recommended to her by her “fifteen-year-old advisors”—she notes that “his voice is nothing special. It is unsteady and cracks. But it is compelling, as he is compelling”) and covering “Shout”—yes, the Tears for Fears song—backed by funk legends the Neville Brothers, which is sadly a more exciting set of nouns than the actual track. She recorded an album with the Grateful Dead, then abandoned it. It’s fine, in the way that her more disposable sixties work is fine—certainly better than when Dylan did it a few years later, which resulted in what’s widely considered both his and the Grateful Dead’s worst albums, a stinker that even Christgau doesn’t defend. She doesn’t really know how to songwrite over a Grateful Dead song, and so it ends up being a sort of latter-day Gulf Winds. “Marriott, USA” was the one deemed good enough to put out on a box set, and the whole thing’s on YouTube now. She slept with tech billionaires and French stableboys. She got off quaaludes. Broadly speaking, she spent eight years living a blatantly phenomenal life.
Eventually she made a comeback, signing to Gold Castle, a label that largely dealt in old 60s folk acts–Judy Collins and Peter, Paul, and Mary were also on it—and releasing album endearingly called Recently. The high point is the opener, which sees her tackle Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms,” which is not so much a return to form as a case of picking up where she left off eight years earlier with “Before the Deluge.” The song is a gradual crescendo of anti-war sentiment—as perfect a structure for her as exists–and she lands it. The instrumentation is entirely inferior to Mark Knopfer’s guitar, but it’s a perfectly nice set of synth lines, and they do an effective thing of letting the song seemingly wind down only to suddenly punch back a degree stronger than it had been before. And anyway, that’s how you do a comeback—the spotlight is on Baez, whose vocal is every bit as rich as a guitar solo. Remember why you liked her.
For all that it’s business as usual, however, it’s clear that time has passed. Baez’s voice is rich and precise, but it’s clear the higher register is more limited than it was. Behind the scenes she’d begun working with a vocal coach on how best to maintain her voice, viewing it as a slowly diminishing resource. She’s got more than enough tricks in her bag beyond “hit a high note” that the decline isn’t limiting in any meaningful sense–her vibrato is perfectly capable of working on lower notes, and her sense of timing remains as astute as ever. But there’s a clear sense that Baez has accepted that she’s moving towards an elder statesman position now, right down to the cheeky title.
Perhaps ironically—although one recalls Baez’s comment upon winning a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2007 that such an award is “a sign they’re getting ready to get rid of you”—this came with an uptick in her critical respectability. Her seven late career albums were all offered polite appreciation in reviews (as long as they weren’t by Christgau), and four them seven albums picked up Grammy nominations. This hadn’t happened since her Vanguard days, when she’d been nominated in the folk category for Joan Baez in Concert (she lost to Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “If I Had a Hammer,” which is fair enough, they were the better folk act in the 60s, and Joan Baez in Concert is scarcely Baez’s best album of the period), “There But for Fortune” (lost to An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba; difficult to argue against, and I’m far too white to try), Any Day Now (lost to Joni Mitchell’s Clouds; clearly correct), and in Best Female Pop Vocal for “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (lost to Tapestry; a demonstration of why letting albums and singles fight it out in the same category is stupid). With Recently she got a nomination for “Asimbonanga,” an anti-apartheid song originally recorded by the racially integrated band Savuka. This was one of the more commercially minded decisions on the album—Paul Simon had after all just revived his own career with Graceland, and so Baez doing a South African song that was actually explicit about apartheid was an obvious choice—and the track is solid, if weighed down by its ostentatious sense of worthiness. (It lost to Steve Goodman’s Unfinished Business; slightly less galling than Kendrick Lamar losing to Macklemore.)
She followed Recently with a live album, Diamonds and Rust in the Bullring, and, in 1989 with another studio album, Speaking With Dreams, which saw her burnish her eder statesman credentials through the time-honored method of getting high profile guest vocals. Paul Simon comes in for a medley of “Rambler Gambler” and “Whispering Bells,” while Jackson Browne extends Baez’s winning streak with him in a different direction by duetting successfully on a cover of Greg Copeland’s “El Salvador,” a rousing protest song of the sort both are eminently suited for, and that manages to close out Baez’s least essential decade in relative style.
