Two thousand eight is a landmark year, as Joan Baez marks 50 years since she began her legendary residency at Boston’s famed Club 47. She remains a musical force of nature whose influence is incalculable - marching on the front line of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr., inspiring Vaclav Havel in his fight for a Czech Republic, singing on the first Amnesty International tour and just this year, standing alongside Nelson Mandela when the world celebrated his 90th birthday in London’s Hyde Park. She brought the Free Speech Movement into the spotlight, took to the fields with Cesar Chavez, organized resistance to the war in Southeast Asia, then forty years later saluted the Dixie Chicks for their courage to protest war. Her earliest recordings fed a host of traditional ballads into the rock vernacular, before she unselfconsciously introduced Bob Dylan to the world in 1963 and focused awareness on songwriters ranging from Woody Guthrie, Dylan, Phil Ochs, Richard Farina, and Tim Hardin, to Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Newbury, to Dar Williams, Richard Shindell, Steve Earle and many more. If ever a new collection of songs reflects the momentous times in which Joan finds herself these days, and in her own words, “speaks to the essence of who I am in the same way as the songs that have been the enduring backbone of my repertoire for the past 50 years, Day After Tomorrow (2008) is that record, her first new studio album in five years.
Themes of hope and homecoming weave through Day After Tomorrow. Other songs explore the individual and collective anguish of life during wartime, starting with the Tom Waits title track, “Day After Tomorrow” (introduced on his 2004 album Real Gone, and reprised as the emotional closing track of Body of War, the award-winning 2007 documentary of a paralyzed Iraq war recruit) and the haunting “Scarlet Tide” (written by Elvis Costello and T Bone Burnett for the 2003 Civil War film, Cold Mountain).
Day After Tomorrow, recorded in Nashville, is Joan’s first full-length album collaboration with Steve Earle, who produces, plays guitar and sings harmony. Earle is also represented by two new compositions: “I Am A Wanderer,” written overnight before one of the sessions; and the album’s opening track, “God is God” (which has already won a place in Joan’s concert sets, along with Earle’s perennial “Christmas in Washington” - “So come back Woody Guthrie/ Come back to us now...”). A third Earle tune closes the album in acappella form, “Jericho Road”, a song that would not be out of place on a Staples Singers’ record (from Earle’s most recent album, Washington Square Serenade, though Joan is careful not to characterize it as a “gospel” tune.
On two songs, Earle plays the harmonium, an unusual instrument with a curiously unique sound: “Henry Russell’s Last Words” by Diana Jones (a true account based on an American mining disaster); and Austin, Texas, stalwart Eliza Gilkyson’s “Requiem,” from her 2005 album, Paradise Hotel. “Requiem” is one of two Gilkyson songs on Day After Tomorrow, along with “Rose of Sharon” (from Eliza’s Redemption Road of 1997). “A little gem,” says Joan, “such a sweet song. If I didn’t know otherwise, I would have just assumed that it was an old English folk song.”
Earle assembled a first-rate core of Music City “A-Team” players to accompany Joan, each one a headliner in his own right: respected singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Tim O’Brien (who shows up on mandolin, fiddle, and bouzouki) and Darrell Scott (guitars, dobro, banjolin, bouzouki), who frequently appear on each other’s records; bassist extraordinaire Viktor Krauss; Nashville elder statesman Kenny Malone on drums and percussion; and an occasional jingle of tambourine by the album’s veteran recording engineer Ray Kennedy (Steve Earle’s long-time producer).
Guest appearances are limited to two singers on Day After Tomorrow. Ray’s wife, Siobhan Kennedy, sings harmony on “Mary,” a Christian allegory written by Patty Griffin for her Flaming Red album of 1998. (The song took on a life of its own on the first Concerts for a Landmine Free World benefit album in 2001, and then on Willie Nelson’s Songs for Tsunami Relief benefit album in 2005.) UK singer/songwriter Thea Gilmore recorded her harmony vocal in Liverpool for “The Lower Road”, one of the songs on her May 2008 album Liejacker, her tenth album in ten years - though the song made its way to Joan months before.
