She may not have been as prolific a songwriter as Bob Dylan or as commercial as Joni Mitchell, but without Joan Baez, the 21st-century folk scene would be a very, very different place. Without her, Dylan would never have left the coffee bars of Greenwich Village. Mitchell, Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris, and countless other female artists would either sound very different than they do, or have never broken through at all. A rebellious pioneer with the voice of an angel, her legacy and influence are as daunting as they are impressive. Here, we take a look back at her career with our pick of the 10 best Joan Baez songs of all time.
10. There But For Fortune
Phil Ochs’ career may have ended in tragedy, but his legacy remains undiminished. One of his most stirringly lovely pieces is There But For Fortune, a song that’s been covered by countless artists over the years, but rarely quite so beautifully as by Joan Baez on her 1964 album, Joan Baez/5.
9. In The Quiet Morning
After being with Vanguard for almost a decade, Baez moved to A&M in the early 1970s after deciding to make music with a more commercial bent. Her first album with the label, Come From the Shadows, isn’t her best, but there’s still plenty to enjoy. One of its highlights is In the Quiet Morning, a song written by her sister Mimi Fariña as a tribute to the late Janis Joplin. Compared to her earlier songs, the arrangements and production are full-blown and lush, but nowhere near big enough to dwarf her always incredible vocals.
8. Amazing Grace
There can’t be many singers, folk or otherwise, who haven’t cracked out a few lines of Amazing Grace at some point or another. But neither can there be many who’ve sung it with quite such stirring conviction and effortless grace as Baez. In her hands, it stopped being about God and started being about justice, transforming from a song for the religious into a song for anyone who’s been beaten down, repressed, and reviled but found redemption in the struggle.
7. Oh Freedom
A lot of protest singers from the 1960s talked the talk, but few walked the walk. Baez didn’t just walk, she marched. And while she marched, she sang. When Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for civil rights on Aug. 28, 1963, Baez was there to sing to the crowd. With the lines “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave,” her song choice – the anthemic Oh Freedom – couldn’t have been more fitting.
6. Birmingham Sunday
As GQ Magazine notes, the 1964 album Joan Baez/ 5 was a crucial turning point for Baez. Up till then, she’d relied almost exclusively on traditional folk, but five albums into her career, she was starting to run out of material. Rather than scouring even further back into musical history, she turned to the charts instead, with the result that Joan Baez/ 5 is composed of almost as many contemporary songs as it is folk standards.
The album is packed with gems (her operatic rendition of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras, in which she effectively duets with herself, is magical) but it’s Birmingham Sunday that’s perhaps the most affecting. Written by Baez’s brother-in-law, Richard Fariña, the heartbreaking account of the death of four black children at the hands of KKK bombers at an Alabama Sunday school is softly sung, beautifully understated, but somehow more powerful than a locomotive.
5. Virgin Mary Had One Son
Baez’s big break came at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1959, where her two duets with folk heavyweight Bob Gibson held the crowd enthralled. The first, We Are Crossing Jordan River, is joyously upbeat, but it’s on the sorrowful Virgin Mary Had One Son that Baez really gets to show off her singing chops. The contrast between her seraphic shrill and Gibson’s deeper pitch is utterly bewitching.
4. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
Despite being unfairly cast as a bit player in the Bob Dylan show, it was Baez who discovered him, Baez who dragged him away from the Greenwich Village coffee shops and onto the world stage, and Baez, more than any other singer, who helped popularize his songs during a time when she was the star and he was the protégé. His star would eventually eclipse hers, but her early interpretations of his work helped secure his legend. One of her finest Dylan covers is It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. Taken from Farewell Angelina, an album dedicated solely to Dylan’s material, her ethereal soprano elevates what was already a good song into a whole other dimension. Stunning.
3. Blowin’ in the Wind
Another Dylan cover next, this time the glorious Blowin’ in the Wind. It takes a brave soul to tackle such an anthemic masterpiece. Baez doesn’t just tackle it, she masters it. As liveabout.com says, her extraordinary voices, coupled with the song’s provocative and poetic lyrics, make it particularly stirring.
2. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
She may have started her career as a purist who balked at recording anything with even the whiff of modernity, but by the 1970s, Baez had abandoned her hair shirt, laid aside her disdain for anything commercial, and started having fun with her song choices. One of her greatest covers from the period is The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, a song originally recorded by The Band. Not many artists can get within sniffing distance of besting any of The Band’s originals, but here, Baez does. A big, ballsy triumph of a song, it’s one of the highlights of her wonderful final album with Vanguard, Blessed Are…
1. Diamonds and Rust
Arguably her most well-known song, Baez (or anyone else for that matter) has rarely delivered a song that captures the nostalgia and disappointments of lost love quite so well as Diamonds and Rust. Written about her relationship with “the original vagabond” (or Bob Dylan, as he prefers to be known), it rages with a quiet emotion that’s utterly compelling. Beautifully written and even more beautifully sung, it is, as All Music rightly notes, her finest moment as a songwriter and one of her finest performances, period. Even Dylan, a man you get the feeling doesn’t impress easily, has sung its praises, telling the filmmakers on the 2009 American Masters documentary “Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound,” “I love that song ‘Diamonds & Rust’. I mean, to be included in something that Joan had written, whew, I mean, to this day it still impresses me.”
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