JOAN BAEZ REVIEWS:
Joan Baez (1960)
Album Score: 13
Some great albums can take months or years of painstaking work to complete. There's the time-consuming songwriting phase, the countless hours spent in the studio with armies of musicians and sound engineers working to get every note correct. Then there are other great albums, such as this one, which is the polar opposite: Covers of old folk songs that were recorded in a dingy hotel ballroom, usually in one take. (According to Baez, this took them four days to record this in total. . . and they couldn't record on Wednesday because it interfered with Bingo night.)
Really, it's the simplicity and pureness that makes this album so compelling to me. And it was so successful that it helped catapult Baez, who was 19, to being one of the central figures of the then-burgeoning folk-revival scene, whose sole mission was to retool old folk and country songs for a completely new audience.
And just because these songs are covers, I wouldn't want to diminish the hard work Baez did in unearthing these songs and then figuring out how to interpret them; I'd imagine recording an album like this is even more stressful than recording originals, in a way. If the sole reason for searching for old, nearly forgotten folk songs is to show the world how great they are, then your efforts are going to be lost if they're lazy. Well, history has now spoken, and this album has caught fire: Not only was it a commercial success at the time (albeit not a massive one), many of the songs Baez covered here helped directly inspired other musicians to cover them as well: she did "House of the Rising Sun" before The Animals' distinctive version hit the shelves and even before Bob Dylan recorded it; her version of the 17th Century folk ballad "John Reilly" precedes The Byrds' version on one of their best albums, Fifth Dimension; and she was also first among the folk revivalists to cover "Man of Constant Sorrow" … except her variation was "Girl of Constant Sorrow."
The album opens with "Silver Dagger," which would become Baez's signature song. It becoming her signature song makes sense, because— in its two minutes, thirty seconds— it captures Baez at her essence: Beautiful singing, well-textured acoustic guitar strumming, and just being a great song with a great melody that she plucked out of relative obscurity. Most of the songs on the album can be described like this; there's no other instrument to be heard here apart from the acoustic guitar, and nobody other than
Baez can be heard singing. There are no highfalutin studio tricks here, like overdubs, either. There is, however, someone who plays a second acoustic guitar here, though: Fred Hellerman from The Weavers. . . The dangers of producing an album like this is if all the songs sound the same, it could get boring. . .fast. But Baez keeps things interesting by finding songs from wide variety of sources: Traditional American ballads ("East Virginia", Scottish ballads ("Henry Martin"), English ballads ("Fare Thee Well"), Yiddish ballads ("Donna Donna"), lullaby spirituals ("All My Trials"), blues ballads ("I Know You Rider"), Mexican ballads ("El Preso Numero Nueve"), etc. . . .For sure, listening to this album will necessitate you being able to appreciate acoustic ballads, but— if you do— it has such a rich variety.
For whatever reason, when I had reviewed Baez's discography back in the 2007 timeframe, when I was in my mid 20s, I lambasted the majority of her output. (Except, even back then, I liked this debut album.) Since that time, now that I'm in my mid 30s, I have a steady job and I own a house. Without any doubt, I've grown mellower, and I am at the stage of my life when I can fully appreciate this kind of music. You know, music for grown-ups. . . .So here I go, at long last, writing my definitive reviews of Joan Baez's discography. And, oh yes, I am looking forward to this, too.
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Joan Baez, Vol. 2 (1961)
Album Score: 11
I'm not checking or anything but if Joan Baez's debut is not on 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, then what the heck is that guy doing? While the debut should have plenty of widespread, mainstream appeal thanks mostly to the stellar song selection, this follow-up comes off more like leftovers. Like they are things she considered but ultimately decided to leave off the debut. Not that this isn't a perfectly fine collection of folk songs— and indeed many of these songs are great— but the overall impact of listening to this album isn't as great to me as the debut was.
