To a Musician and an Activist: Happy Birthday, Joanie

Published on February 27, 2011   ·   No Comments

In 1957, a sixteen-year-old Joan Baez refused to leave her classroom during an air raid drill in Palo Alto, protesting what she believed to be “government propaganda.”[i] In 1959, as an unbilled performer, she walked onstage at the first Newport Folk Festival and began a lifetime of performance, with more than a little civil disobedience mixed in.

Today marks the seventieth birthday of Joan Chandos Baez, a folksinger known as much for her music as for her tireless activism. As a child of the 80s, I was inundated by REO Speedwagon and Styx; as a child of two hippies, I was raised by Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.

My outlook on the world was heavily influenced by the contrasting nature of the times in which I lived and the times in which I was raised. When we reached middle school, other girls were listening to Mariah Carey; not to knock a woman with a killer voice, but I found something deeper in the vibrato of Joan Baez.

Some of Baez’s best-loved hits come from her years with Vanguard and A&M records, from 1960-1976. Joan Baez Volume II, as well as Joan Baez in Concert, Parts I&II, went gold. Any Day Now (1968) consisted of eighteen Dylan covers, and Baez’s cover of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from Blessed Are… was a top ten song. But Baez’s songs are more than simple commercial hits. They reflected her commitment to activism and inspired many a musician to come.

One such musician was Bob Dylan. Dylan came to New York in early 1961 to perform with his idol, Woody Guthrie, and began playing in clubs and bars around the city. In 1963, “Joanie,” as Dylan affectionately referred to her, brought Dylan along with her to the Newport Folk Festival as her guest.[ii] Baez helped bring many of Dylan’s songs to prominence, and the two began a romance that would be documented in the 1967 film Don’t Look Back.

Even though the romance disintegrated after just a few years, Baez and Dylan would continue to perform together and speak highly of each other. They toured together in the mid-seventies, as well as in 1984. In 2009, at the world premiere of the PBS documentary Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound, Baez finally got an apology from Dylan for the way he treated her as “excess baggage” on his 1965 tour. “I was sorry to see our relationship end,” Dylan said, noting he pushed Baez away to keep her from getting “swept up in the madness my career had become.”[

In the film, Baez “acknowledges she might have pushed him away, by trying too hard to have him join her in the many social causes she pursued.” Regardless of the reason behind their split, Baez clearly kickstarted Dylan’s career with her extension of an invitation to Newport, and her influence on his music (and his on hers) remains evident to this day.

Dylan was not the only lover who influenced Baez. David’s Album, Baez’s 1969 foray into country music, was written for her husband, David Harris, an activist whom Baez married after only three months of dating in March of 1968 in New York City. When Harris refused induction to the armed services under the draft, he was arrested in July of 1969. Baez and Harris have a son, Gabriel, who was born in late 1969, and the two divorced amicably in 1973. Baez wrote in her autobiography, “I am made to live alone.”[iv]

Baez herself has a history of civil disobedience, beginning with her classroom sit-in in 1957 and heavily influenced by her trip to North Vietnam in 1972, where she survived the Christmas Bombings campaigns. Twenty-one years later, she would travel to war-torn Sarajevo to play at the behest of Refugees International, and on July 17, 2006, she was awarded a Distinguished Leadership Award from the Legal Community Against Violence for her travels to Chili, Brazil, Argentina and Cambodia during times of trouble.

Baez has also been known for her work in gay and lesbian rights, environmental issues, and poverty prevention, and has garnered much attention for her opposition to the Iraq War and her endorsement of Barack Obama for president, her first presidential endorsement.

In 2009, Baez performed at the 50th Newport Folk Festival, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the unbilled performance that launched her career. Through the years, Baez has covered The Allman Brothers, The Beatles, Jackson Browne, The Rolling Stones, and, more recently, Ryan Adams and Steve Earle.

After Dylan’s public apology in 2009, Baez covered his classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” accepting his statement with the line, “You could have done better, but I don’t mind.” Baez continues to influence (and be influenced by) some of the greatest American songwriters and musicians. Her talent, drive and compassion are an inspiration worldwide, and so today, on her 70th birthday, I say thank you, Joanie. May you have many more.

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