Joan Baez, Queen of Folk Songwriting: Gimme Five

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Now aged 76, Joan Baez is finally getting ready for her Fare Thee Well tour, a last farewell to many of the concert halls she has come to know so well over her long career. Many will know her as a brilliant interpreter: from traditionals like “Barbara Allen” through the songbook of the 1960s to recent classics like “God is God.” Others will recall her unswerving dedication to ideals of freedom and togetherness, from the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War all the way down to her strong opposition to the current U.S. president.

Few will know that Baez was also a gifted songwriter in her own right, composing many powerful and poetic tracks over the course of the decades. Her songs tell a moving story of 50-odd years of living, loving, and standing strong in the fight for justice and compassion.

“SWEET SIR GALAHAD” (ONE DAY AT A TIME, 1970): We have to begin with Joan Baez’s brilliant performance of “Sweet Sir Galahad” at the 1969 Woodstock festival. After a typically humble – not to say, self-deprecating – introduction, she treats the public to the first original composition she ever performed before an audience. It’s a swirling story of love lost and found again, set to a beautifully flowing folk melody, and undercut by the clarity of her signature finger-picking style.

The song is about her sister Mimi, who had lost her romantic and artistic partner Richard Fariña, author of the cult classic Been Down so Long It Looks Like Up to Me, in a motorcycle accident in 1966. “Sweet Sir Galahad” tells how her sadness was gently lifted as a new lover “slipped in through a window in the night” and hymns “the dawn of their days.” Its beauty lies in the sincerity and sweetness of the sentiment, as well as in the musical poetry and artistry. It shows a far greater talent than Baez was, perhaps, herself aware of when she first performed the song.

“OUTSIDE THE NASHVILLE CITY LIMITS” (BLESSED ARE, 1971): The ’70s were the most productive decade for Joan Baez. Beginning with One Day at a Time (1970), she produced a string of albums that yielded many of her best original songs. “Outside the Nashville City Limits” is a case in point. It tells the tale of a day-trip to the countryside with Kris Kristofferson to meet some friends of his at their farm: “strange and gentle country folk who would wish nobody harm.” As the farmer takes her for a walk and tells her about the flowers and streams on his beloved land, Baez is deeply moved by his love for everything around them.

It’s a simple tale, clearly based on a true story. As it turned out, the farmer had previously thought of Joan Baez as little more than a “commie.” His prejudice vanished when he heard and was touched by her song, even sending her a recording of the little stream he loved so well as a token of thanks. The story is beautifully evoked and sung with great tenderness, and the sense of newfound wonder at the glory of nature is fittingly captured in the closing line: “And the skies they did brim over as we talked.”

“DIAMONDS AND RUST” (DIAMONDS AND RUST, 1975): Some of Joan Baez’s best songs chronicle her much-discussed relationship with Bob Dylan. “To Bobby” and “Winds of the Old Days” are two outstanding examples, but “Diamonds and Rust” is her most powerful composition. One of the first things to catch the ear is the fingerpicking pattern in E Minor that opens the song, setting a sombre and mysterious mood, and showcasing Baez’s brilliance as a fingerpicking guitarist. (Typically, she used a thumb pick and finger picks for extra clarity, much like her former colleague and friend of Dylan, Phil Ochs.)

She launches into a melancholy retelling of her relationship with Dylan, full of rich imagery and memorable phrases, like the opening “Well I’ll be damned / Here comes your ghost again,” or the suddenly self-conscious, then sorrowful: “As I remember your eyes / Were bluer than robin’s eggs / My poetry was lousy you said / Where are you calling from?” In the bridge, the song moves to a different minor chord as the lyrics explode into full-blown nostalgia: “Now I see you standing / With brown leaves falling around / And snow in your hair.” The image is beautifully drawn out over the following lines, closing the bridge with: “Speaking strictly from me, we both could have died then and there.”

Yet there is still another turn to come, with the final two verses offering a wry reflection on memory and the passing of time, as well as recalling the song’s title (“If you’re offering me diamonds and rust, I’ve already paid”). If anyone still harbored doubts about Baez’s songwriting abilities during the 1970s, they were surely dispelled by this gripping tale of love lost and recalled with devastating honesty.

“HONEST LULLABY” (HONEST LULLABY, 1979): Turning from romantic to domestic affairs, “Honest Lullaby” was written for Joan Baez’s son Gabriel, whom she mainly raised on her own, having separated from his father in the early ’70s. It opens with a portrayal of her own youth, those “years of crinoline slips and cotton skirts, and swinging hips, and dangerously painted lips.” No whitewashed image of innocence this, but a true picture of the maze of contradictions that make up a childhood. In one verse, Baez sings how she piously prayed in Jesus’ name, while at the same time “lusting after football heroes” and “spending all [her] energy in keeping [her] virginity” (a brilliant half-rhyme).

In the refrain, Baez wonders how she survived this turmoil. What sustained her through the years? The answer is as simple as it is honest: “I had a mother who sang to me an honest lullaby.” The song then merges into a hymn to the love her mother gave, until Baez turns to her own son in the final verse. (Listen to the tenderness in her voice as she does so.) After a poignant depiction of her growing boy, she closes with an achingly honest expression of maternal love: “And while the others play with you, I hope to find a way with you, and sometimes spend a day with you. I’ll catch you as you fly or, if I’m worth a mother’s salt, I’ll wave as you go by.”

When Baez’s farewell tour hits Amsterdam sometime in June 2018, this is the one song I hope she will be playing (though it’s hardly one of her regulars) – not only for myself, but also for the one who’ll be there beside me, mother of our one-year old son, whom I came to know and love at least in part through a shared admiration of Joan Baez, and who shows me every day how powerful and poignantly moving an “honest lullaby” really is.

“CHINA” (SPEAKING OF DREAMS, 1989): We cannot discuss Joan Baez’s career without including at least one composition that showcases her work as a protest singer. “China” is one of her most recent compositions – her later albums mostly consist of covers – and was written in 1989 – just after the terrible tragedy in Tiananmen Square, where the Chinese army brutally repressed a student uprising, murdering hundreds of protesters. While watching the news, Baez produced a lyric full of angered and embittered poetry, describing how the unarmed students fell “like the petals of a rose in some satanic shower” when the Chinese government unleashed its tanks.

Off-setting the stark brutality with flashes of natural imagery – “in the month of May, in the glory of the day,” “there’s peace in the emerald fields, there’s mist upon the lakes” – Baez builds an effective contrast between innocence and blood shed. In the final verse, instead of closing on a note of bitterness, she turns to her “blue-eyed son” (note the Dylan echo), now 10 years older, and holds the “rainbow warriors of Tiananmen Square” up as an example to his generation (and any that will follow): an example to choose freedom over oppression, compassion over condemnation, action over complacence, and emotional sincerity over irony and vagueness.

These are the choices Joan Baez made all through her career. It would seem that her fighting spirit, as conveyed in these powerful and heartfelt songs, is more sorely needed with every year that passes.


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