The high pantheon [of folk music] is made up of all the shiftless geniuses who have shouted the songs of their forbears into tape recorders provided by the Library of Congress. These country "authentics" are the all but unapproachable gods. The tangible sibyl, closer to hand, is Joan Baez.
Her voice is as clear as air in the autumn, a vibrant, strong, untrained and thrilling soprano. She wears no makeup, and her long black hair hangs like a drapery, parted around her long almond face.
In performance she comes on, walks straight to the microphone and beings to sing. No patter. No show business. She usually wears a sweater and skirt or a simple dress. Occasionally she affects something semi-Oriental that seems to have been hand-sewn out of burlap. The purity of her voice suggests purity of approach. She is only 21 and palpably nubile. But there is little sex in that clear flow of sound. It is haunted and plaintive. A mother's voice, and it has in it distant reminders of black women wailing in the night, of detached madrigal singers performing calmly at court, and of saddened gypsies trying to charm death into leaving their Spanish caves.
Impresarios everywhere are trying to book her. She has rarely appeared in nightclubs and says she doubts that she will ever sing in one again; she wants to be something more than background noise. Her LP albums sell so well that she could hugely enrich herself by recording many more, but she has set a limit of one a year. Most of her concerts are given on college campuses.
She sings Child ballads (Harvard Professor Francis J. Child's five-volume The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published between 1882 and 1897 is still the definitive anthology in its field. Folkupmanship absolutely requires that a ballad be referred to as Child 12, Child 200, or Child 209 rather than Lord Randall, Gypsy Laddie, or Geordie.) with an ethereal grace that seems to have been caught and stopped in passage in the air over the 18th century Atlantic. Barbara Allen (Child 84) is one of the set pieces of folk singing, and no one sings it as achingly as she does. From Lonesome Road to All My Trials, her most typical selections are so mournful and quietly desperate that her early records would not be out of place at a funeral. More recently she has added some lighter material to create a semblance of variety, but the force of sadness in her personality is so compelling that even the wonderful and instructive lyrics of Copper Kettle somehow manage to portend a doom deeper than a jail sentence:
Build your fire with hickory--
Hickory and ash and oak.
Don't use no green or rotten wood,
They'll get you by the smoke.
While you lay there by the juniper,
While the moon is bright,
Watch them jugs a-filling
In the pale moonlight.
That song is a fine hymn to the contemplative life of the moonshiner, but Joan Baez delivers it in a manner that suggests that all good lives, respectable or not, are soon to end.
The people who promote her records and concerts are forever saying that "she speaks to her generation." They may be right since her generation seems to prefer her to all others. If the subtle and emotional content of her attitude is getting through to her contemporaries, she at least has an idea of what she is trying to say to them and why they want to hear it. "When I started singing, I felt as though we had just so long to live, and I still feel that way," she says. "It's looming over your head. The kids who sing feel they really don't have a future--so they pick up a guitar and play. It's a desperate sort of thing, and there's a whole lost bunch of them."
Mobile Start. Joan Baez (she pronounces it By-ess) was born on Staten Island, Jan. 9, 1941. But both her parents were foreign-born. Her mother was English-Scottish, the daughter of an Episcopal minister and professor of dramatic art who migrated to the U.S. Her father was born in Mexico and was also a minister's son. He arrived in the U.S. at the age of seven when his father was sent to work with the Spanish-speaking community in New York City. The two met at Drew University in Madison, N.J., where he discovered an interest in physics and made it his life's work. His academic career has been highly mobile, taking him to various universities and cities ranging from Los Angeles to Buffalo to Baghdad to Boston and, most recently, Paris, where he is now a consultant for UNESCO.
Along the way, young Joan and her two sisters learned some memorable lessons in bigotry. When Dr. Baez was doing military research in Buffalo, for example, he thought it would be a pleasant experience to settle in a small and typical American town. He chose Clarence Center, N.Y., (pop. 900) where the senile old man who was their next-door neighbor scowled at Joan's dark Mexican skin and said, "Niggers." The Baezes in turn called the neighbor "Old Bogey." To keep Old Bogey confused, they sank a plug spout into a telephone pole outside his house and hung a maple-syrup bucket on it. "We knew that he would be full of contempt for our supposed ignorance of maple tapping," says Dr. Baez, "but we knew that he could not resist peeking into the bucket. We were in stitches of laughter, peeking from our window when he would come by, look around furtively, and peek into the bucket. Then we began to put things in the bucket, water and so on. He was astonished. Poor Old Bogey."
In Redlands, Calif., Joan found a situation that cut deeper than one old crank. The Mexican schoolchildren there play in separate groups from the "whites." Observably, the dominant tone of Joan's personality changed from ebullience to melancholy. Her 13th birthday came, and she said something she would repeat often: "Mummy, I don't want to grow up."
She went to high school in Palo Alto, walked barefoot on the campus, got A's in music and F's in biology, studying only what appealed to her. She bought a Sears Roebuck guitar and also sang in the school choir, but there were no particular stirrings of a future career, least of all in folk singing. The music on the phonograph at home was Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi. Her voice at the time was, by her description, "straight as a pin." She would stand before her bathroom mirror, jiggling her Adam's apple with her forefinger in an effort to induce a vibrato--with no idea how stunning it would be when it eventually came to her.
