January 9, 1941 – Joan Chandos Baez:
“I went to jail for 11 days for disturbing the peace; I was trying to disturb the war.“
Joan Baez is a songwriter/singer, a soprano with a rich three-octave range, plus she is a longtime activist. She is known for her contemporary Folk music that includes many songs of protest. Baez has been performing for over 60 years, with over 60 albums. Fluent in Spanish and English, she has also recorded songs in at least six other languages. Baez is noted for her highly individual vocal style with a distinctively rapid vibrato.
Baez music has diversified since the counterculture 1960s and encompasses the genres of Rock, Pop, Country and Gospel music. She began her recording career in 1960 and was an immediate success. Her first three albums, Joan Baez (1960), Joan Baez, Vol. 2 (1961) and Joan Baez In Concert (1962) were all huge hits.
Although a gifted songwriter, Baez interprets other songwriters’ work, recording hit songs by the Allman Brothers Band, The Beatles, Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen, Woody Guthrie, Rolling Stones, Pete Seeger, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, and many others. She was one of the first major artists to record the songs of Bob Dylan in the early 1960s; Baez was already an internationally celebrated artist and did much to popularize his early songs. On her later albums she has found success interpreting the work of more current songwriters, including Ryan Adams, Steve Earle, Natalie Merchant and Joe Henry.
The rise of gay women in Folk music is always interesting to me; all those Womyns’ music festivals and the many female performers in folk who are openly lesbian, bisexual or actively pro-gay took over the Folk scene at a seemingly higher rate than in other styles of music. In the 1980s and 1990s, music festivals, concert halls and clubs featured artists who are lesbian or widely recognized as gay-friendly: Melissa Etheridge, Ani DiFranco, k.d. lang, Indigo Girls, Nanci Griffith, Holly Near, Janis Ian, Jill Sobule, Patty Larkin, I was digging them all. I felt that I might as well be a lesbian (minus the cunnilingus). For sure, the proportion of gay women in folk is much greater than in other musical genres.
Lesbians have had such success in acoustic music that more than one female performer has been charged with posing as a lesbian, and many men felt left out. Some in the Folk music world acknowledged the right of gay women to play any music they like, but still expressed concern that Folk, the most inclusive genre, might be becoming too insular, if not restrictive. Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls:
”I think of the number of gay folk musicians I know, and it’s amazing, and I think of people like Dar Williams and Ani DiFranco, they’re not gay, but they have a big gay following. What is it about folk music that appeals to gay women? I’d like to know.”
There was a time when lesbians were no more welcomed in Folk than we were anywhere else. Other musicians didn’t want them there, and the audience didn’t make them feel welcome. The intertwining of Folk music and lesbian culture was a slow, complex process. As early as the 1950s and 1960s, some of the most popular Folk performers were gay or bisexual women. But emerging in less inclusive times, these singers only suggested alternatives to straight norms without being explicitly out.
In the 1950s, Ronnie Gilbert, of The Weavers, helped take Folk music onto the pop charts with hits like Goodnight, Irene; although she embodied a strictly deglamorized feminine ideal, Gilbert did not come out as a lesbian until her later years. Her 1960s successor, Baez, the queen of the baby boomers’ Folk revival, gave off an imperious sexual neutrality that was a key part of her attraction to men and women; yet, she kept her bisexuality private until 1973.
There was a huge international craze in the 1960s for Folk music, but that music lost much of its mainstream audience by the 1970s, however, it picked up new fans inside the lesbian community. With the feminist and Gay Rights movements in the 1970s and 1980s, lesbian culture evolved and developed new social structures. Music festivals for women attracted lesbians and spawned a new genre, ”Women’s Music”. The men, straight and gay, were often banned; one annual event in Michigan even restricts trans women. Record labels specializing in Women’s Music, like Olivia Records, were releasing albums by dozens of artists, helping to make a few of them, like Holly Near, celebrities within their bubble. Women’s Music became the strongest, most powerful organizing force for lesbians in the USA, except for maybe softball.