Day After Tomorrow now forms (or completes) a trilogy of albums - with Steve Earle as a primal link - that began with 2003’s Dark Chords on a Big Guitar, Joan’s first new album of studio recordings in six years (at the time), and followed-up with 2005’s Bowery Songs, her first live album in ten years (at the time). Both earlier albums brought Joan’s history of mutual mentoring up into the new millennium - introducing new collaborations with younger artists and songwriters, a hallmark of her recordings and performances ever since she first stepped on a stage.
Dark Chords on a Big Guitar was a fresh collection from contemporary songwriters whose work resonates with Joan. The songs were drawn from the pens of Ryan Adams, Greg Brown (two songs including “Rexroth’s Daughter”, whose lyric gives the album its title), Caitlin Cary, Joe Henry, Natalie Merchant, Josh Ritter and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings . The album closed with Joan’s definitive version of Steve Earle’s “Christmas in Washington.”
In August 2003, just prior to the September release of Dark Chords on a Big Guitar, Joan was invited by Emmylou Harris (who credits Joan as a primary influence) and Steve Earle to join them in the UK for two Concerts for a Landmine Free World. Joan returned to the UK in January-February 2004, for a sold-out 16-city tour (with Ritter opening). The conclusion of that tour coincided with the fifth annual BBC2 Folk Awards, where Joan presented Steve Earle with the Lifetime Achievement Award - the same honor she received when the awards were inaugurated in 2000. Joan and Steve joined together that spring for a U.S. tour.
Joan returned to New York City in November 2004, for two nights of live recording at the Bowery Ballroom on the Lower East Side, the Friday and Saturday after Election Day. The resulting album, Bowery Songs, captured the message of that fateful week, from her opening a cappella benediction of the patriotic “Finlandia”, to the prophetic and telling versions of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and Steve Earle’s “Jerusalem”, the album’s two closing tracks.
The spirits of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan were felt throughout Bowery Songs - Joan has been singing Woody’s “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” since the 1960s but this was her first live release of the song. Dylan’s “Farewell, Angelina” was the title tune of Joan’s 1965 LP that contained two Guthrie songs and four by Dylan, one of which was “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, a ‘Bowery song.’ Joan also sang “Seven Curses”, Dylan’s 1963 adaptation of the Child ballad “The Maid Freed From the Gallows” aka “Anathea” (and a stunning reminder of Joan’s unmatched guitar skills.)
As on previous live albums, Bowery Songs spanned Joan’s entire career - from “Silver Dagger” (opening song of her first solo LP, 1960), “Jackaroe” (first heard on 1963’s In Concert Part 2, later transmogrified by the Grateful Dead), and “Joe Hill” (sung at Woodstock), through the venerable Irish “Carrickfergus” (from 1989’s Speaking of Dreams), and the songs from 2003’s Dark Chords on a Big Guitar. It was also noted that four of the ‘Bowery songs’ were previously unrecorded by Joan: “Finlandia”, “Seven Curses”, “Dink’s Song”, and “Jerusalem”.
Bowery Songs reminds us that at crucial moments during her long and storied career - which is to say, at crucial moments in America’s history over the past five decades - Joan has recorded and released live performance albums that have served as critical barometers of our times. So Bowery Songs was framed in a rich tradition, capturing the work of an artist whose finest moments often happen onstage.
In the summer of 1958, Joan Chandos Baez, a 17-year old high school graduate (by the skin of her teeth) moved with her family - her parents Albert and Joan, older sister Pauline and younger sister Mimi - from Palo Alto to Boston. They drove cross-country with the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” all over the radio, a guilty pleasure of Joan’s. She was an entering freshman at Boston University School of Drama, where she was surrounded by a musical group of friends who shared a passion for folk music.
A stunning soprano, Joan’s natural vibrato lent a taut, nervous tension to everything she sang. Yet even as an 18-year old, introduced onstage at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959, her repertoire reflected a different sensibility from her peers. In the traditional songs she mastered, there was an acknowledgment of the human condition.
She recorded her first solo LP for Vanguard Records in the summer of 1960, the beginning of a prolific fourteen-album, twelve-year association with the label. Her earliest records, with their mix of traditional ballads and blues, lullabies, Carter Family songs, Weavers and Woody Guthrie songs, cowboy tunes, ethnic folk staples of American and non-American vintage, and much more - won strong followings in the United States and abroad.
