The queen of 1960s folk music, Joan Baez is as well known for her political activism as for her pure soprano. She was born on January 9, 1941, in Staten Island, New York but her family moved frequently in her youth. Her father, a physicist of Mexican heritage, was an academic researcher who had eschewed more lucrative defense work on moral grounds. Joan’s parents, both Quakers, nurtured her social conscience. Her mistreatment by schoolmates because of her dark skin also contributed to her sympathy with the less fortunate.
While attending high school in Palo Alto, California, Baez began playing the guitar. After graduating in 1958, she enrolled at Boston University but soon became caught up in the renaissance of folk music pioneered by Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio. Playing coffeehouses in Boston and Cambridge, Baez developed a reputation as a keen interpreter of classic folk. In the summer of 1959, she was invited to perform at the first Newport Folk Festival. Her performance made her an overnight star of the folk scene. Baez refused better-paying offers to sign with Vanguard Records, then the premier folk label. In 1960, Vanguard released Joan Baez, an album of traditional folk songs, including “House of the Rising Sun.” The first of Baez’s eight gold records, it reached number three on the charts. Baez continued to tour concert halls and campuses to growing crowds. In 1963, she played to an audience of more than 20,000 at Los Angeles’s Hollywood Bowl. Baez constantly broadened her repertoire, singing spirituals, hymns, and country and western tunes. She also sang songs by contemporary folk and rock artists, including Phil Ochs, Leonard Cohen, the Beatles, and most notably Bob Dylan. In addition to touring frequently together, Baez and Dylan became linked romantically.
By the mid-1960s, Baez was using her celebrity status to bring attention to political and social causes she held dear. In 1964, she refused to pay 60 percent of her income tax as a protest against the United States’s military arms buildup. A vehement opponent of the Vietnam War, Baez was arrested two years later for blocking the doors of an armed forces induction center. She married draft resister David Harris in 1968. Soon after she became pregnant with their son Gabriel, Harris was arrested and sent to federal prison for 20 months.
Baez’s antiwar stance won her both supporters and detractors. She was scheduled in 1967 to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., a venue controlled by the conservative Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). When the DAR refused to allow her to play the hall, Baez gave an outdoor concert at the Washington Monument that attracted a crowd of more 30,000. Baez was also well-received when she performed at the legendary Woodstock concert in 1969.
In the 1970s, Baez developed her talents as a songwriter with such albums as Blessed Are . . . (1971) and Diamonds & Ruse (1975). The decade also brought her her greatest commercial successa cover of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” one of the biggest singles of 1972. The same year, Baez began a long-term association with the human rights watchdog group Amnesty International and took a controversial tour of North Vietnam. In 1979, she helped found Humanitas International Human Rights Committee, an organization devoted to promoting human rights and nuclear disarmament through educational seminars.
In her autobiography And a Voice to Sing With (1987), Baez wrote of “the ashes and silence of the 1980s”—a decade that largely ignored both her music and politics. Nevertheless, she performed to acclaim at the Live Aid concert of 1985 and garnered a Grammy nomination for “Asimbonanga,” a song from Recently (1987), her first studio album in eight years.
Baez devoted much of the early 1990s on what she called “inner work,” including therapy to help her overcome stage fright and other phobias that had plagued her for years. At the same time, she discovered a new generation of singer-songwriters playing, in Baez’s words, “this folk/rock kind of music that still suits me best.” Baez’s own work was revitalized as she began touring with younger artists such as Dar Williams, Indigo Girls, and Sinead Lohan. Heading into her sixth decade in music, Baez maintained that she could now perform “a freer concert than I ever thought I could give.” As she told the New York Times in 2000, in recent years she has succeeded in “get[ting] past the myth of being Joan Baez and learn[ing] to enjoy my life.”
Baez, Joan. And a Voice to Sing With: A Memoir. New York: Summit Books, 1987.
Fuss, Charles. Joan Baez: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1996.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Rare, Live and Classic. Vanguard, CD set, 1993.