Baez, however, was unsatisfied–she recounts waking up in the middle of the night during production on Speaking of Dreams and wondering, as she put it, “why am I doing this when I know only my family will hear it?” And so she finally, after three decades without one, found herself a manager and decided to pursue cultural relevance. And so In 1992 she found herself back on a major label and working in Nashville with producers Wally Wilson and Kenny Greenberg. The result was Play Me Backwards, an album that is second only to Diamonds and Rust in Baez’s catalog. The reason for this return to quality was twofold. First, Baez figured out how to handle finding songs in her post-relevance era—a problem that often vexed her in the eighties, where she took a scattershot approach that sometimes led to gems like “Brothers in Arms,” but more often to “well that was interesting” level deep cuts like “Shout. (She also attempted Tracy Chapman, Billy Joel, and George Michael, to give a sense of how scattered her shots were.) Now, however, she began commissioning songwriters for bespoke compositions. This included both picks from venerable songwriters–Janis Ian was tapped, along with up and comer Buddy Mondlock, to pen the pleasantly haunting “Amsterdam”–and contemporary artists, most notably Mary Chapin Carpenter, who Baez had met the year before while playing shows with her and the Indigo Girls under the name Four Voices–one of the earlier fruits of her new management–and who offered a song called “Stones in the Road.”
Carpenter would, of course, eventually make the song the title track of her 1994 album, which has become the more iconic version, but it’s immediately clear why the song was a good fit for Baez. Much of her 1980s songwriting had tried to grapple with her own sense of alienation at the decade–most explicitly (and awkwardly) in “Children of the Eighties,” a track from the abandoned Grateful Dead album that was a fixture of her live shows at the time, and which offered such moving couplets as “take uppers, downers, blues and reds and yellows / our brains are turning to Jello.” (Baez attempted to convince Bono to do a version. “He’s so sweet,” she recalls. “He said ‘well, first of all, it has to be a really good song,’” readily admitting that “it wasn’t on that level.”) Here, however, she had a song that tackled the same sense of decline from the idealism of the 1960s to the comprehensive dominance of Reaganism, but that couched it in the sort of storytelling that Baez previously turned to writers like Jackson Browne for, with long lines that rise and fall musically, and a structure that unfolds over multiple verses with an evolving refrain–in other words, the sort of stuff Baez has always crushed, just like she crushes this.
But there’s an interesting perspective shift that happens with “Stones in the Road.” The key moment is in the second verse, which sees Baez describing how “when I was ten, my father held me on his shoulders above the crowd / to see a train draped in mourning pass slowly through our town.” This is a reference to RFK’s funeral procession in 1968, which went from New York to Washington, and would have passed through the then ten-year-old Mary Chapin Carpenter’s hometown of Princeton, New Jersey. But what’s remarkable is Baez taking on a song that so aggressively historicizes the 1960s. It’s the first time Baez has sung a song that relies on the notion of her being old (barring a fleeting line on the title track of Speaking of Dreams in which she notes that her lover wasn’t born yet when her career started—and I’m not especially inclined to treat Baez bragging about the hot young studs she’s banging a marker of embracing age).
In fact Baez is too old for the song—she was twenty-seven with two Grammy nominations when RFK was shot. (She got a sixth for Play Me Backwards, losing to The Chieftains Another Country; as inevitable as it is wrong) But at the end of the day, even if it was written by a woman in her early thirties, “Stones in the Road” is a song about getting old, and sounding slightly older than the song (and by fifty Baez had unquestionably begun to sound like an older woman, albeit one with a phenomenal voice) is not really a problem for it. If anything it gives even more weight to the turn in the final verse (a callback to the recollection in the first verse of how “reminded of the starving children, we cleaned our plates with guilty minds”) which, after a bridge that concludes with the declaration “here’s the line that’s missing” and a sharp decrescendo, begins “the starving children have been replaced with souls out on the street / we give a dollar when we pass and hope our eyes don’t meet.” It’s an extraordinarily good choice of songs for Baez, given the sort of sharp Nashville production she used to be able to count on.