Again, like the debut, we get a decent variety of songs— mainly a mixture of old English and American ballads. There's also a French ballad "Plaisir d'Amour" whose melody had served as the basis for the Elvis classic "Can't Falling in Love." The songs once again are instrumented simply with Baez's acoustic guitar, which she sings to earnestly and beautifully. The only exceptions are the opener, "Wagoner's Lad," which is a cappella, and there's a pair of tunes that start off Side B in which she's accompanied by bluegrass musicians The Greenbriar Boys. (I used to think they sounded awful, but I'm listening to them today, and I think they sound alright. They're unkempt, for sure.)
While there's good diversity here for an album that consists only of Baez playing acoustic folk covers, the one area where there's no diversity is the lyrics— in the sense that somebody dies at the end of all these songs. Sylvester Stallone from Rambo 2 is listening to this album and saying "Way too much bloodshed." "The Cherry Tree Carol" happens to be one of the few songs that's not about somebody dying, or somebody killing someone, or killing themselves. It's about Joseph who refuses to pick cherries for Mary, because Mary just revealed she is having a child out of wedlock. But then Baby Jesus starts talking from the womb and entices God to bend down the cherry tree branch to Mary's hand. Now, why didn't we sing this song in Sunday school, I wonder? While the lyrics in this album are depressing and oftentimes weird, I did find the experience of reading them and basking myself in them to be very enjoyable. (Just when you thought it was only cool to do that with Bob Dylan's original compositions.)
My pick for album's best song happens to not really be part of the album but one of the bonus tracks, "I Once Loved a Boy." I just find that so sweet and captivating; the melody is one of the most awe-inspiringly beautiful things I've ever heard, and Baez's haunting soprano matches it. It also happens to be one of the few songs that isn't about death or talking fetuses.
I have to note here that I've mellowed quite a lot over the years such that when I had reviewed this album originally (once in my early 20s and again in my mid 20s), I utterly loathed it. I didn't like that it opened with a relatively uninteresting a cappella song, and these melodies as a whole aren't prone to sticking in my mind. Now that I'm in my mid-30s and have grown more accustomed to adult things, I am actually finding that I enjoy this. For sure, the album isn't for everyone. As I brushed at in the opening paragraph of this review, you'd only want to get into this if you loved the debut and have a yearning to experience more of what Joan Baez has to offer us.
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Joan Baez in Concert, Part 1 (1962)
Album Score: 12
This is not your typical live album. You know, where artists perform favorites from their back-catalogs, except they're not as good as the studio version, partly because the recording is obnoxiously washed out with audience noise. However, Baez performs songs that did not appear on her studio albums. Also, she was a pure folk musician who only recorded with her voice and an acoustic guitar, so the recording quality is essentially just as good as the studio cuts. Lastly, she was performing in front of a bona fide folk audience, who were holding onto each note— only clapping politely once she finished her last note. They are remarkably quiet, apart from a couple of sing-a-longs and an occasional bout of laughter.
One sing-a-long that is notorious is her rendition of "Kumbaya." And I say it is notorious because in previous iterations of this review, I completely lambasted it. Why, did I do that, you might ask? Because all I could picture when I listened to it was how dorky everyone in the audience must've been to actually want to sing along with that. I mean, that song that's got to be the most cliché thing for a hippie folkster to sing along to. Also, I didn't like the song. By contrast, today when I listen to it, what I think about is…well, "Kumbaya" is rather beautiful, isn't it? I mean, the song is about no matter who you are, what language you speak, God's love is for you. Also, a song like helps keep the album diverse. If you recall, her previous album was quite depressing as a whole, since someone died at the end of nearly all those songs. …Sure, Baez kills some more during the course of this album, but it's not quite the bloodbath.
That is, unless you count "What Have They Done to the Rain?" where Baez essentially kills the entire world. But, you know, that's just one song. That is Baez's first ever protest song and was a then-recent composition by 60-year-old political activist Malvina Reynolds. The reason the song title asks this question is because the rain had been replaced with nuclear fallout. The way Baez performs that song, it all seems so deceptively simple; the tune is pretty and her vocal performance is sweet. And yet, when I hear the lyrics, I get hit in the gut. (I happen to be writing this during the Trump era— somehow I don't think I would have taken this song so seriously if I was still in the Obama era.)
