In the summer of 1958, 17-year-old Joan Baez entered Boston University School of Drama, surrounded by a musical group of friends who shared her twin passions of folk music and humanist causes. The traditional songs she mastered all dealt with the human condition - underdogs in the fight, inequity among the races, the desperation of poverty, the futility of war, romantic betrayal, unrequited love, spiritual redemption, and grace. Her repertoire grew and she was soon making the rounds of the busy coffee house folk music scene in Boston and Cambridge, especially the venerable Club 47 on Mt. Auburn Street off Harvard Square.
As an 18-year-old, she was introduced onstage at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959, by Bob Gibson. This led to an offer from Vanguard Records, and she recorded her first solo LP for the label in the summer of 1960. With their mix of traditional ballads and blues, gospel, lullabies, Carter Family songs, Weavers and Woody Guthrie songs, cowboy tunes, ethnic folk staples of American and non-American vintage, and much more - her records won strong followings here in the US and abroad.
Many of the songs that Joan introduced on those early LPs found their way into the rock vernacular: "House Of the Rising Sun" (the Animals), "John Riley" (the Byrds), "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" (Led Zeppelin), "What Have They Done To the Rain" (the Searchers), "Jackaroe" (Grateful Dead), and "Long Black Veil" (the Band), to name a few. "Geordie," "House Carpenter," and "Matty Groves" inspired a multitude of British acts who trace their origins to Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span. By November 1962, Joan was worthy of the cover of TIME magazine as leader of the burgeoning folk boom.
In 1963, Joan began touring with Bob Dylan and recording his music, a bond that came to symbolize the folk music movement for the next two years. At the same time, Joan began her lifelong role of introducing songs from a host of contemporary singer-songwriters starting with Phil Ochs, Richard Fariña, Leonard Cohen, Tim Hardin, Paul Simon, and others. Her repertoire grew to include songs by Jacques Brel, Lennon-McCartney, Johnny Cash and his Nashville peers, and South American composers Nascimento, Bonfa, Villa-Lobos, and others.
At a point when it was neither safe nor fashionable, Joan put herself on the line countless times, as her life's work was mirrored in her music. She sang about freedom and Civil Rights everywhere, from the backs of flatbed trucks in Mississippi to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington in 1963. In 1964, she withheld 60% of her income tax from the IRS to protest military spending, and participated in the birth of the Free Speech movement at UC Berkeley. A year later she co-founded the Institute For The Study Of Nonviolence near her home in Carmel Valley. In 1966, she stood in the fields alongside Cesar Chavez and migrant farm workers striking for fair wages, and opposed capital punishment at San Quentin during a Christmas vigil.
The soundtrack for the tumultuous '60s was (and still is) Joan's remarkably timeless Vanguard albums. In 1968, she began recording in Nashville, an album of country standards for her then-husband David Harris. He was taken into custody by Federal marshals in July 1969 and imprisoned for refusing induction and organizing draft resistance against the Vietnam war. Nashville's "A-Team" backed Joan on her last four LPs on Vanguard (including her biggest career single, a cover of The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in 1971) and her first two releases on A&M Records. Meanwhile, Joan traveled to Hanoi with the U.S.-based Liaison Committee and helped establish Amnesty International on the West Coast.
"All of us are survivors," Joan Baez wrote, "but how many of us transcend survival?" 50 years on, she continues to show renewed vitality and passion in her concerts and records, and is more comfortable than ever inside her own skin. In this troubled world, to paraphrase "Wings," she will always continue to seek "a place where they can hear me when I sing."