The sharp Nashville production was also at least partially responsible for the other reason Play Me Backwards is such a career high of an album. Baez loved her collaboration with Greenberg and Wilson, and it extended to her songwriting—they have cowriting credits on all of her originals here, and her often patchy writing is far stronger for it. The surrealist glories of “The Dream Song” need at least some mention here, but so do plenty of songs on the album—the surprisingly rocking closer “Edge of Glory” and the heartbreaking John Stewart cover “Strange Rivers” are both legitimately among the best songs of her career, and if it were still the 1970s the section on this album would be as long as Blowin’ Away or From Every Stage. But if we’re picking one to unpack, there’s only the title track.
Much of its power is in its musical delivery. It opens with a sparse baseline, some disorganized plucks of guitar interspersed over it, before Baez enters. Her vocal is tight and staccato, her vibrato kept caged and constrained to brief cries. “You don’t have to play me backwards to get the meaning of my verse / you don’t have to die and go to hell to feel the devil’s curse,” she sings, and with a howl of steel guitar the song takes off. It’s a galloping, whirling thing—hypnotic and percussive, with alarmingly vivid lyrics. “Let the night begin, there’s a pop of skin and a sudden rush of scarlet / there’s a little boy riding on a goat’s head and a little girl playing the harlot.” Which also gets to the one significant problem with the song, which is that it’s a full-throated endorsement of the satanic panic.
Let’s be immediately clear: this is without question the worst political mistake of Joan Baez’s career—indeed pretty much the only time she fully and properly fucks up in one of her political positions. It’s an entirely understandable one—or at least one that, definitionally, preyed upon plenty of well-intentioned people who were given very bad information. But it’s unquestionably a bad one. But there’s a much larger dimension here that needs to be talked about.
Baez’s songwriting has always been confessional, and this is a fact worth remembering when she sings an opening verse like “Well, I thought my life was a photograph on the family Christmas card / kids all dressed in buttons and bows and lined up in the yard / were the golden days of childhood so lyrical and warm / or did the picture start to fade on the day that I was born.” Baez said nothing about this at the time beyond drawing explicit attention to the political cause, but some decades later, after waiting for both of her parents and sisters to pass, Baez disclosed that, around the beginning of the nineties, her sister Mimi came to her with a childhood memory she’d recovered during hypnotherapy, and asked Baez if she’d be willing to seek similar therapy. Baez agreed, and soon joined her sister in accusing their father of childhood sexual abuse.
Discussing this in the 2023 documentary I Am a Noise, when she first made the accusation public, Baez admits the possibility of error, acknowledging that she has no firm memories, “just impressions,” and that she’ll never know for certain. The documentary also makes explicit the fact that her father denied it, playing an anguished voice mail from him and showing a letter in which he warned her of the growing consensus within the field of psychology that recovered memory therapy was in fact a disaster that led people to invent false memories. More to the point, Baez talks about her forgiveness, both of her father and her mother, who joined him in denying their daughters’ accusations, as did their sister Pauline. But it’s also very clear that Baez does believe them. From an outside perspective—even one largely inclined to take seriously when people claim that they’re plural (a conclusion Baez also reached at the same time), this poses a real challenge, because it looks for all the world like an absolutely textbook case of false memory syndrome, with Baez being driven through hypnotherapy and her sister’s pre-existing conclusions. At the end of the day, Baez is not a bad actor here; she’s certainly the victim of someone’s abuse, even if it was most likely her hypnotherapist. But much of the harm of recovered memory therapy was precisely that a false memory, subjectively, has just as much weight as a real one. And given that Baez’s belief in her abuse is as genuine, I don’t really see what more you could ask of her than the level of discretion and kindness she extended towards the people she believed were culpable in her abuse.
In which case, to my mind, “Play Me Backwards” becomes an absolutely wrenching howl of pain—a woman grappling powerfully with abuse and trauma. Parallels to Sinéad O’Connor are inevitable, and I think ultimately quite flattering to both artists. It’s also significant that the satanic panic and the beginnings of a serious and public reckoning with the realities of the Catholic Church’s history of sexual abuse happened simultaneously. The fact that satanism is an ostentatious villain version of a religion that was actually engaged in a massive and systematic coverup of sexual abuse is surely non-arbitrary. And though Baez undoubtedly erred, it’s not as though she was actively campaigning against satanists, nor publicly promoting recovered memory therapy. The bulk of her public activism on this matter was general advocacy for children’s welfare and attention to the prevalence of abuse—as worthy a cause as any other she embraced in her career.
