Born January 9, 1941, in Staten Island, N.Y.; daughter of Albert (a physicist) and Joan (Bridge) Baez; married David Harris (an anti-war activist), 1968 (divorced, 1971); children: Gabriel. Education: Attended Boston University. Politics: Pacifist. Religion: Quaker. Addresses: Office --Diamonds & Rust Productions, Inc., P.O. Box 1026, Menlo Park, CA 94026. Agent --Triad, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., 16 Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90067.

The voice can be a powerful instrument in music and social activism. For Joan Baez, through many years of performance, writing, and speaking out, the voice is a symbol of an individual's power to effect change. She was born in Staten Island, New York, January 9, 1941, the daughter of Dr. Albert Baez, a physicist. Baez's autobiography, And a Voice to Sing With, details her childhood as a faculty child in Ithaca, New York, and in Bagdad, Redlands, and Palo Alto, California, where she attended high school and began to play the guitar. Relocated to the Boston area, where her father had joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she attended Boston University and began to perform professionally at small clubs, such as Tulla's Coffee Grinder. Her two years of apprenticeship in the Boston area brought her to the attention of Bob Gibson, who invited her to participate in the 1959 Newport Folk Festival.

Baez began a long association with Vanguard Records, then America's foremost folk label, in 1960 with her album Joan Baez. It brought acclaim and invitations to perform in folk clubs and concert halls throughout the college circuit and major cities. She soon became a symbol of the folk revival and was featured on the cover of Time. Her voice, described by Robert Shelton in a 1960 review of an early concert in the New York Times, was a "a soprano voice, surprisingly never trained, that has a purity, penetrating clarity and control that not a few art singers would envy. With seeming effortlessness, Miss Baez produced a purling, spun-gold tone particularly suited to the lyric Anglo-American songs and ballads that made up most of her program." The phrase, "achingly pure soprano," cited often by critics over the last 25 years, also dates from this first concert tour. She has denied the importance of the "purity" of her voice in interviews throughout her long career. In a 1963 article by Nat Hentoff, for example, she praised interpretation over mere quality: "I think of a rural folk singer--Doc Watson's mother--whose voice might not seem beautiful to some people. But her voice has a straightness, an honesty, a purity. On the other hand, a voice may have all the tone quality and all the vibrato you could ask for, and yet it'll sound so bland that it has no beauty at all." Baez's voice, her songs, guitar style, and even her long flowing hair set a pattern for a generation of young folk singers and balladeers. The hair was cut in 1968, and the soprano has darkened and mellowed but the influence remains strong.

Her tour of campuses was also noteworthy for Baez's refusal to perform in segregated arenas and concert halls--a decision that led her to limit the Southern part of her tours to black colleges. Raised as a Quaker, she also refused to pay that part of her Federal Income Tax which, the Society of Friends believed, was used for military spending. Part of her income from performing and recording went to found the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence (now called the Resource Center for Nonviolence) in Carmel Valley, California. Her social activism also led to her support for the civil rights movement and its concurrent voting rights protests, as well as anti-war events around the world. She was arrested and jailed for non-violent protests of the Vietnam-era draft, as was her husband, David Harris, who spent much of their marriage in jail. Her focus throughout her life has been on nonviolent protest as a means of ending wars, war-related industries and national budgets, and discrimination. She has worked through Amnesty International since 1972 and Humanitas since its founding in 1979.

Although most of her audience supported the same beliefs that she did, Baez's activities were often criticized publically by others. Her parodied but recognizable image was included in Al Capp's "Li'l Abner" comic strip as "Joanie Phonie" in 1967. Also that year, in a move that reminded many of the banning of famed black soprano Marian Anderson thirty years earlier, she was denied permission by the Daughters of the American Revolution to perform in Constitution Hall (capacity: 3800), and so she appeared instead before a crowd of over 30,000 at the Washington Monument. Baez's most controversial activity was her participation in a tour of (then North) Vietnam in 1972, which produced the album Where are You, My Son?

The almost continuous concert tours and recordings for a decade brought Baez and her message to an ever wider audience. In a 1979 joint interview with Judy Collins, she told the New York Times that performance and the message are interrelated: "The concert becomes a context of its own, and that's what's beautiful about being able to stand up there--that I can say what I want, put the songs where I want them and, hopefully, give people an evening of beautiful music as well." She has appeared on most college campuses, in Carnegie Hall and major concert halls, and in outdoor festivals. Baez was one of only four musical acts that participated in both Woodstock, the defining event of the late 1960s music scene, and in LiveAid, the 1985 international rock concert to raise money for African relief, an irony that she described in her autobiography. Both events reached a wide audience--Woodstock became a film from Warner Brothers; LiveAid was broadcast on worldwide television. Many of Baez's solo tours were also filmed as documentaries, among them, the Rolling Tunder Revue (with Bob Dylan, 1975) and Live Europe '83, which produced a French television film and an award-winning album of the same name. A 1970 documentary, "Carry It On" covers her life at the time of Harris's arrest, but also includes 13 songs in concerts.