Baez was born in New York City. Her father, Albert Baez, was born in Puebla, Mexico. He was a physicist, the co-inventor of the x-ray microscope and writer of one of the most widely used physics textbooks. He refused to work on the “Manhattan Project” to build an atomic bomb at Los Alamos This decision had a profound effect on young Joan Baez. Her father also refused lucrative defense industry jobs during the height of the Cold War. The Baez family later converted to Quakerism. Baez’s mother, Joan Bridge Baez was born in Edinburgh, Scotland.
In 1958, her father accepted a faculty position at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and moved the family to Boston. At the time, Boston was at the center of the up-and-coming Folk music scene, and Baez began busking and performing in clubs.
In Boston, Baez met Bob Gibson and the reigning queen of Folk music Odetta. Gibson invited Baez to perform alongside him at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, where they did two duets to Virgin Mary Had One Son and We Are Crossing Jordan River. The performance generated buzz for the “barefoot Madonna” with the otherworldly voice, and it was this appearance that led to Baez signing with Vanguard Records the following year. The big deal Columbia Records tried to sign her, but Baez claimed that she felt she would be given more artistic license at a more “low key” label.
Her first commercial success was the single There But For Fortune, written by Phil Ochs, which became a Top Ten hit in 1965. She was profoundly influenced by The Beatles and the whole British Invasion and began augmenting her acoustic guitar on Farewell Angelina (1965), which features Dylan songs along with more traditional fare.
In the tumultuous year of 1968, Baez traveled to Nashville, where a marathon recording session resulted in two albums: Any Day Now, a record consisting exclusively of Dylan covers, one, Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word, has never been recorded by Dylan and has become a Baez staple, and the country-ish David’s Album recorded for husband David Harris, a prominent anti-Vietnam War protester and organizer who was imprisoned for draft resistance. Harris was a country music fan and turned Baez toward more complex country rock influences. She published her first memoir in 1968, Daybreak.
In 1969, Baez’ appearance at Woodstock brought her an international musical and political platform, especially after the release of Woodstock, the 1970 documentary film.
In the 1970s, she delivered more hits including Robbie Robertson‘s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, a cover of The Band‘s signature song. She recorded six albums in four years. Where Are You Now, My Son? (1973) featured a 23-minute title song which took up one side of the album. The song documented Baez’ visit to Hanoi, North Vietnam in December 1972, in which she and her traveling companions survived a week-long bombing campaign.
In 1956, Baez first heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak about nonviolence, Civil Rights and social change. The two became friends, with Baez participating in many of the Civil Rights Movement demonstrations that Dr. King helped organize. In 1958, at 17, Baez committed her first act of civil disobedience by refusing to leave her classroom for an air raid drill. She sang about freedom and justice from the back of a flatbed truck in Mississippi and at King’s March on Washington in 1963.
In 1964, she publicly endorsed resisting taxes by withholding sixty percent, the figure commonly determined to fund the military, of her 1963 income taxes. She founded the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in 1965 and encouraged draft resistance at her concerts. Arrested twice in 1967 for blocking the entrance of the Armed Forces Induction Center in Oakland, she spent over a month in jail. She was a frequent participant in anti-war marches and rallies and gave a free 1967 concert at the Washington Monument which had been opposed by the conservative Daughters of the American Revolution and attracted a crowd of 30,000 to hear her anti-war message.
Although she married Harris and famously had affairs with Dylan and Steve Jobs, Baez has admitted to several affairs with women and identifies as bisexual. She is a longtime advocate for LGBTQ Rights. In the 1990s, she appeared with her friend Janis Ian at a benefit for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and performed at the San Francisco Pride March. In 1978, she performed at several benefit concerts to defeat the Briggs Initiative, which proposed banning all gay people from teaching in the public schools of California. She sang at the spontaneous memorial for Harvey Milk after his murder in November 1978. Her song Altar Boy And The Thief from Blowin’ Away (1977) was written as a dedication to her queer fans.