More to the point, however, even if the abuse she suffered was therapeutic and not sexual, it provided powerful creative fuel. Much like Diamonds and Rust is clearly fueled by Dylan plowing back into her life, Play Me Backwards is an album that draws tremendous power from Baez suddenly coming to believe that she had been abused. I mentioned “Edge of Glory,” a song about psychically confronting and forgiving her father. There’s also “Isaac and Abraham,” a sparse retelling of the biblical story that would be utterly baffling within Baez’s ouvre were it not for the themes of paternity and abuse within it. Some of the covers lurk in this territory as well, particularly “Strange Rivers,” with its imagery of hidden forces and fates that control our actions. It’s not a feature of every song any more than Dylan is in every song on Diamonds and Rust, but it’s the clear occasion underlying a renaissance—a staggering late career achievement that, in a juster world, would have earned Baez the same sort of 90s revival afforded to Emmylou Harris off of Wrecking Ball.
It didn’t, alas, but it at least provided enough of a creative foundation to sustain her for the rest of her career. Her songwriting essentially ends with it—she’s said that the inspiration to do so simply dried up, and has only two further songs, one a disposable track on her next album, the other a satirical song about Trump she put on YouTube. But her approach to finding covers would sustain her; for the rest of her career she’d maintain a consistent habit of keeping an eye on talented young songwriters in the vein of Mary Chapin Carpenter, often touring with them as well as covering them.
The first move in this direction was Ring Them Bells, a 1995 album documenting a concert at The Bottom Line in New York in which Baez was joined by some dozen additional musicians, from veterans like Mimi Fariña and Janis Ian to contemporary stars like Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Indigo Girls to a young up and comer named Dar Williams, more about whom shortly. On a macro level this is interesting because it marks a clear completion of her long gestating face turn, the ostentatious display of friends and family a show of force to render her “established elder” credentials indisputable.
On a micro level, meanwhile, there’s just a lot of interesting tracks here. There’s the title track, which marks the last time Baez releases a big new Dylan cover (she’d in fact done a studio version that had come out on the same 1993 box set as the Grateful Dead stuff, but this is clearly a much bigger spotlight), and “Welcome Me,” which is the only time she actually covers the Indigo Girls. But I figure let’s split the difference and do the Indigo Girls joining Baez for “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
What is most remarkable about this track is simply how much fun it sounds. All three of them are fantastic guitar players, and enjoy putting their own fills on the iconic riff. Emily Saliers and Amy Ray both clearly have a blast with their respective vocals—Saliers, largely the softer and poppier Indigo Girl, enjoys seeing how far she can pull her verse towards the sort of earnest longing she specializes in, while Ray delivers hers with a calm and utterly deserved confidence that “butch lesbian sings Dylan” is going to work great. That Baez’s two verses are good is, of course, self-evident. Thirty years of familiarity with the character she dons for this song make for a performance that not only sounds effortless, it probably basically is. But just because it’s effortless doesn’t mean it’s not joyful. It sounds like the musical equivalent of pulling on a long favorite t-shirt, comfortable and luxurious in its simplicity, Baez clearly delighted to have reached the point in her reign as Queen of Folk that she can be the distinguished legend among such delightful company.
Her next album, Gone From Danger, continues in this vein. Once again working with Greenberg and Wilson, she tackled a wealth of material from contemporary songwriters in the folk scene, most notably Dar Williams and Richard Shindell, who between them wrote half the album and toured with Baez for it. Williams—who’d already opened for Baez in Europe following Ring Them Bells—was by this time a reasonably well-established figure on the folk scene who was big enough to make the second stage at Lilith Fair, having largely broken through off the back of her 1996 album Mortal City and her tour with Baez. She contributes two songs—“If I Wrote You,” off her just-out End of the Summer album, and “February,” off of Mortal City. Both are excellent—“If I Wrote You” sees Baez tackling many of the same underlying emotions of “Diamonds and Rust,” centered this time on letters instead of phone calls—but “February” is on the whole the more interesting case study.