Among the songs she introduced on her earliest albums that would find their ways into the repertoire of ‘60’s rock stalwarts were “House of the Rising Sun” (the Animals), “John Riley” (the Byrds), “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” (Led Zeppelin), “What Have They Done to the Rain” (the Searchers), “Jackaroe” (Grateful Dead), and “Long Black Veil” (the Band), to name a few. “Geordie”, “House Carpenter”, and “Matty Groves” inspired a multitude of British acts who trace their origins to Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span.
In 1963, Joan began touring with Bob Dylan and recording his songs, a bond that came to symbolize the folk music movement for the next two years. At the same time, Joan began her lifelong role of introducing songs from a host of contemporary singer-songwriters starting with Phil Ochs, Richard Farina, Leonard Cohen, Tim Hardin, Paul Simon, and others. Her repertoire grew to include songs by Jacques Brel, Lennon-McCartney, Johnny Cash and his Nashville peers, and South American composers Nascimento, Bonfa, Villa-Lobos, and others.
At a time in our country’s history when it was neither safe nor fashionable, Joan put herself on the line countless times, and her life’s work was mirrored in her music. She sang about freedom and Civil Rights everywhere, from the backs of flatbed trucks in Mississippi to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. In 1964, she withheld 60% of her income tax from the IRS to protest military spending, and participated in the birth of the Free Speech movement at UC Berkeley. A year later she co-founded the Institute for The Study of Nonviolence near her home in Carmel Valley. In 1966, Joan Baez stood in the fields alongside Cesar Chavez and migrant farm workers striking for fair wages, and opposed capital punishment at San Quentin during a Christmas vigil.
The following year she turned her attention to the draft resistance movement. In 1968, she recorded an album of country standards for her then-husband David Harris. He was later taken into custody by Federal marshals in July 1969 and imprisoned for 20 months, for refusing induction and organizing draft resistance against the Vietnam War. As the war escalated, Joan traveled to Hanoi with the U.S.-based Liaison Committee and helped establish Amnesty International on the West Coast.
In the wake of the Beatles, the definition of folk music - a singer with an acoustic guitar - broadened and liberated many artists. Rather than following the pack into amplified folk-rock, Joan recorded three remarkable LPs with classical instrumentation. Later, as the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s, she began recording in Nashville. The “A-Team” of Nashville’s session musicians backed Joan on her last four LPs for Vanguard Records (including her biggest career single, a cover of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1971) and her first two releases on A&M.
Within the context of those albums and the approaching end of hostilities in Southeast Asia, Joan turned to the suffering of those living in Chile under the rule of Augusto Pinochet. To those people she dedicated her first album sung entirely in Spanish, a record that inspired Linda Ronstadt, later in the ‘80s, to begin recording the Spanish songs of her heritage. One of the songs Joan sang on that album, “No Nos Moveran” (We Shall Not Be Moved) had been banned from public singing in Spain for more than forty years under Generalissimo Franco’s rule, and was excised from copies of the LP sold there. Joan became the first major artist to sing the song publicly when she performed it on a controversial television appearance in Madrid in 1977, three years after the dictator’s death.
In 1975, Joan’s self-penned “Diamonds & Rust” became the title song of an LP with songs by Jackson Browne, Janis Ian, John Prine, Stevie Wonder & Syreeta, Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers Band - and Bob Dylan. His Rolling Thunder Revues of late 1975 and ‘76 (and resulting movie Renaldo & Clara, released in 1978) co-starred Joan Baez.
In 1978, she traveled to Northern Ireland and marched with the Irish Peace People, calling for an end to violence. She appeared at rallies on behalf of the nuclear freeze movement, and performed at benefit concerts to defeat California’s Proposition 6 (Briggs Initiative), legislation that would have banned openly gay people from teaching in public schools. Joan received the American Civil Liberties Union’s Earl Warren Award for her commitment to human and civil rights issues; and founded Humanitas International Human Rights Committee, which she headed for thirteen years. She won the San Francisco Bay Area Music Award (BAMMY) award as top female vocalist in 1978 and 1979, and a number of film and video and live recordings released in Europe and the U.S. documented her travels and concerts into the ‘80s.