I'd have to say my favorite moments here are a couple of folk songs that are about sticking it to The Man. One is called "Copper Kettle," which is a beautiful song about moonshiners. The melody is one of the catchiest melodies Baez has ever sung. And then there's a cover of Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd," which glorifies the title character, a notorious Oklahoma outlaw. (Not that I really like it when people glorify outlaws. But, Pretty Boy Floyd's crime spree happened in the early '30s, so maybe it's time to get over it already?)
This album also seals its place in rock history, as a number of these songs would be famously covered later by others. In particular Led Zeppelin also covered this album's opening track, "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You," in their debut album. I wouldn't even want to tell you which version I like better, because they are both so different. Surely, Baez was truer to its original form. However, Zeppelin took the song as a launching pad for quite an elaborate journey. Baez also performed "Matty Groves" here, which Fairport Convention would also cover in Leige and Lief and become one of their signature songs. (Not to mention, I saw Richard Thompson in concert several times, and he did this song.)
So all in all, I found this album to be quite enjoyable, particularly for a folk album that's got nothing but a singer strumming an acoustic guitar. If you're reading this and haven't listened to anything by Baez yet, I would still start with her debut album for the ultimate folk experience. If you enjoyed that, then consider yourself a graduate and get into this album next; there is an awful lot of good stuff here.
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Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2 (1963)
Album Score: 12
For more reasons than the name, this is the natural follow-up to Baez's previous concert album. If you're going to listen to that album and love it, play on! Indeed, this is another massive collection of Baez singing old folk songs armed with just her voice and an acoustic guitar. Well, actually, some of these songs are not so old. If there's some marked progression from her previous collection of live recordings, she also covers songs from some of her contemporaries— most notably Bob Dylan. If her mission had been to help prevent some folk songs from sinking into the irretrievable depths of obscurity, maybe here she's starting to think more about entertaining the masses. When I say "the masses," you know, I mean people who want to listen to folk music the same way history buffs like to look at old things. Which is everybody, right?
If you count the bonus tracks, there is a grand total of four Dylan covers here. Two of them had been featured on this recent albums, "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and "With God On Our Side." I adore Dylan's versions, and I adore these renditions as well. Dylan of course will never fade into obscurity, barring some Planet of the Apes scenario, but the purity of Baez' voice still gives me the impression she's preserving these songs. Her performance helps me hear the lyrics, whereas Dylan makes me want to feel the music. Very different approaches and they both have their value. Any Dylan fan would surely be amiss to pass them by.
But the moment a Dylan fan especially wouldn't want to miss is in the bonus tracks— her cover of "The Death of Emmett Till." It's a protest song by way of a straightforward retelling of the Emmett Till lynching. It was a historical retelling even at the time, but it certainly had resonance in 1963…and hasn't lost poignancy to this day. The fourth Dylan song is "Tomorrow is a Long Time," which may be more well-known from being performed by The Band. It isn't an especially topical song— lyrically it seems pretty similar to the old folk songs Baez dug up from the archives. It's a melancholic ballad about mourning over a lost love. The melody is just as beautiful as those songs, if not more so, and there is such incredibly strong imagery in the lyrics. What's described in the lyrics, I'm sure most of us have felt before.
Baez also covers a few extremely well known songs, such as the instantly familiar nursery rhyme "Hush Little Baby." She must've done that to calm me a little bit since her masterpiece from her debut album, "All My Trials," starts out the same way as the nursery rhyme, except it diverges pretty quickly into being a horrific story about a dying mother. …Yes, yes, give me the real nursery rhyme instead. Tell me a tale about how papa is going to buy me a diamond ring that may or may not turn out to be made out of brass. Another well-known song that makes for a poignant moment is a rendition of the landmark protest anthem "We Shall Overcome." She did the song in response to mass arrests that occurred that day nearby the venue she was performing in Alabama. She also closed the set with a rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" which I have to think is her trolling local politicians in the Deep South.