The challenge that Williams poses for Baez is simple: she’s not simply a quarter-century younger than Baez, she’s also a songwriter whose point of view is typically marked by a measure of youth. No small part of her breakout was down to the fact that she was adept at writing songs that might be described as serious novelty pieces—the daft but charming “The Christians and the Pagans,” a goofy but sincere song about an interfaith family meal between that manages the impressive feat of pulling off the lyric “now when Christians sit with Pagans only pumpkin pies are burning,” remains her fifth most popular song on streaming. These sorts of songs are a useful sonic wedge—the fact that they’re funny means they only need one listen to become memorable, but they have enough depth to not have gotten annoying by the time her more serious compositions on the album have taken root. But Williams has a largely coherent persona—there’s a certain sense of whimsy that comes through even in her serious songs, with lyrics like “if you’re gonna get your heart broke you better do it just right / it’s gotta be raining, and you gotta move your stuff that night / and the only friend you can reach isn’t a good friend at all / and you know when he says ‘now who dumped who’ that you never should have made that call” that, while clearly full of emotional insight, also have a certain youthfulness to them—a sense of their narrator as someone who is invested in her sense of innocence.
“February” sits on the more serious end of Williams’s songwriting—a song about winter and dying romance—but it still has a certain doe-eyed quality to it. Williams threads imagery of forgetting throughout the song—the second verse tells of how “first we forgot where we’d planted the bulbs last year / then we forgot that we’d planted at all / then we forgot what plants are altogether,” and circles back around to the image for a dialogue between the singer and her now ex on a walk in which they see a crocus and she is unable to even remember what a flower is. It’s poetic but at once overdone and oblique, barely gotten away with in a song that makes its bones with lines of quiet sorrow like “and when we got home we just started chopping wood / cause you never know what next year will bring.” This poses a complexity for Baez, not least because people are already prone to taking the whole crocus section as meaning the song is about healing a traumatic brain injury or something when it doesn’t sound like it’s being sung by an older woman.
Baez starts by simply breaking the back of the song’s rhythm. Williams’s original places its verses over a gentle fingerpicked rhythm—the sort of thing Baez has sung over for decades. Her vocal is flowing—you can absolutely see Baez’s influence in her use of rhythm—but restrained; her voice remains small-sounding, as befits both it and the song. Baez ditches the guitar entirely, placing the song over a piano, which makes heavy use of pauses to loosen not just the pace but the sense of structure. This in turn gives her absolute acres of space to play with the phrasing, and she stretches the song out, turning it into a languid cabaret piece, like a mid-seventies Joni Mitchell. It’s decadent and beautiful, leaning into the song’s sense of exhaustion in a way that erases all trace of youth from it.
But still, if you know the original you spend the whole time wondering how the crocus verse is about to go. She enters it off the bridge with a decrescendo, the piano becoming sparse as she sings of how “February was so long that it lasted into March / and found us walking a path alone together.” And then as the first line of dialogue begins, the man pointing and saying “that’s a crocus,” the dialogue is echoed in the background, softly, more spoken than sung, by Dar Williams. It’s a perfect and obvious trick, and it instantly turns the song on its head. Its sense of age now feels like an extension of Williams’s song—her youthfulness remembered by an older self, her voice come to life when the song shifts to dialogue. It’s an approach only Baez could ever take with it—a cover as unique as the songwriting itself.
Shindell contributes three songs, one—“Reunion Hill”—written specifically for Baez, although Shindell made it the title track of his third album, which came out just before Baez’s. It’s no surprise that Baez should go so deep on Shindell (the last time a Joan Baez album had three songs from a single songwriter it was Dylan), nor that she should commission a piece from him—it’s difficult to imagine a better songwriter for her. Shindell’s songwriting is dominated by character pieces—songs whose narrators are explicitly not the singer—and usually have narrative and character arcs of the sort Baez has always thrived with. “Reunion Hill,” for instance, sees him writing a song from the perspective of a Civil War widow, a compelling sister to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” But the more compelling track is Baez’s cover of “Fishing,” a song off his second album Blue Divide.
More than most, “Fishing” is a song about the nature of its narrator. The bulk of it is sung from the perspective of an immigration officer as he bullies a man, threatening him with deportation if his questions aren’t answered, trailing off occasionally for reminiscences about fishing that reveal the sheer banality of his evil. It is in many ways a horror piece of a song, and Shindell’s original sounds almost afraid of itself, his vocal delivered with a studious evenness, trying to disappear into a pure documentarian of its narrative.
