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Joan Baez


Joan Baez (1960)

Joan Baez (1960)

Album Score: 13

Some great albums can take months or years of painstaking work to complete. There's the time-consuming songwriting phase, the countless hours spent in the studio with armies of musicians and sound engineers working to get every note correct. Then there are other great albums, such as this one, which is the polar opposite: Covers of old folk songs that were recorded in a dingy hotel ballroom, usually in one take. (According to Baez, this took them four days to record this in total... and they couldn't record on Wednesday because it interfered with Bingo night.)

Really, it's the simplicity and pureness that makes this album so compelling to me. And it was so successful that it helped catapult Baez, who was 19, to being one of the central figures of the then-burgeoning folk-revival scene, whose sole mission was to retool old folk and country songs for a completely new audience.

And just because these songs are covers, I wouldn't want to diminish the hard work Baez did in unearthing these songs and then figuring out how to interpret them; I'd imagine recording an album like this is even more stressful than recording originals, in a way. If the sole reason for searching for old, nearly forgotten folk songs is to show the world how great they are, then your efforts are going to be lost if they're lazy. Well, history has now spoken, and this album has caught fire: Not only was it a commercial success at the time (albeit not a massive one), many of the songs Baez covered here helped directly inspired other musicians to cover them as well: she did “House of the Rising Sun” before The Animals' distinctive version hit the shelves and even before Bob Dylan recorded it; her version of the 17th Century folk ballad “John Reilly” precedes The Byrds' version on one of their best albums, Fifth Dimension; and she was also first among the folk revivalists to cover “Man of Constant Sorrow” … except her variation was “Girl of Constant Sorrow.”

The album opens with “Silver Dagger,” which would become Baez's signature song. It becoming her signature song makes sense, because—in its two minutes, thirty seconds—it captures Baez at her essence: Beautiful singing, well-textured acoustic guitar strumming, and just being a great song with a great melody that she plucked out of relative obscurity. Most of the songs on the album can be described like this; there's no other instrument to be heard here apart from the acoustic guitar, and nobody other than Baez can be heard singing. There are no highfalutin studio tricks here, like overdubs, either. There is, however, someone who plays a second acoustic guitar here, though: Fred Hellerman from The Weavers... The dangers of producing an album like this is if all the songs sound the same, it could get boring...fast. But Baez keeps things interesting by finding songs from wide variety of sources: Traditional American ballads (“East Virginia”, Scottish ballads (“Henry Martin”), English ballads (“Fare Thee Well”), Yiddish ballads (“Donna Donna”), lullaby spirituals (“All My Trials”), blues ballads (“I Know You Rider”), Mexican ballads (“El Preso Numero Nueve”), etc. ...For sure, listening to this album will necessitate you being able to appreciate acoustic ballads, but—if you do—it has such a rich variety.

For whatever reason, when I had reviewed Baez's discography back in the 2007 timeframe, when I was in my mid 20s, I lambasted the majority of her output. (Except, even back then, I liked this debut album.) Since that time, now that I'm in my mid 30s, I have a steady job and I own a house. Without any doubt, I've grown mellower, and I am at the stage of my life when I can fully appreciate this kind of music. You know, music for grown-ups. ...So here I go, at long last, writing my definitive reviews of Joan Baez's discography. And, oh yes, I am looking forward to this, too.

Read the track reviews:
Joan Baez

All reviews are written by Michael Lawrence.