Joan Baez is an influential American singer, songwriter and social activist. She began her recording career in 1960 and had a meteoric rise to prominence becoming labelled the “Queen of Folk”. She was an iconic figure in the anti-war protests of the 1960s and she performed live at the Woodstock concert of 1969. She has maintained a long and prolific music career, performing for nearly six decades in both English and Spanish. Her main style is folk music but also includes pop, country, gospel music, Latin and Americana.
“If people have to put labels on me, I’d prefer the first label to be human being, the second label to be pacifist, and the third to be folk singer.” – Joan Baez
Joan Baez was born in Staten Island, New York on 9 January 1941. She grew up in Brooklyn though her father’s work took often took the family to California and abroad. Her father Albert was born in Mexico and was a university professor of maths and physics (he turned down opportunities to work on military projects). Her mother was born in Scotland.
When growing up, the family converted to Quakerism; a religion that stresses non-violence, peace and social causes. These Quaker roots were significant for Joan, and she retained an adherence to these values throughout her life.
When she was 13, she heard Pete Seeger play – his music, combined with his social awareness, had a lasting influence on her. In her late teens, Baez began singing at clubs and coffee shops while she was living in Massachusetts. Her first instrument was a ukulele and she later taught herself the guitar. She did not receive any formal training for her voice. In her autobiography, she writes of her natural voice as being a ‘gift.’
“I was born gifted. I can speak of my gifts with little or no modesty, but with tremendous gratitude, precisely because they are gifts, and not things which I created, or actions about which I might be proud.”
― Joan Baez, And A Voice to Sing With: A Memoir
Her voice has been described as ‘lustrous, beautiful, enchanting, natural and otherworldy. Bob Dylan said of Baez in 2017:
“Her voice was like that of a siren from off some Greek island. Just the sound of it could put you into a spell. She was an enchantress. You’d have to get yourself strapped to the mast like Odysseus and plug up your ears so you wouldn’t hear her. She’d make you forget who you were.”
At this time, she received a nickname “Madonna” a reflection of her beauty, innocence and long hair. Her breakthrough came at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival with her beautiful and moving voice gaining substantial praise. She was offered a contract by both Columbia and Vanguard Records; she chose the more low key Vanguard. Her first album was released in 1960 and included traditional folk songs. Her first album sold well and her professional career blossomed. Baez was keen to avoid the route of becoming a commercialised celebrity . She insisted on an austere approach to her set designs (usually all black) and she tried hard to maintain a purity and simplicity to her presentation. When asked how she dealt with fame, she said:
“I went overboard. I didn’t want to be commercial, I didn’t want to ride around in limousines I didn’t want anything to do with Hollywood. I was probably a real bore! .. But I’m glad I chose the direction I did otherwise I might have got lost like many people did in that world of nonsense.” Joan Baez (2008, Youtube video)
Relationship with Bob Dylan
She was the first artist to record songs written by Bob Dylan – who at the time was relatively unknown. She met Dylan in 1961 and at first, was not particularly impressed with his demeanour but loved his songs. She requested to record Dylan’s “Song to Woody.” Her interpretations of Dylan’s songs helped to increase Dylan’s profile and was a significant boost to his career. Dylan’s songs also helped to move Baez’s to more political protest through music. Dylan and Baez had a romantic relationship, but it fizzled out by 1965.
From an early age, Baez became politically aware. She was deeply moved by hearing Martin Luther King speak on civil rights, and she gave her support to King and the movement.
As half-Mexican, she was subject to racism whilst growing up, and from an early age, she wished to promote integration and harmony amongst different people. When she began her music career, she refused to perform to segregated audiences. In 1963, she was invited to perform at the March on Washington. She sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” composed by Pete Seeger and Guy Carawan.
Throughout the 1960s, she developed her repertoire of songs and musical genres. She effortless drifted into Country music, Rock, Dylan songs, and music with a classical background.
As the 1960s, progressed she became more politically active. She participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights and recorded a song ‘Birmingham Sunday” (1964) about the murder of four black girls in a bombing on a Baptist Church in Birmingham. She supported the ideals of non-violent resistance as proposed by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. And in 1965, she founded the Institute for the Study of Non-violence. In California, she stood in the fields with Cesar Chavez to support his protest for Latino farmworkers.
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, she became more vocal in opposing the escalation of military action in Vietnam. She decided to take non-violent direct action opposing the conscription of men to fight. In her book ‘Daylight’, she remembers being questioned about the ineffectiveness of her protests, she replied:
“You are probably right. We probably don’t have enough time. So far we’ve been a glorious flop. The only thing that’s been a worse flop than the organisation of nonviolence has been the organisation of violence.” – Baez, Daylight
She took part in high profile protests, such as a march down Fifth Avenue, New York in March 1966. She also gave free concerts, such as the 1967 concert by the Washington Monument. Baez also took part in protests outside draft centres trying to stop men having to join the military. She was arrested on numerous times and sent to jail on two occasions. In 1967, she was arrested in Oakland, California outside a military induction centre. She recalls
“I went to jail for 11 days for disturbing the peace; I was trying to disturb the war.” Pop Chronicles interview, 1967.
Marriage with David Harris
It was in jail that she met fellow protestor, David Harris. After her release, she joined him in his pacifist commune above Stanford, California. After three months they married – before a pacifist preacher and a church outfitted with peace signs. They made a mixture of both Episcopalian and Quaker vows.