Baez, a Hispanic activist of decades, has no time for this shit. She tears into the song at a gallop, drums high in the mix, so that it has an edge and swagger from the start. The opening lines are scene-setting, designed to set up questions. “Please have a seat / sorry I’m late / I know how long you’ve had to wait,” the bureaucratic blankness of it a strange contrast with the fact that it’s a rock song. Baez sings neutrally—she has an instant sense of presence and force, but gives nothing away. And then the mask drops. “Here’s how it works,” she barks, “I’ve got these faces / you give then names / I won’t deport you,” and suddenly there are oceans of snarling cruelty in the spaces where vibrato should be. “Make sure you face my tape recorder.”
As with “February,” there is not another singer who could do this—someone not just as proficient with character work as Baez but capable of bringing the perspective of a middle-aged Hispanic woman to a song about immigration and its cruelties. In her hands the officer’s reaction to the detail that the man is a fisherman of saying, “I bet you Indians, you can really reel ‘em in / if you get the chance you should try to get up to Lake Michigan” comes off not just as the banality of evil but as a cruelly predatory camaraderie, its false bonhomie like the glint of sharp teeth, and when he reflects on his father’s advice that “God rewards us for letting the small ones go” the realization that he actually believes himself to be kind is nothing short of the crowning horror of his monstrosity.
And then comes the final turn, a verse delivered by the immigrant who reflects on “how full the nets came in / we hauled them up by hand,” and Baez’s voice opens up at last, every vowel trembling with vibrato as she describes how the fish are still out there “past the coral reefs / they’re waiting there for me / running deep,” the strangely supernatural tinge of this ambiguous and haunting image feeling at once liberatory and terrifying. It’s immaculate, a master at work on one of the finest songwriters of the time.
She continued in much the same vein of identifying and uplifting talent—in early 2002 she toured with Carter and Tracy Grammer, more or less melting Carter’s brain by excitedly telling her “I played that song of yours, ‘The Mountain,’ for the Dalai Lama; he liked it!” Carter also wrote a song, “Til We Have Faces,” for Baez to duet with Grammer on, a studio version of which was recorded but never officially released. (It’s exquisite, with Carter joining Peter Shickele as the only two people with sense enough to ask Joan Baez to play the role of “ancient god singing a love song.)
In 2003 she changed directions, doing a rock-edged album called Dark Chords on a Big Guitar. This is easily the least essential of her post-Play Me Backwards albums—the production, by her manager Mark Spector, is flat and samey. But its highlights still sparkle—“Caleb Meyer,” a bone-clattering murder ballad by Gillian Welch—is phenomenal, and it’s hard not to enjoy Baez covering Natalie Merchant over a groan of fuzzed guitar on “Motherland.” Ultimately the fact that Baez was willing once again to toss a formula in favor of pushing in a new direction is hard not to respect.
2008 brought Day After Tomorrow, which sees her working with Steve Earle, a legend in his own right. Earle opts for a stripped down acoustic production—the standard post-American Recordings approach to aged acoustic stars wanting to project seriousness—and gets a Grammy nomination for his trouble (it loses to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand; eminently fair). Baez is not Cash, however—for one thing, if she covered “Hurt” you can bet Trent Reznor would actually say he liked it instead of finding an endless progression of very diplomatic ways to avoid that—and her sense of sparse seriousness is very different.
The indicative track is “God is God,” which Earle wrote specifically for her. Earle puts her in a plainspoken register—the lyrics are direct and without metaphors, full of phrases like “some folks” and “he don’t care.” But this is played against the grandeur of the subject matter—the song’s first line is “I believe in prophecy,” and for all its frank casualness it doesn’t really let up on the god talk. The overt Christian perspective isn’t unprecedented in Baez’s work—and there’s enough sops to pantheism that the song can be called “in a Christian milieu” as opposed to Christian—but it heightens what we might call the white working class vibes of the song. You suspect that literally everybody that likes this song also likes John Fetterman.
But it works for Baez. It is, ironically, the exact thing Christgau whined about thirty-six years earlier. Much of why it works, however, is that Baez’s voice is no longer the crisp soprano of youth. There’s a weathered edge in it that suits this simple homily, filling a line like “yeah I believe in god / and god ain’t me” with a sense of earned wisdom. It’s yet another new thing she can do—a new direction for a woman who seems set on showing the world she’s not an old dog yet.