Resentful Stones. After she had finished high school, the family moved to Boston, where her father had picked up a mosaic of jobs with Harvard, M.I.T., Encyclopedia Britannica Films, and the Smithsonian Institution. They had scarcely settled when Dr. Baez came home one night and said, "Come girls, I have something to show you." He took them to Tulla's Coffee Grinder, where amateur folk singers could bring their guitars and sing.
Joan was soon singing there and in similar places around Boston. She spent a month or so at Boston University studying theater--the beginning and end of college for her--and she met several semi-pro folk singers who taught her songs and guitar techniques. She never studied voice or music, or even took the trouble to study folklore and pick up songs by herself. Instead, she just soaked them up from those around her. She could outsing anybody, and she left a trail of resentful steppingstones behind her.
She sang in coffeehouses in and around Harvard Square that were populated by what might be called the Harvard underworld--drifters, somewhat beat, with Penguin classics protruding from their blue jeans and no official standing at Harvard or anywhere else. They pretended they were Harvard students, ate in the university dining halls and sat in on some classes. Joan Baez, who has long been thought of as a sort of otherworldly beatnik because of her remote manner, long hair, bare feet and burlap wardrobe, actually felt distaste for these academic bums from the start. "They just lie in their pads, smoke pot, and do stupid things like that," she says.
They were her first audiences, plus Harvard boys and general citizens who grew in number until the bums were choked out. She was often rough on them all. She ignored their requests if she chose to. When one patron lisped a request to her, she cruelly lisped in reply. When another singer turned sour in performance, Joan suddenly stood up in the back of the room and began to sing, vocally stabbing the hapless girl on the stage into silence.
Sometime Thing. She made one friend. His name is Michael New. He is Trinidad English, 23 years old, and apparently aimless--a sulky, moody, pouting fellow whose hair hangs down in golden ringlets. He may go down in history as the scholar who spent three years at Harvard as a freshman. "I was sure it would only last two weeks as usual," says Joan. "But then after three weeks there we were, still together. We were passionately, insanely, irrationally in love for the first few months. Then we started bickering and quarreling violently." Michael now disappears, for months at a time. But he always comes back to her, and she sometimes introduces him as her husband.
In the summer of 1959, another folk singer invited her to the first Folk Festival at Newport, R.I. Her clear-lighted voice poured over the 13,000 people collected there and chilled them with surprise. The record company leg-and-fang men closed in. "Would you like to meet Mitch, Baby?" said a representative of Columbia Records, dropping the magic name of Mitch Miller, who is Columbia's top pop artists-and-repertory man when he isn't waving to his mother on TV.
"Who's Mitch?" said Joan.
The record companies were getting a rude surprise. Through bunk and ballyhoo, they had for decades been turning sow's ears into silk purses. Now they had found a silk purse that had no desire to become a sow's ear. The girl did not want to be exploited, squeezed and stuffed with cash. Joan eventually signed with a little outfit called Vanguard, which is now a considerably bigger outfit called Vanguard.
Cats & Doctors. Somewhere along the line, Joan Baez' family became Quakers, but Joan herself is not a Friend. "Living is my religion," she says. She practices it currently on California's rugged coast. She has lived there for more than a year, including eight months in the Big Sur region in a squalid cabin with five cats and five dogs. The cabin was a frail barque adrift on a sea of mud, and sometimes when Joan opened the front door, a comber of fresh mud would break over the threshold and flow into the living room. When she couldn't stand it any more, she moved to cleaner quarters in nearby Carmel.
She does not like to leave the area for much more than a short concert tour, for her psychiatrist is there and she feels that she must stay near him. He is her fourth "shrink," as she calls analysts, and the best ever.
Mercurial, subject to quickly shifting moods, gentle, suspicious, wild and frightened as a deer, worried about the bugs she kills, Joan is anything but the harsh witch that her behavior in the Cambridge coffeehouses would suggest. Sympathetic friends point out that her wicked manner in those days was in large part a coverup for her small repertory. She could not have honored most requests if she wanted to. Actually, friends insist, she is honest and sincere to a fault, sensitive, kind and confused. She once worked to near exhaustion at the Perkins School for the Blind near Boston.
Segregation & Sentiment. Like many folk singers, she is earnestly political. She has taken part in peace marches and ban-the-bomb campaigns. Once in Texas she broke off singing in the middle of a concert to tell the audience that even at the risk of embarrassing a few of them, she wanted to say that it made her feel good to see some colored people in the room. "They all clapped and cheered," she says, "I was so surprised and happy."
She is a lovely girl who has always attracted numerous boys, but her wardrobe would not fill a hatbox. She wears almost no jewelry, but she has one material bauble. When a Jaguar auto salesman looked down his nose at the scruffily dressed customer as she peered at a bucket-seat XK-E sports model, she sat down, wrote a giant check, and bought it on the spot. Wildly, she dashes across the desert in her Jaguar, as unsecured as a grain of flying sand. "I have no real roots." she says. "Sometimes, when I walk through a suburb with all its tidy houses and lawns, I get a real feeling of nostalgia. I want to live there and hear the screen door slam. And when I'm in New York, it sometimes smells like when I was nine, and I love it. I look back with great nostalgia on every place I've ever lived. I'm a sentimental kind of goof."
A Singing Map. With that much capacity for nostalgia, it is a paradoxical wonder that she is not more interested in folk history. "I don't care very much about where a song came from or why -- or even what it says. All I care about is how it sounds and the feeling in it."