In 1969, with Baez pregnant, Harris was imprisoned for 15 months for publically refusing the draft. With her husband in prison and Baez six months pregnant, she performed at the inaugural Woodstock Festival in 1969. She was one of the few female headline acts. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she didn’t take drugs, and she remembers Woodstock as a place where people were more interested in having fun than any kind of political activism.
A few years after Harris’ release from prison they separated amicably, Baez said her personality was more suited to remaining single.
“The easiest kind of relationship is with ten thousand people, the hardest is with one.”
She had a relationship with Steve Jobs in the early 1980s, but has often lived single.
In 1972, she joined a delegation of peace activists to visit Hanoi, in North Vietnam. The aim was to deliver mail to American prisoners of war and speak on universal human rights. During her weeks there, the US bombed Hanoi heavily, and it proved a very dangerous few weeks, with great loss of damage. They experienced 11 days of bombing and Baez described it as a frighteneing experience. In bomb shelters for many hours she performed to others who were crowded in the shelters.
“What I’m asking you to do is take some risks. Stop paying war taxes, refuse the armed forces, organize against the air war, support the strikes and boycotts of farmers, workers and poor people, analyze the flag salute, give up the nation state, share your money, refuse to hate, be willing to work … in short, sisters and brothers, arm up with love and come from the shadows.”
Joan Baez, Come From The Shadows (1972)
Although she was committed to ending the war, she also was very critical of the Communist regime in Vietnam, whom she claimed had created a nightmare situation for the inhabitants. In 1979, she organised advertising in major newspapers pointing out the wrongs of Communist Vietnam. This created a split with other anti-war activists such as Jane Fonda.
Human rights activism
In the 1970s, her commitment to human rights led her to found the American chapter of Amnesty International. She later went on to set up her own human rights organisation Humanitas International which was critical of all abuses of human rights, whether they were by left-wing or right-wing governments.
In the 1970s, she continued to develop her musical career. In 1971, she switched from Vanguard to A&M Records, where she recorded more songs composed by herself. Her music continued to reflect her political activism. For example, Where Are You Now, My Son? (1973) included a 23-minute recording which included tape recording of the sound of bombing in Hanoi. Her career stalled in the 1980s, finding herself without a recording contract for the first time.
But, Baez continued to take an active interest in human rights abuses wherever they occurred. Her interest spanned from Bangladesh to the Middle East. In early 1985 she was a key figure in organising the American Live Aid concert in Philadelphia. She opened the concert with her own performance. She said:
“Good morning, children of the 80s. This is your Woodstock, and it’s long overdue.”
In 1989, she performed in Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia shortly before the Velvet Revolution. She met future president Vaclav Havel who admired the music and activism of Baez. On one occasion at a concert, Havel feared arrest, Baez gave him her guitar for him to carry. On another occasion, when she spoke on human rights her microphone was cut off, so she sang acapella.
In 1993, she performed in Sarajevo, the first major artist since the Yugoslav civil war. Baez has supported a wide range of political issues, supporting LGBT rights, opposing the 2003 Gulf War, the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement and support of environmental issues. She has also been critical of President Donald Trump, writing a humorous song about Trump entitled “Nasty Man.”
As a general rule, Baez avoided party politics and refused to publicly declare for one party. However, in 2008, she broke her own rule to support the nomination of Barack Obama. She said Obama reminded her of her old hero Martin Luther King. After four years, she said she was disappointed with what he had achieved, but also felt his failure to achieve in Washington was almost inevitable.
Baez has remained active in music and political activism and shows little sign of slowing down. Her previous albums have been successfully re-released and she continues to be a star performer at many events. On 2 August 2009, she played at the 50th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival – which also marked the 50th anniversary of Baez’s musical career.
In 2018, she recorded what is likely her final album Whistle Down the Wind – her first in ten years, and said this would be her last year of touring. Her last album is a tribute to her own career and remains infused with social protest. On the song “I Wish The Wars Were All Over.”
“Will a better world come? I don’t know. But we have to do our work for a just and loving society whether the end comes tomorrow or whether we are still holding fast for generations to come.” (Joan Baez.com)
She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017
Joan Baez – And a Voice to Sing With: A Memoir
- Pacifism And a Voice to Sing With: A Memoir at Amazon
“I would say that I’m a nonviolent soldier. In place of weapons of violence, you have to use your mind, your heart, your sense of humor, every faculty available to you…because no one has the right to take the life of another human being.” – Joan Baez
“You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die, or when. You can only decide how you’re going to live. Now.” – Joan Baez 1968 Daybreak
“I’ve never had a humble opinion. If you’ve got an opinion, why be humble about it?” ― Joan Baez
“To sing is to praise God and the daffodils, and to praise God is to thank Him, in every note within my small range, and every color in the tones of my voice, with every look into the eyes of my audience, to thank Him. Thank you, God, for letting me be born, for giving me eyes to see the daffodils lean in the wind, all my brothers, all my sisters, for giving me ears to hear crying, legs to come running, hands to smooth damp hair, a voice to laugh with and to sing with…to sing to you and the daffodils. – Joan Baez (1968). “DAYBREAK”
“If you’re gonna sing meaningful songs, you have to be committed to living a life that backs that up.”
Musicians – Famous musicians from classical music to popular music. Including Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and John Lennon.
Famous Americans – Great Americans from the Founding Fathers to modern civil rights activists. Including presidents, authors, musicians, entrepreneurs and businessmen. Featuring Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Madonna, Oprah Winfrey.
Famous pacifists – People who refused to fight and people who supported different forms of pacifism. Includes Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi.
People who made a stand People who defied unjust laws and supported a particular principle, human right or justice.