Of course her bread-and-butter continues to be old songs she found out of the Roud Folk Song Index, and she picked some good ones. "Jackaroe" is probably my favorite of them— I guess if you want to split hairs, you might call the melody generic. But most traditional folk songs are, and I find it beautiful— I am mesmerized by the vocal performance and the gently arpeggiating guitar. Well anyway, I won't spend any more time trying to describe all 19 tracks on here. Except on the track reviews.
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Joan Baez/5 (1964)
Album Score: 12
I can be inconsistent, but my excuse for that is I am like any other decent member of the human race. I tend to take things on a case-by-case basis. Usually I prefer diversity over monotony. However, in the case of Joan Baez, maybe she steps a little too far out of bounds. I'm talking about her six-minute foray into classical music, "Bachianas Brasileiras, No. 5," orchestrated with what I'm guessing is a string quartet. No guitar strummin' at all. For sure, it's impressive she did that, and her vocal performance seems fine to me. I wonder what real classical music aficionados think of it, though. I am picturing a powdered wigged guy screaming "Judas?!" and flinging an acoustic guitar at her. Well, I'm not an opera guy.
I'm also human and am allowed to take complete 180 positions sometimes. That is, I think musicians should get political in their songs. What can be more important than human rights? And what else can a singer do but sing about it? This album's crown jewel is "Birmingham Sunday," written by her brother-in-law Richard Fariña. Surely among the most powerful songs ever written, it is a retelling of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing by the Ku Klux Klan, which claimed the lives of four black children. For me, this was a history lesson in high school, but of course I never felt the tragedy. . . . I still haven't, but at least perhaps I'm an inch closer after listening to this. The solemn melody is beautiful and haunting, and Baez's vocal performance is powerful. Every time she repeats the line "And the choir kept singing of freedom," it gets hammered in my head more and more and gets more powerful. We are not the land of the free that we sing about if that kind of stuff happens to our neighbors.
On the brighter side, most of the other songs are the usual wrist-slitting ilk that we're used to. Although perhaps she's running out of interesting material—songs like "Stewball," about an Irish racing horse, has a kind of generic folk melody that doesn't do much for me. "So We'll Go No More a-Roving" is a short and very sweet, beautiful poetry by Lord Byron. "Unquiet Grave" is a 16th Century ballad and interesting to me mainly because it's also featured on Gryphon's debut album. (You can listen to the Gryphon version right after listening to Baez's reserved version, and I guarantee you'll laugh out loud.)
As she'd done quite a bit in Concert, Pt. 2, she covers songs from her contemporaries. The album opens with an utterly arresting version of Phil Och's "There But for Fortune." That chord-progression melts my heart, and the lyrics are beautiful. Maybe it's the definitive version of the song. Och's original version was a little quicker and his vocals were more abrasive. There's also a Peter, Paul & Mary version, which is more dramatic. . . . Well as I said before, when I want to bask in the beautiful poetry, it'll be the Baez version I'll listen to.
There's also a Dylan cover here, "It Ain't Me Babe." It's such a well-known song—and she'd done 4 Dylan covers in her previous album (if you count the bonus tracks). I love it of course, but I suppose there's a reason I decided to mention it almost as an afterthought here. . . .Oh, the bonus tracks contain something interesting: A band. Yes, two other instrumentalists. An extra guitarist and a bassist. No drums yet. We're not ready for drums yet, but our kids are gonna love it. She also provides her own overdubs in "O' Cangaciero," which is also a novel thing for her. Steady as she goes.
Read the track reviews:
Farewell, Angelina (1965)
Album Score: 12
This album begins with a grand total of three Bob Dylan songs, and it also closes with one. There’s even an extra in the bonus tracks. I wouldn’t complain about there being too many Bob Dylan songs for the same reason I wouldn’t complain about an art museum having too many Picassos. Listening to Baez sing a Dylan song has about the same impact on me as coming home after a long day at work and relaxing in a big chair. More than that, the album closer is a nearly eight-minute rendition of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Sometimes I complain about songs that go on that long, especially when they’re not members of the progressive rock club, but I’m transfixed throughout that whole thing.
