American folk singer Joan Baez (born 1941) was recognized for her non-violent, anti-establishment, and anti-war positions. She used her singing and speaking talents to denounce violations of human rights in a number of countries.
By the age of 22, Joan Baez was already known as the "queen of folk singers." Her rich and varied early experiences contributed significantly to her later "anti-establishment" attitudes. Her father, Albert V. Baez, was a physicist who came to the United States from Mexico at a very early age, and her mother was of West-European descent. Joan inherited her father's dark complexion, and the occasional racial prejudice she suffered as a child probably led to her later involvement in the civil rights movement. Although as an adult she claimed not to share her parents' Quaker faith, it undoubtedly contributed to what some called her keen "social conscience."
One of three sisters, Baez was born on January 9, 1941, in Staten Island, New York. She was exposed to an intellectual atmosphere with classical music during her childhood, but rejected piano lessons in favor of the guitar and rock and roll.
Her father's research and teaching positions took the family to various American and foreign cities. She attended high school in Palo Alto, California, where she excelled in music more than in academic subjects. Shortly after her high school graduation in 1958, her family moved to Boston where Baez's interest in folk music surfaced after visiting a coffeeshop where amateur folk singers performed.
From Boston Coffee Houses to Newport
She briefly attended Boston University where she made friends with several semi-professional folk singers from whom she learned much about the art. In addition to simple folk songs, she began to sing Anglo-American ballads, blues, spirituals, and songs from various countries. As she worked to develop her technique and repertoire, Baez began to perform professionally in Boston coffeehouses and quickly became a favorite of Harvard students. She was also noticed by other folk singers, including Harry Belafonte, who offered her a job with his singing group.
In the summer of 1959 she was invited to sing at the Newport (Rhode Island) Folk Festival. That performance made her a soaring phenomenon—especially to young people—and led to friendships with other important folk singers such as the Seeger family and Odetta. Although that performance brought her offers to make recordings and concert tours, she decided to resume her Boston coffeeshop appearances.
After her second Newport appearance in 1960, Baez made her first album for Vanguard Records, simply labelled Joan Baez, which was an immediate success. She was then such a "hot item" that she could tell CBS what songs she would sing and what props she would use in her appearance. In the following years Baez sang to capacity crowds on American college campuses and concert halls and on several foreign tours. Her eight gold album and one gold single awards attested to her popularity as a singer.
Her soprano voice has been described as "so clear and so luminously sensual that it reminded everyone of their first loves." She had no need to take lessons to enhance her voice, which ranged over three octaves, but she needed practice in order to achieve command of the guitar.
Politics a Source of Controversy
While many critics agreed that her untrained singing voice was unusually haunting, beautiful, and very soothing, they saw her spoken words, lifestyle, and actions as discordant and sometimes anti-American. In the turbulent 1960s, Baez became a center of controversy when she used her singing and speaking talents to urge non-payment of taxes used for war purposes and to urge men to resist the draft during the Vietnam War. She helped block induction centers and was twice arrested for such violations of the law. She had already studied, understood, and adopted non-violent strategies as a way to effect changes where she perceived injustices to exist.
She was married to David Harris, a draft resister, in March 1968. She was pregnant with their son, Gabriel, in April 1969 and three months later saw her husband arrested for refusing induction into the military forces. (He spent the next 20 months in a federal prison in Texas.)
Baez Creates A Stir Among American Left
In the early 1970s, Baez began to speak with less stridence and by the end of the decade had offended dozens of her former peace-activist allies, such as Jane Fonda and attorney William Kunstler, when she publicly denounced the atrocities in Vietnam's Communist "re-education" centers. As she had done in the case of Chile and Argentina (without public outcries from former associates), Baez called for human rights to be extended to those centers in post-war Vietnam. Although her position seemed similar to that of Western intellectuals, it nevertheless created a stir among the American left (some of whom called for her own re-education). When some asked what right any American had to criticize the Communist government for anything it was doing after what the United States had done to the Vietnamese, she responded: "The same right we have to help anyone anywhere who is a prisoner of conscience."
Baez' Career Through the 1980s and '90s
In later years Baez' singing career faltered despite various attempts to revive it. Her 1985 effort featured a more conventional hairstyle and attire. Her supporters believed she would regain her prominence in the entertainment industry because her voice, although deeper, retained the same qualities which earlier made her so successful. Meanwhile, she was quite busy throughout the world as the head of the Humanitas International Human Rights Committee, which concentrated on distracting (in any possible non-violent way) those whom it believed exercised illegitimate power.
Baez has continued to make music and to influence younger performers. In 1987, Baez released Recently, her first studio solo album in eight years. She was nominated for a 1988 Best Contemporary Folk Recording Grammy Award for the song "Asimbonanga" from the album. Also in 1988, Baez recorded Diamonds and Rust in the Bullring in Bilbao, Spain. The album was released the following April. In 1990, Baez toured with the Indigo Girls and the threesome were recorded for a PBS video presentation, Joan Baez In Concert. In 1991, she released a compilation album, Brothers In Arms, featuring two new tracks. In 1993, two more Baez recordings were released: Play Me Backwards, consisting of new material; and Rare, Live & Classic, a retrospective of her career from 1958 to 1989, featuring 22 previously unreleased tracks. Another compilation CD, Live At Newport, containing previously unreleased performances from the 1963, 1964 and 1965 Newport Folk Festivals was released by Vanguard records in 1996. Baez released another solo album, Gone from Danger, in early 1997.
The singer's interest in politics and human rights has continued as well. In 1993, she was invited by Refugees International to travel to Bosnia-Herzegovina in order to help bring attention to the suffering there. In September of that same year, Baez became the first major artist to perform in a professional concert on Alcatraz Island (the former Federal Penitentiary) in San Francisco to benefit her sister Mimi Farina's organization, Bread & Roses. She returned to the island for a second benefit in 1996 along with the Indigo Girls and Dar Williams. She has also supported the gay and lesbian cause, joining Janis Ian in a performance at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Fight the Right fund-raising event in San Francisco in 1995.
Further Reading on Joan Baez
Bits of biographical data about Joan Baez may be found in her book Daybreak (1968) and in Coming Out (1971), which she co-authored with husband, David Harris. The latter chronicles a brief period after Harris's release from prison for draft evasion. The best sources for additional information about her anti-war activities are news and popular periodicals from 1968 to 1977.
Baez's 1987 autobiography, And A Voice To Sing With, isan excellent source of information as well. Other current sources include the January 17, 1997 issue of Goldmine in which she is profiled in an extensive 14-page cover story by Bill Carpenter.