The Washington Post – Listening to her older records, Joan Baez hears perfection in an ‘unsurpassable’ voice

The Kennedy Center honoree redefined folk music and showed up wherever her songs and courage were needed.

Folk legend Joan Baez, one of the five 2021 Kennedy Center honorees, at her Northern California home in 2018. (Ramona Rosales)

Imagine a young woman, free of makeup, a curtain of black hair, barefoot even in the Massachusetts winter, burnishing 200-year-old ballads in a crammed Cambridge coffeehouse, picking like an old hand at her acoustic guitar. At the launch of the 1960s, this was radical, inverting music on its shiny, hair-sprayed head. Joan Baez landed on Time magazine’s cover, lauded as the Queen of Folk. All at the august age of 21.

Her searing soprano with its trademark vibrato exhausted superlatives. It was declared incomparable yet compared to everything: old gold, the clear autumn air. It was deemed a line straight to God — staggering, the voice of an enchantress, a sibyl, a siren.

“The gift,” she calls her voice, which once traveled three octaves. “If I view it that way, then I can appreciate it and talk about it for what it is, not something I created,” says Baez, now 80. “It helps me stay grateful.”

Yet, she had a hand — or, precisely, an index finger — in augmenting her sound. At first, the vibrato had to be coaxed. As a teenager, “I literally sat in front of the mirror and wobbled my Adam’s apple up and down,” she says, demonstrating the Baez vibrato technique via Zoom, from the kitchen of her Northern California home, a portrait she painted of her granddaughter above the fireplace.

Many performers practice public self-abnegation about their talent. Please, I can’t bear to hear my work. Not Baez, one of this year’s five Kennedy Center honorees.

“I love to listen to my albums,” she says. There are 40, one issued almost every year during the first two decades. Baez is partial to her sound on the early ones. “That instrument is just unsurpassable. That little vocal box and all that stuff comes out — it’s just, to me, it’s some kind of its own perfection,” she says. The perfection, by her own estimation, lasted 20 years.

Baez performs at the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, R.I., in 1963. (Max Desfor/AP)

“She got bigger than folk singers ever get. She didn’t come across with a lot of ego,” says Roger McGuinn, founder of the Byrds, who first heard Baez as a teenager in the Cambridge coffeehouses near Harvard. “She looked like a hippie before there were hippies. And she’s a great guitarist.”

Baez “changed what it meant to be a star, a celebrity, a prominent figure in mainstream popular culture. She was representative of a radical new set of values,” says David Hajdu, author of “Positively 4th Street,” about the Greenwich Village music scene in the early 1960s. “She embodies the image of earthiness and simplicity. She’s not precisely fitting into the White American ideal. People are now squeamish talking about the exotic and the other, but that was part of her allure.”

Baez wrote songs, most famously “Diamonds and Rust” and “Sweet Sir Galahad,” but is best known as an interpreter of traditional ballads (including the Child catalogue) and the work of other singer-songwriters. She excelled at Americana before it had been named.

She has a genius for harmony, reflecting an agility to listen, collaborate and adapt swiftly onstage. “You want to try harmonizing with Bob Dylan?” asks David Crosby. “She’s a good, deep-in-the-groove folk singer. She didn’t try to be a pop star. She was beautiful and dignified and smart and funny and curious and intelligent and courageous. All the good stuff, man. I was madly in love with her.”

Baez’s commitment to social justice and folk music, the twin rivers that course through her big life, took her wherever trouble thrived: Hanoi, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Chile, Argentina, Alabama. The voice became her passport. Baez sang for Martin Luther King Jr., Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa. When she was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War, King came to visit her in 1968, a few months before he was assassinated. How was being incarcerated? “For me it was heaven,” she says. “I mean, I gained eight pounds.”

Baez is possibly the only artist to have performed at the March on Washington, Woodstock and Live Aid. A sensation at the inaugural 1959 Newport Folk Festival, she blew up before Dylan. Their romance was legendary. Less famously, Baez dated Steve Jobs.