This album also marks probably the most significant leap in style that Baez ever took. That is, she has a band. A stringed bass can be heard on these songs. More than that, some of the guitar on used on here is electric. *Beatnik’s mouth goes slack and his cigarette falls into his black coffee* Yep, you heard that right—Baez went electric the same year Dylan did. Albeit it’s not nearly as noticeable as when Dylan did it. That is, you’d really have to know what you’re hearing to notice an electric guitar. It’s just a slightly brighter, lightly twinkling guitar. The band plays quite minimally such that it always knows that Joan Baez’s crystal clear diction is boss. As it should be.
The title track and album opener is among the most beloved songs of Baez’s repertoire, an orphaned Dylan song he recorded early on in the Bringing It All Back Home sessions but didn’t make the cut for the album. Its melody and lyrics are quintessential Dylan—really just a gorgeous song. Another Dylan cover that appears in the bonus tracks, “One Too Many Mornings,” may however be the one I appreciate the most—it had appeared on The Times They Are A-Changin’, but I’m not even sure I noticed it until it appeared here.
I already mentioned the numerous Dylan covers, but she’s also covering other more recent songwriters such that the ancient songs from the catalog are in a minority here. She does the country standard “A Satisfied Mind,” which may be more notable to rock fans for The Byrds’ rendition. She does a lovely cover of Donovan’s “Colours,” which makes me want to imagine what it’s like to live in the remote country. As per usual, she covers a couple foreign language songs, a beautiful French song called “Paurve Ruteboeuf.” Equally as brilliant, she does a German-language rendition of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” I’m not sure precisely why she did that song in German…but it sounds great!
As a whole I do love this album and consider it one of Baez’s best. It’s nice that she was expanding her sound a little bit, but it does also make me continue to think she’s exhausted all her best material—and she’s not likely to do anything to surpass that 1960 debut album of hers.
Read the track reviews:
Album Score: 10
Certainly among the most unique Christmas albums ever recorded—this album has none of those new-fangled happy Christmas songs like “Frosty the Snowman” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” We’re celebrating Christmas in misery like they did in the good old days. When everybody was proper and sad during the holidays because there wasn’t electricity yet. There are an incredible 23 tracks on here (including the 6 bonus tracks), so you won’t be wanting for Christmas songs. Granted, a handful of these songs are very brief instrumentals. …I’m not sure why we need those, actually. Joan Baez was a singer and a guitar player … and the instrumentals feature neither her voice nor guitar… So.
In a large part, this album continues Baez’s Prime Directive, which was to unearth obscure folk songs and bring them to a modern audience. In this case, she manages to find some real gems. In particular “Coventry Carol.” Just listen to it for two seconds and it puts me in the middle of King Henry VIII’s court. I’m watching Baez sing to the fat king with her high pitched, fluttery voice. You can say what you will about her fluttery voice when she’s singing her bread-and-butter folk songs, but the tone is perfect for Renaissance-era music. I don’t know how an orchestra actually sounded back then, but this is exactly what I imagine. Woodwinds…stringed quartet…harpsichord?...tinkly things. Very stately sounding. What more could I ask for when a song transports me through time and space like this? Almost as good as this are three similarly ancient songs “Mary’s Wandering,” “Down Yon Forrest” and “The Carol of the Birds.” The album should only have had these!
The arrangements are usually fine—sometimes great—but can also be misses. They were provided by Peter Schickele, also known as the humorist P.D.Q. Bach. He’s a fine, upstanding citizen of the world I’m sure, but I don’t think he had much of an idea what to do with “The Little Drummer Boy.” It sounds like somebody was just pounding a harpsichord. Such a mess. And why does Baez need to sing that anyway? That song originated in the 1950s. In the cases of the two album closers “What Child Is This?” and “Silent Night,” not only are they too well-known, the orchestration seems stagnant. I’d literally rather hear Baez sing a cappella.