In 1983, she performed on the Grammy awards telecast for the first time (singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”). In the summer of 1985, after opening the U.S. segment of the worldwide Live Aid telecast, she later appeared at the revived Newport Folk Festival, the first gathering there since 1969. In 1986, Joan joined Peter Gabriel, Sting and others on Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope tour; her subsequent album was influenced by the tour, as it acknowledged artists and groups whose lives in turn were influenced by her, with songs from Gabriel, U2, Dire Straits, Johnny Clegg, and others. Later in 1986, however, she was chosen to perform The People’s Summit concert in Iceland at the time of the historic meeting between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Joan’s 1989 concert in Czechoslovakia was attended by many of that country’s dissidents, including President Vaclav Havel who cited her as a great influence in the so-called Velvet Revolution.
After attending an early Indigo Girls concert in 1990 (the year after their major label album debut), Joan teamed with the duo and Mary Chapin Carpenter (as Four Voices) for a series of benefit performances. The experience reinforced Joan’s belief in the new generation of songwriters’ ability to speak to her. When her album, Play Me Backwards, was released in 1992, it featured songs by Carpenter, John Hiatt, John Stewart, and others.
In 1993, Joan became the first major artist to perform in Sarajevo since the outbreak of the civil war as she traveled to war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina at the invitation of Refugees International. The next year, she sang in honor of Pete Seeger at the Kennedy Center Honors Gala in Washington, D.C. Also in 1994, Joan and Janis Ian sang for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Fight the Right fundraising event in San Francisco.
In 1995, Joan received her third BAMMY as Outstanding Female Vocalist. Joan’s nurturing support of other singer-songwriters came full circle with her next album, Ring Them Bells. This idea of collaborative mentoring was expanded on 1997’s Gone From Danger, where Joan was revealed as a lightning rod for young songwriting talent, with compositions from Dar Williams, Sinead Lohan, Kerrville Music Festival newcomer Betty Elders, Austin’s The Borrowers, and Richard Shindell (who went on to tour extensively with Joan over the years).
In August 2001, Vanguard Records began the most extensive chronological CD reissue program ever devoted to one artist in the company’s history. Expanded editions (with bonus tracks, and newly commissioned liner notes) were released of her debut solo album of 1960, Joan Baez, and Joan Baez Vol. 2 (1961). The six-year campaign went on to encompass every original LP she recorded while under contract to the label from 1960 to 1972. In 2003, spurred by Vanguard’s lead, Universal Music Enterprises gathered Joan’s six complete A&M albums released from 1972 to 1976 into a mini-boxed set of four CDs, also with bonus material and extensive liner notes.
The release of Dark Chords on a Big Guitar in September 2003 was supported with a 22-city U.S. tour. On October 3rd, Grammy Award-winning classical guitarist Sharon Isbin presented her debut performance of “The Joan Baez Suite, Opus 144”. Written for Isbin by John Duarte and commissioned by the Augustine Foundation, the piece featured songs from Joan’s earliest days in folk music.
On the night of February 11, 2007, at the 49th annual Grammy Awards telecast viewed by more than a billion people worldwide, it was announced that Joan Baez had received the highly prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award, the greatest honor that the Recording Academy can bestow. In turn, she introduced the live performance of “Not Ready to Make Nice” by dark horse nominees the Dixie Chicks. It was an ironic moment, as Joan’s ‘lifetime’ of activism resonated in sync with the trio. They had been blacklisted by country radio and the Academy of Country Music (ACM) when they criticized the President and the impending war in Iraq back in March 2003.
Most recently, Joan was seen by a billion TV viewers around the world, standing center stage behind Nelson Mandela at the “46664” 90th birthday celebration in his honor, at London’s Hyde Park on June 28, 2008.
“All of us are survivors,” Joan Baez wrote, “but how many of us transcend survival?” Fifty years on, she continues to show renewed vitality and passion in her concerts and records, and is more comfortable than ever inside her own skin. In this troubled world, to paraphrase “Wings,” she will always continue to seek “a place where they can hear me when I sing.”