“It is,” she concedes, “a little remarkable.”

Activism was the silver pattern of her only marriage. She and antiwar organizer David Harris married in 1968 and were a constant in the news, “Mr. and Mrs. World Peace.” They were wed five years, 20 months of which Harris spent behind bars for resisting the draft, coinciding with the birth of their son, Gabriel.

Baez performs onstage during a September 2005 antiwar demonstration on the National Mall. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

The humanitarian prizes flooded in. The artistic accolades took longer. Her Grammys are honorary and for lifetime achievement. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with its execrable record on women, didn’t induct her until 2017, two years before she retired from performing.

“She certainly paid a price for her politics,” Paul Simon says. “It’s taken all this time for her to get the Kennedy Center Honor.” He was feted nearly two decades ago. “She was a symbol. She was mocked. She was looked upon by a lot of people as a prototypical liberal and bleeding heart, and she is that unapologetically.” (Simon, Crosby and McGuinn all describe Baez as being older than them, “an adult.” They’re all roughly the same age.)

Baez’s activism was filleted by Joan Didion (“She is in a sense a hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be.”) and minced, absurdly, in Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip as “Joanie Phoanie.” Baez spouted radical honesty before it was a practice. Despite her shyness and near-paralyzing stage fright during the early years, she long lived her beliefs out loud.

In 1962, when this simply wasn’t done, Baez confessed to Time that she was on her fourth analyst. It wasn’t until age 50, she says now, that “I did the deep therapy stuff that obliterated whatever remnants there were, and there were plenty of fears.” Baez’s 1987 memoir, her second, “And a Voice to Sing With,” stuns in its candor. She shares celebrity crushes (Marlon Brando, Don Johnson), parrots other people’s dialects, including King’s, often to her detriment.

Baez’s parents were Quaker activists who moved constantly, including a stint in Baghdad. It made Joan yearn for permanence, despite the years of touring. Hence, the same home of 50 years, painted a sunny yellow.

All the Baez women were car-crackup beautiful — her Scottish-born mother, Joan Bridge Baez, who was jailed with her; her older sister, Pauline, and her younger sister, singer Mimi Fariña — but Joan was the only one with dark skin. She took after her father, Albert, a pioneering physicist born in Puebla, Mexico.

In junior high school, Joan failed to make glee club (!), she believes due to her appearance. “All the other girls were White,” she notes. She came to embrace her heritage, singing and protesting for human rights in Latin America — singing and protesting being one and the same for Baez — and recording the 1974 all-Spanish album “Gracias a la Vida.”

At the launch of her career, Baez was offered everything. She walked away from plenty. “My relationship with money has been sketchy,” she says. “I gave much of it away.”

In her early 20s, she went out for a flashlight and bought a Jaguar XKE instead. She rejected a $50,000 offer to promote Coca-Cola. Her reasoning? “I don’t drink Coke.” Baez spurned Columbia Records’ A&R oracle John Hammond, too, repelled by all the gold records hanging on the walls. She instead signed with the more sedate Vanguard label. There were eight gold albums, but she didn’t scale Billboard’s Top 10 until 1971, with a cover of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” It was Baez’s only hit.

For a decade, she excised the song from her repertoire. She shrugs, “I got tired of it.”

Baez and Bob Dylan perform at a Rolling Thunder Revue tour stop in Providence, R.I., in November 1975. (AP)

Baez doesn’t want to speak about Dylan. “I just feel as though I’ve covered it a million times.” True, the breakup was bitter on her part, and this Kennedy Center Honors is hers.

But it is incomplete to write about Baez without him, and the influence they had on each other; hers on him as much as her glorious interpretations of his canon. Frankly, he comes up in conversation unbidden.

