The 1960s were a time of renaissance for American folk music. During this time, one of the important figures in the folk movement during this time was Joan Baez. Baez is well-regarded for her performances of songs dealing with social issues during the time of the Civil Rights movement. As a result of her music, and social activism, Baez maintains a strong musical legacy to this day.
Joan Baez was born on January 9th, 1941 in Staten Island, New York to a Mexican father, and an Irish mother. Baez encountered discrimination at a very young age as a result of her Mexican heritage. She said that because she was of mixed race “I was still in sort of no-man’s land; the white kids looked down upon me because I was part Mexican, and the Mexican kids didn’t like me because I couldn’t speak Spanish” . It was because she felt that she didn’t fit in that Baez started with music, as she found it to be an outlet for self-expression. When Baez was ten years old, her family moved to Iraq where they remained for a year. It was her time here where the young Baez was first introduced to the horrors of poverty, which was widespread in the country. Reflecting on the experience, Baez later wrote that “Perhaps that was where my passion for social justice was born”.
After she graduated from high school, Baez enrolled in Boston University. However, after only a few weeks, she dropped out to concentrate fully on a career in music. By this point she had discovered that her passions lay with the folk music genre. Baez was attracted to the folk genre because of how guitar chords and songs were often freely exchanged amongst folk circles, as well as how folk singers tended to learn by ear, rather than receive any formal training. After she dropped out of college, Baez began performing at coffee houses in the vicinity of Boston. Here, she started the process of building up a repertoire of covers of folk standards, and began composing original songs of her own as well.
In order to understand Joan Baez’s further career in the folk music scene, it is first important to gain an understanding of the folk scene itself. In the 1940’s, musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly gained limited popularity performing traditional songs describing the plight of the common, working class American man . Many of them carried sympathies for progressive politics. Their political views left them unable to reach a mainstream audience because the government bore great anti-communist sentiment at the time. The federal government pressured record companies not to sign anyone who could be considered to have radical views. This forced many folk musicians to travel around the country performing live in order to make a living, and get their messages out there through song. One of the places folk singers weren’t restricted to play was on college campuses, making folk music of great popularity with the youth of America. When the Civil Rights movement picked up steam in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, folk became the movement’s soundtrack, with musicians writing numerous songs about the injustices suffered by the African Americans, and their pursuit of equality.
Baez’s time performing at coffee houses was well received. Much of the commendation she received was directed particularly at her “achingly pure soprano”. As a result of her acclaim, she was invited to perform at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival in 1959. She was well received here as well. Through her performance at Newport, she was able to become acquainted with established stars of the folk industry such as Pete Seeger and his family. Following her success at Newport, and through her newly established connections in the folk world, Baez was offered multiple contracts with record companies. However, Baez turned down a lot of deals, fearing that the record companies would force her to compromise her artistic integrity for the sake of profit . Baez eventually decided upon a small recording label called Vanguard records. With Vanguard, Baez put together her first album entitled simply Joan Baez. The album was released in 1960. Her album was met with great critical acclaim. In the next couple of years, Baez became the first female artist to achieve massive international success as a folk singer, and more importantly, was one of the nation’s most visible cultural figures of the ever growing civil rights movement. She was a “spokesperson for the cause” and used her considerable influence to bring issues of the movement to the attention of her mostly white audience . She participated in numerous demonstrations, most notably the March on Washington in 1963, the event where Martin Luther King made his iconic “I have a dream speech.” As the conflict in Vietnam escalated, Baez participated in acts of civil disobedience in condemnation of it, such as refusing to pay the fraction of her taxes that would go to defense spending.
Baez was an iconic figure throughout the 1960s. However, after the decade came to an end, and the counterculture and civil rights movements along with it, political activism became less and less frequent and widespread. However, this did not stop Baez from continuing her work against political and social injustice. She continued her political activism, despite the fact that doing so often had its professional costs. This however fits in with Baez’s conception of herself, that she tries “not to consider myself in any business. I regard myself principally as a politician. I like being called a pacifist, and I suppose I don’t mind being called a folk singer. But music is secondary to me”.
Despite losing much of her cultural relevance following the end of the 1960s, her influence on the folk music genre is undeniable. As the first major successful female folk musician she paved the way for many more of her kind such as Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell. She also did the world of music a huge service by popularizing the work of Bob Dylan, often considered one of the greatest musicians of the last century, by way of covering his songs live.