Unpacking the Many Gifts of Joan Baez
Credit: Nuestro Stories
American singer, songwriter, and social activist Joan Baez committed her first act of civil disobedience at 16, had a love affair with American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, and wrote a classic break-up song. After more than 60 years of performing, she is still the Queen of Folk Music.
At 82, Baez, who sang in Spanish and English, is a living icon of the 1960 counterculture movement. A recent film on her life, “Joan Baez - I Am Noise,” premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.
She was born in 1941 in Staten Island, New York, the daughter of Alberto Baez, a notable scientist born in Puebla, Mexico, who studied at Stanford University and was the co-inventor of the X-Ray microscope. Her mother, Joan Chandos Baez, was born in Scotland.
When Joan was a child, the family converted to Quakerism, which influenced her dedication to pacifism and social issues. As a child, Baez dealt with racial slurs and discrimination because she was part Mexican. This compelled her to become involved with social causes early on in her career.
A brief timeline of Joan Baez’s career
The opening line in Baez’s memoir And a Voice to Sing With is, "I was born gifted," taking no credit for her talent.
Baez became famous in her teens, even though she suffered from anxiety and an inferiority complex as a young girl. Her initial shows at Boston’s Club 47 in 1958 led to an invitation in 1959 to sing at the Newport Jazz Festival, which launched her career.
Her first two albums were recorded by Vanguard Records in 1960 and 1961, "Joan Baez" and "Joan Baez Vol. 2", and both were a hit. It led to Baez performing in Carnegie Hall before she turned 18.
She met Dylan in 1961 when she was already a star, and he was beginning his trailblazing as a singer/songwriter. After they met, she invited him on stage with her; they soon became the Queen and King of the Greenwich Village folk scene.
“He was not overly impressive,” she wrote in her memoir, And A Voice to Sing With, “He looked like an urban hillbilly, with hair short around the ears and curly on top.”
Their romance lasted until 1965. Baez wrote a breakup song that stands as a classic today. She called it ‘Diamond and Rust.’ More than a breakup song – it’s poetry.
“Well, I'll be damned
Here comes your ghost again
But that's not unusual
It's just that the moon is full
And you happened to call ...”
Read more: The Afro-Latino Origins of the Famous Song, ’Sopa De Caracol’
In 2011, she was honored with the Amnesty International Joan Baez Award, just one of the many she received throughout her lifetime. In 2023, Rolling Stone ranked Baez at 189 on its list of the 200 Greatest Singers of All Time.
If you have never heard Baez, start with ‘Diamonds and Rust’ and end with ‘No Pasaran.’
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Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is a writer and cultural critic who used to be a journalist, television producer, and news director. She lives between San Juan and New York and is, at present, making her first attempt at writing a novel.