Born four months apart, Joanie and Bobby, as they called each other, being just kids, rocketed into the stratosphere in tandem, and long before either had a clue as to how to handle it. (How does anyone handle it?) They were together at Newport, the March on Washington. In D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal documentary “Don’t Look Back,” Dylan is blistering in his casual cruelty, batting at a typewriter, his back turned, in his London hotel room, while she plucks a gorgeous rendition of “Percy’s Song” and his then-unfinished, haunting “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word.”

Baez came to own the song completely. Dylan never recorded it. Most artists didn’t dare.

In 1968, she released “Any Day Now,” a double album of Dylan covers. In 1975 and ’76, now friends, they toured together in the Rolling Thunder Revue. “Diamonds and Rust,” recorded in 1975, was inspired by a call from him. She wrote it on a tear: “As I remember your eyes / Were bluer than robin’s eggs / My poetry was lousy you said.”

Baez calls it “the only really superb song that I’ve written.” She may have performed it a few thousand times.

Dylan turned down requests to comment for this story, but his tributes are everywhere. In his 2004 memoir “Chronicles: Volume One,” Dylan wrote: “The sight of her made me sigh. All that and then there was the voice. A voice that drove out bad spirits.” He proclaimed it “a voice straight to God,” exalted her gift for guitar-picking and interpretation. “Nothing she did didn’t work.”

Baez, a dedicated artist, has painted his portrait several times, available for sale. And if Baez doesn’t want to speak of him, Dylan continues to speak of her. In a 2017 interview posted on his website, he said: “She was something else, almost too much to take. 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.”

Baez performs at the Royal Albert Hall in London — one of her final concerts on a farewell tour in 2018 and 2019. (Christie Goodwin for The Washington Post)

Baez’s voice, now an alto, doesn’t do many of the things it once did. “Actually, it got really hard to sing. It got so that the effort put into maintaining the voice wasn’t really worth it.” She felt no reason to mourn. “There were 60 years of this that were quite fantastic,” she says. “I have not had one twinge of regret, I’m happy to say.”

In 2017, she went on tour with Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Indigo Girls, part of her legacy of inspiring another generation of female singer-songwriters. “Joan represents to me the courage and bravery to be more than just an artist, to use her power as an artist, and her renown, and advocate for things that, as a human being, mean the world,” Carpenter says. “She always stood up for what she believes. You don’t see that every day. She did it far in excess of what is the norm.”

When Baez quit performing, she pretty much stopped singing for good. She put the guitars away, loaning one to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. “I took all the picks and put them in a bag, and put them in the bottom drawer.”

On Joan Baez’s final tour, her irony-free mix of politics and song seems as relevant as ever.

She paints, mostly portraits of her friends and heroes, and sells them for as much as five figures, donating much of the proceeds to favorite causes. And she loves to dance. She posted a video on Facebook of herself dancing in a supermarket the day the election was called for Joe Biden.

Lana Del Rey, another high soprano and a recent friend, says, “Joan’s so inherently herself, and always has been. She just had all the freedom to have all the opinions. She’s definitely not conforming to society’s how do you do’s. She’s just incredibly strong and a dominant presence in the best possible way.”

Two years ago, Del Rey coaxed Baez to perform “Diamonds and Rust” with her at a concert in Berkeley, Calif. Afterward, they went dancing at a San Francisco Mission Senegalese dance club, Bissap Baobab. Baez kept the joint open until 4 a.m., dancing long after Del Rey had given up.

“The spirit is inside her. Joan is going to die in those boots,” Del Rey recalls. Which inspired Del Rey to write “Dance Till We Die,”included on her last album.

“Joan is my favorite female singer,” says Del Rey, who revels in that vibrato and what it asks of listeners. “It reaches way above yourself. It’s quite ethereal and heavenly. The vibrato and trills come from the freedom of speech, from this deep-seated honesty. . . . It’s like she’s saying, ‘Hey I have a lot to say here. I’m going to hang on this note and hang on here with me.’ ”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Joan Baez loaned one of her guitars to the Smithsonian when she quit performing. It was loaned to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. The story has been updated.

Article by: Karen Heller