A decade would pass before she went back to the studio. She continued to tour and involve herself in activism. In 2016 she held her seventy-fifth birthday concert, joined by a host of luminaries from Emmylou Harris to Paul Simon. In 2017 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Interviewed after the ceremony, she declared that the most rock and roll thing about her was that “I’m a badass. I really am. When you see me hanging with Snoop Doggy Dogg, I am perfectly at home and comfortable.” The photo suggests she wasn’t lying.) In 2018, however, she decided that her voice was reaching the end of its ability to do what she wanted, and that it was time for a farewell tour, with an album, Whistle Down the Wind, to accompany it.
This time she tapped Joe Simon, an alt-country artist and, incidentally, Madonna’s brother-in-law. (Madonna texted when she heard he’d gotten the gig, proclaiming Baez a “warrior hero.”) This resulted not just in a final Grammy nomination (she lost to the Punch Brothers’ All Ashore; fuck off) but in some of her boldest songwriting picks since the 1980s. She’s got two Tom Waits covers and an Anohni and the Johnsons track alongside more expected fare like a Mary Chapin Carpenter song. There’s plenty of defiant aging—“Last Leaf,” one of the Waits songs, sees her declaring “I’m the last leaf on the tree / autumn took the rest but it won’t take me”—and she ends with a plaintive anti-war ballad because of course she does
The most interesting song, however, is “Silver Blade,” contributed by Josh Ritter, a singer-songwriter Baez had toured with back in 2002 (Baez covered one of his songs on Dark Chords on a Big Guitar—as she did one of Joe Henry’s and one of Steve Earle’s, in fact). This is another song Baez had written for her, and specifically with her final album in mind. (She played with the ritual of a final album in general, making a point of using her old guitar from the 1960s when recording it.) The title, of course, echoes back to “Silver Dagger.” But where that song featured a young maiden whose mother guarded her with a silver dagger, this time Baez takes the other role, offering, in effect, an origin story for the mother. “I have myself a silver blade,” she sings, and as she reaches the word “blade,” just as she did upon “dagger” fifty-eight years earlier, her becomes harsher. There, however, her voice cut through the song, sharp and strong. Here it dissolves into a rasp, the end of the syllable fraying and disintegrating. She no longer sounds simply weathered but frail, her voice cracking throughout the song.
In truth this is just another bit of character work. Listen anywhere else on the album and her voice is clear and full—deeper and with far less vibrato than old, but nowhere near the brittle croak she’s using here. But for this song, when she has to fully emphasize her status as an elderly woman in contrast to her youthful self, she creates yet another new style and approach to do it. For all that the song sounds raw, further inspection reveals that the same meticulous uses of rhythm and phrasing are in play—look at how she turns “he took my clothes and worked his will” into an awful crescendo, or the way that, after stealing her rapist’s dagger and murdering him with it, she describes how she “cut the ground into a grave / in a place that even god don’t know” she clears just enough space in the line to contemptuously spit out “god.” (In both cases it’s instructive to listen to Ritter’s version, which drains the lines of any impact.)
It’s a fitting way to end, because it puts the emphasis on the reason why Baez was able to have this extraordinary, long career. That glistening soprano—the raw quality of voice that Baez freely admits is simply a gift that she can take no credit for—might be the most instantly noticeable thing about her early work, but she’s never needed it, and it’s not what made her so good. Her real strength is simply that she is an astonishingly careful, intelligent, and thoughtful interpreter of songs. She is not simply talented, possessing raw skill, but an artisan with a well honed craft. It’s why “Silver Dagger” was good, and it’s why “Silver Blade” is good. That this craft is not the one that critics tend to appreciate is immaterial. The fact remains that she’s an all-timer.
Perhaps her story still isn’t over. In interviews for her 2023 documentary Joan Baez: I Am a Noise she’s talked about how much she’s enjoying her new lower register—perhaps we’ll still get some gravelly American Recordings-style album that isn’t just a sly affectation. But it’s scarcely required. Joan Baez has a six decade career with no outright bad albums. Across them she is constantly evolving, moving, and pushing in new directions, endlessly refining and developing her craft. At every moment of it she possesses a singular vision—she never once anything but one of a kind. Hers is an absolutely extraordinary life and career: sixty years of wall to wall queen shit.