Early Baez: A Tribute

By Gene Wilburn

Album Cover Copyright Vanguard Records

I just read on Facebook that it was Joan Baez’s 83rd birthday. I’m only trailing her by a handful of years and, in a way, Baez and I grew up together, meaning we both passed through the same turbulent time periods. Not that I ever met her. I was just another fan, but her voice accompanied me through the early folk revival years, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and her singing introduced me to Bob Dylan.

I was seventeen in 1962 when I first heard Joan Baez on my transistor radio. She was singing the traditional ballad “Barbara Allen” and I was struck by two things: her beautiful, sad, gentle pitch-perfect soprano voice, and her guitar work. She played the song in D, if I recall correctly, using inverted arpeggios.

I was just learning my first few chords on a beat-up old guitar that had a turnbuckle on the back to keep the fingerboard from snapping off. I tried imitating her playing and found I could do it, a little. I couldn’t match her singing, of course. I was a teenage male without a great voice, but I could at least sing more or less in tune.

From that point on, she became my favourite folk singer, and, unbeknownst to her, my first guitar instructor.

The next year, 1963, I was struggling as an eighteen-year-old freshman engineering student at the University of Arizona, Tucson. I was failing chemistry and just getting by in calculus and feeling miserable about my prospects, but nonetheless it was a great year for folk music. I’d been to live performances of the New Christie Minstrels, the Clancy Brothers, Mike Settle, Joe and Eddie, and those enigmatic Tucson favourites, Bud and Travis.

I had acquired a cheap used Goya flamenco guitar which I used as a folk guitar. By this time I was listening to the early Baez albums over and over to pick up more of her guitar techniques. I was learning other folk styles as well, but there was something in the way Baez played that always drew me back.

My engineering roommate and some other engineering dorm buddies and I had planned a trip to the Grand Canyon to hike down and back up the Bright Angel Trail but an unexpected event intervened. It was announced, on short notice, that Joan Baez would perform a concert in the university auditorium, so I let my friends hike in the canyon without me. There was no way I was going to miss this.

I bought a medium-priced ticket and attended the concert. I think it happened on a university break because the seats weren’t filled. But the audience was attentive, enthusiastic, and adoring.

With no introduction by an announcer, Baez simply stepped out from behind the curtains into the spotlight, walked up to the mic, turned her Martin guitar around and sang her first song of the night. It cast a spell on us. The sound coming out of the many AR-3 speakers in the hall (engineering students notice such things) was purer than any recording I’d heard. She was even better live than she was on record, and she played song after song of her early ballad material. She also played some early Dylan which we all loved.

Because there were empty seats near the front, I moved into a first-class seat close to the stage where I could watch her play.

To this day I think Baez is an underrated guitarist. She wasn’t a guitar virtuoso, and played the standard folk/country chords, but what she did with them was something special. Her guitar not only provided accompaniment to her beautiful singing, it served as a second voice. She had a deft, confident technique (I never heard a single clunker) and while she was singing a lot was going on with her guitar.

In tunes like “John Riley,” “Girl of Constant Sorrow,” “East Virginia,” “Donna Donna,” and “All My Trials,” her guitar joined her in harmony, played mostly on the bass lines. In “Wildwood Flower” you could hear that she’d been influenced by Maybelle Carter, yet she moulded the technique into her own.

Baez had a remarkable way of using her guitar as an amplifier of her sung lyrics. In both “Henry Martin” and “Mary Hamilton” her sudden light double stringing on the bass strings brought forth dramatic moments of the ballads. Subtle and beautifully effective, cradling her clear soprano voice.

I’ve been to many folk concerts since then, and heard many better guitarists, but few folk artists ever matched the exquisite combination of Joan Baez’s voice and her single guitar accompaniment.

Not long after, the early Beatles bombarded the air waves, and the folk movement was more or less washed away. This led to the psychedelic era of rock, and folk music was largely forgotten and ignored, except for established folk festivals like Newport and Mariposa.

Baez, too, changed with the times and her work became increasingly singer-songwriter oriented, including some masterpieces from her own pen, like “Diamonds and Rust.” But even in that iconic song, her lovely guitar accompaniment underscores the lyrics.

When I see photos of the current Baez, she’s smiling a lot. I get the impression that she’s lived the good life and fought the good fight, and has achieved an inner peace. She still looks lovely.

But my memories harken back to the sad-eyed, serious early Baez who started me on the path of folk singing, something I continue to this day.

I owe her a great debt of thanks. Dear Joan, to me you are forever young.

If you are new to early Baez recordings, you can sample her at https://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_lvlmIBhrHo_Munfas0UYXIJVsr3UhBdyk&si=KeNlIyG5sKFBwLnOhttps://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_lvlmIBhrHo_Munfas0UYXIJVsr3UhBdyk&si=KeNlIyG5sKFBwLnO