But let us concentrate more on the stuff from this album that I liked. “I Wonder As I Wander” is utterly miserable, and I love it. The orchestration is sparse—actually the dissonant harmonies they make almost turns it into a modern classical piece before it gets more flowery in the chorus. It’s a fairly well-known Christmas carol but not that well-known that I am sick and tired of hearing it. Like “Silent Night,” for instance.
But I am a sucker for the extremely well-known Christmas jam “Oh Holy Night,” which Baez provides here with German lyrics. As we all should know by now, listening to Baez sing in a non-English tongue is one of my favorite things (I’d tell that to Julie Andrews in my pajamas). And here Baez is doing that with my favorite Christmas carol. If that wasn't enough, she does it again with a German-language version of “Ave Maria,” which I am also fond of.
As far as the bonus tracks go, there’s nothing special EXCEPT a French-language version of “Away in the Manger.” The main album had that exact song with the same arrangements except with the standard English lyrics. Give me Baby Jesus with a baguette over Baby Jesus with an eel pie any day of the week.
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Album Score: 11
Joan Baez had retained the services of Peter Schickele, who provided those dense arrangements in Noël. Together, they created a pop album—pop, being a first for Baez. However, this isn’t an ordinary pop album. It’s an artsy one. Case-in-point: Her cover of “Eleanor Rigby.” She was being pretty hip in 1967 for covering The Beatles, but Schickele’s orchestration predominantly uses hard, minimalist patterns on a harp and a 1-fingered piano.
All in all, Peter Schickele‘s orchestration is a mixed bag. I appreciate he was trying to do something unique in the pop-rock realm, but I usually prefer orchestration that predominantly features Baez’s guitar strummin’. If that’s front-and-center, his orchestration can do whatever it pleases. Take “La Colombe (The Dove).” While a brilliant song by Jacques Brel that I love listening to in all its forms, Schickele tries melding together different patterns between the dark verses sections (with a drudging string quartet) and the dramatic chorus (with blaring, tooting trumpets and a marching drum). He doesn’t quite pull it off. It just seems awkward. Compare this version to the one Judy Collins released a year earlier, where she does what is proper and uses an acoustic guitar to propel the song forward. Not any of this goofy minimalism garbage.
But, as I said, I thought his orchestration was a mixed bag. That means there’s good stuff to talk about, too. Where I think Schickele does something magical is “Annabel Lee.” That twinkling texture with the high-pitched harp and xylophone is mesmerizing. (Sorry if I misidentify the instruments—I just hear things that twinkle). The melody is so fruity and the lyrics, based on an Edgar Allen Poe poem, are so Medieval that … well, dang. How is a prog-head like me supposed to resist this?
This album is also an important first in the world of Joan Baez: She wrote two songs on it. She is still and will forever be primarily a covers artist, but she would become pretty well-known for a hit song in 1975 called “Diamonds and Rust.” Which sounds a lot like one of her original songs here, “North.” I hear it in certain melodic phrases and patterns Baez plays on her acoustic guitar. That’s a pretty song, and she should be proud of it. It was made even prettier because Schickele didn't do anything to distract us from Baez’s guitar arpeggiations—Schickele’s swelling orchestra is just pretty decoration on top of it. “Saigon Bride” is the other Baez original, a Vietnam War protest song. It sounds nice the first time Baez sings that melody, but then she just keeps repeating it. It gets old fast.
The other thing to mention is she’s doing a pretty good job finding non-Bob-Dylan musicians to cover such that Dylan isn’t actually found at all here. There are a couple Donovan songs, a couple of Tim Hardin songs, Simon and Garfunkel. Her dramatic cover of Richard Fariña’s “Children of Darkness” with the marching drum beat is quite good—even with that dense (and arguably overboard) medieval flare-up from Schickele during the instrumental break. Fariña was Baez’ brother-in-law who had recently died, so it must’ve been an emotional experience covering it. The only traditional song is “The Greenwood Side,” which is very pretty. We still get to hear Baez’ acoustic guitar, but there are a couple other guitarists providing extra texture—really they generate quite a mesmerizing pattern.
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