The folk revival of the 1960's brought widespread attention to traditional folk forms and to the young folksingers who were writing new music, most notably, Baez and Bob Dylan. They performed together often at the start of their careers, as in her 1963 Forest Hills Music Festival concert in New York at which she devoted half of the program to Dylan songs, sung by him, by her, and as duets. The New York Times review of that summer concert praised her programming decision: "To have her so closely align herself with Mr. Dylan's charismatic poetry resulted in an unforgettable evening." They also toured together in the mid-1970's. Her performance of his "Blowin' in the Wind," was included on the Grammy Award presentations of 1983 as an example of "Music has a message." Other Dylan songs, such as "That's Allright" and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," remain in her repertory.

Baez was criticized at the onset of her career for mixing her musical messages and not limiting herself to music on a specific theme or from a specific genre, as was traditional with folk singers in the 1950's. she defended herself to Nat Hentoff in the November 1963 HiFi/Stereo Review: "[The historical] aspect of folk music has always been so secondary with me. It's as if there were a mysterious string in me. If something I hear plucks that string, then I'll sing that song. It can be funny or serious, or it can be in another language. I can't analyze what qualities a song must have to do that to me." This generalism has become a major selling point in her later career. Baez's albums, like her concert appearances, always mix genres, including new songs (often about her son, Gabriel), American spirituals, Scottish hymns, and protest statements from different cultures. She has made recordings of folk songs paired with country-and-western numbers, as on her David's Album, which featured "Carry It On," as well as her popular cut of "Green Grass of Home." She stresses ballads and anthems by her and other contemporary writers, such as Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," and Lennon/McCartney's "Imagine" and "Long and Winding Road"; but also includes ballad standards from the 1940s and 1950s, including Julie London's "Cry Me a River" on her Blowin' Away album. Her music follows its sources into their music heritages, and she was one of the first American singers to perform reggae songs, like her 1983 "Warriors of the Sun," Latin American non-salsa styles, and the now-popular new African genres.

A 1977 Village Voice feature suggested that Baez's diversity had rescued her career and praised her use of rock-and-roll rhythms. In her 1987 Recently and on its tour, her repertory included, as it was described in the New York Times: "a spare, moving rendition of Dire straits' pacifist hymn, 'Brothers in Arms', a version of the Marian Anderson staple, 'Let Us Break Bread Together,' that finds the singer buoyed by a gospel chorus, and two equally strong renditions of songs evoking the agony of South Africa: Peter Gabriel's elegaic incantation 'Biko' and John Clegg's passionate 'Asimbonanga.'"

Baez's "achingly pure soprano" has deepened into a "richer, more dramatic" and fluid alto in recent years. A New York Times review of a 1983 concert praised her rendition of the spiritual "Swing Low Sweet Chariot": "Her rendition swept through two octaves with an authority and passion that few other singers could hope to muster."

The dual role of Joan Baez as a performer and as, in the words of Rolling Stone's John Grissim, Jr., "as a purveyor of an enjoined social consciousness and responsibility," has given her a place in American music that supports her activism. Like Pete Seeger and the folk singers of the earlier generation, her voice is her conscience. But for Baez, like Marian Anderson, the quality of her vocal production brings authority to her message.

by Barbara Stratyner

Joan Baez's Career

Began to play guitar in high school; in college, began to perform professionally at clubs in Boston, Mass.; began recording, 1959; has toured extensively throughout the world; president of Diamonds & Rust Productions, Inc., 1975--. Social activist; arrested and jailed for protests against the Vietnam war; founder of Resource Center for Nonviolence, 1965; active in Amnesty International, 1972--; founder and president of Humanitas International, 1979--.

Joan Baez's Awards

Chicago Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace Award, 1971; "Joan Baez Day" was established by city of Atlantic, Ga., 1975; Thomas Merton Award, 1976; Public Service Award, Third Annual Rock Music Awards, 1977; named best female vocalist, Bay Area Music Awards, 1978 and 1979; Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award, ACLU, 1979; honorary D.H.L., Antioch University and Rutgers University, 1980; Jefferson Award, 1980; Lennon Peace Tribute Award, 1982; Americans for Democratic Action award, 1982; SANE Education Fund Peace Award, 1983; Academie Charles Cros Award (France) for best live album, 1983.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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