JOAN BAEZ REVIEWS:
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, Vol. 2 (1961)
Album Score: 11
I’m not checking or anything but if Joan Baez’s debut is not on 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, then what the heck is that guy doing? While the debut should have plenty of widespread, mainstream appeal thanks mostly to the stellar song selection, this follow-up comes off more like leftovers. Like they are things she considered but ultimately decided to leave off the debut. Not that this isn’t a perfectly fine collection of folk songs—and indeed many of these songs are great—but the overall impact of listening to this album isn’t as great to me as the debut was.
Again, like the debut, we get a decent variety of songs—mainly a mixture of old English and American ballads. There’s also a French ballad “Plaisir d’Amour” whose melody had served as the basis for the Elvis classic “Can’t Falling in Love.” The songs once again are instrumented simply with Baez’s acoustic guitar, which she sings to earnestly and beautifully. The only exceptions are the opener, “Wagoner’s Lad,” which is a cappella, and there’s a pair of tunes that start off Side B in which she’s accompanied by bluegrass musicians The Greenbriar Boys. (I used to think they sounded awful, but I’m listening to them today, and I think they sound alright. They’re unkempt, for sure.)
While there’s good diversity here for an album that consists only of Baez playing acoustic folk covers, the one area where there’s no diversity is the lyrics—in the sense that somebody dies at the end of all these songs. Sylvester Stallone from Rambo 2 is listening to this album and saying “Way too much bloodshed.” “The Cherry Tree Carol” happens to be one of the few songs that’s not about somebody dying, or somebody killing someone, or killing themself. It’s about Joseph who refuses to pick cherries for Mary, because Mary just revealed she is having a child out of wedlock. But then Baby Jesus starts talking from the womb and entices God to bend down the cherry tree branch to Mary’s hand. Now, why didn’t we sing this song in Sunday school, I wonder? While the lyrics in this album are depressing and oftentimes weird, I did find the experience of reading them and basking myself in them to be very enjoyable. (Just when you thought it was only cool to do that with Bob Dylan's original compositions.)
My pick for album's best song happens to not really be part of the album but one of the bonus tracks, “I Once Loved a Boy.” I just find that so sweet and captivating; the melody is one of the most awe-inspiringly beautiful things I've ever heard, and Baez's haunting soprano matches it. It also happens to be one of the few songs that isn't about death or talking fetuses.
I have to note here that I’ve mellowed quite a lot over the years such that when I had reviewed this album originally (once in my early 20s and again in my mid 20s), I utterly loathed it. I didn’t like that it opened with a relatively uninteresting a cappella song, and these melodies as a whole aren’t prone to sticking in my mind. Now that I’m in my mid-30s and have grown more accustomed to adult things, I am actually finding that I enjoy this. For sure, the album isn't for everyone. As I brushed at in the opening paragraph of this review, you'd only want to get into this if you loved the debut and have a yearning to experience more of what Joan Baez has to offer us.
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Joan Baez in Concert, Part 1 (1962)
Album Score: 12
This is not your typical live album. You know, where artists perform favorites from their back-catalogs, except they’re not as good as the studio version, partly because the recording is obnoxiously washed out with audience noise. However, Baez performs songs that did not appear on her studio albums. Also, she was a pure folk musician who only recorded with her voice and an acoustic guitar, so the recording quality is essentially just as good as the studio cuts. Lastly, she was performing in front of a bona fide folk audience, who were holding onto each note—only clapping politely once she finished her last note. They are remarkably quiet, apart from a couple of sing-a-longs and an occasional bout of laughter.
One sing-a-long that is notorious is her rendition of “Kumbaya.” And I say it is notorious because in previous iterations of this review, I completely lambasted it. Why, did I do that, you might ask? Because all I could picture when I listened to it was how dorky everyone in the audience must’ve been to actually want to sing along with that. I mean, that song that’s got to be the most cliché thing for a hippie folkster to sing along to. Also, I didn’t like the song. By contrast, today when I listen to it, what I think about is…well, “Kumbaya” is rather beautiful, isn’t it? I mean, the song is about no matter who you are, what language you speak, God’s love is for you. Also, a song like helps keep the album diverse. If you recall, her previous album was quite depressing as a whole, since someone died at the end of nearly all those songs. …Sure, Baez kills some more during the course of this album, but it’s not quite the bloodbath.
That is, unless you count “What Have They Done to the Rain?” where Baez essentially kills the entire world. But, you know, that’s just one song. That is Baez’s first ever protest song and was a then-recent composition by 60-year-old political activist Malvina Reynolds. The reason the song title asks this question is because the rain had been replaced with nuclear fallout. The way Baez performs that song, it all seems so deceptively simple; the tune is pretty and her vocal performance is sweet. And yet, when I hear the lyrics, I get hit in the gut. (I happen to be writing this during the Trump era—somehow I don’t think I would have taken this song so seriously if I was still in the Obama era.)
I’d have to say my favorite moments here are a couple of folk songs that are about sticking it to The Man. One is called “Copper Kettle,” which is a beautiful song about moonshiners. The melody is one of the catchiest melodies Baez has ever sung. And then there’s a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” which glorifies the title character, a notorious Oklahoma outlaw. (Not that I really like it when people glorify outlaws. But, Pretty Boy Floyd’s crime spree happened in the early ‘30s, so maybe it’s time to get over it already?)
This album also seals its place in rock history, as a number of these songs would be famously covered later by others. In particular Led Zeppelin also covered this album’s opening track, “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” in their debut album. I wouldn’t even want to tell you which version I like better, because they are both so different. Surely, Baez was truer to its original form. However, Zeppelin took the song as a launching pad for quite an elaborate journey. Baez also performed “Matty Groves” here, which Fairport Convention would also cover in Leige and Lief and become one of their signature songs. (Not to mention, I saw Richard Thompson in concert several times, and he did this song.)
So all in all, I found this album to be quite enjoyable, particularly for a folk album that’s got nothing but a singer strumming an acoustic guitar. If you’re reading this and haven’t listened to anything by Baez yet, I would still start with her debut album for the ultimate folk experience. If you enjoyed that, then consider yourself a graduate and get into this album next; there is an awful lot of good stuff here.
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