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Joan Baez Song Reviews

Joan Baez (1960)

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Joan Baez

Silver Dagger A+

This would become Baez's signature song, and that's for good reason: In one moment, it captures everything Baez was all about: Pure singing, well-textured strumming on the acoustic guitar, and a great song with a great melody that she plucked out of relative obscurity. I do like listening to the lyrics of these old songs, so I'd might as well reprint some of them... (“All men are false, says my mother / They'll tell you wicked, lovin' lies / The very next evening, they'll court another / Leave you alone to pine and sigh”) ...Awwww.

East Virginia A+

This is a beautiful folk ballad with an utterly captivating melody. Beautifully sung, of course. The whole album is like this. The song's only got six verses; it starts with a man's birth, and it ends with his death. In between, we get lyrics about a woman he saw once—whose name he never learned—and he laments over the fact he didn't get to spend his life with her. ...But we shouldn't spend too much time feeling sorry for him, since—according to “Silver Dagger”—it's likely he wrote another song about someone else the next day.

Fare Thee Well A

I have no idea what I was thinking in my original review of this album, awarding “East Virginia” an A+ while giving this similarly beautiful song a measly C+. ...This is yet another beautiful ballad, and the way she sings that sustained high note when she sings “If I go...” is utterly haunting. The lyrics this time are about departing for a long journey, leaving someone behind. I guess life is nothing but heartache when I listen to a Joan Baez song!

House of the Rising Sun A+

Baez gets credit for recording this song before The Animals released their extremely successful version of it. She also recorded it before Bob Dylan did. All three versions show us a different dimension: If this song is really about a brothel, The Animals celebrate it, Dylan chronicles it, and Baez's slower, sparser, and more contemplative version warns us about it. Of course it's a beautiful melody that everyone knows by heart, so this shouldn't make a tough listen!

All My Trials A+

This is such a hauntingly beautiful song that I've even found this song lurking in my head even when this album isn't around. It's also just about the saddest song ever written... (“Hush little baby, don't you cry / You know your mother was born to die / All my trials, Lord, will soon be over”) This album is nothing but heartache!!

Wildwood Flower A-

This song tricks me with lyrics like “I will dance, I will sing and my laugh shall be gay / I will charm every heart, in his crown I will sway”. But the next line is this: “I woke from my dream and all idols was clay / And all portions of love then had all flown away”. And then it goes back to being about someone losing their love. ...At least the guitar strumming is a little brighter! ...Of all the songs here, this is also one of the more famous ones—having been a hit song for the Carter Family, and Johnny Cash's version being popular as well. Strangely, though, I don't find its melody to be quite as captivating as some of the others here.

Donna Donna A

Even though all these songs are sung with simple acoustic guitars, you do have to give Baez credit for keeping a level of diversity. This is a Yiddish song, and it's another great one! Yes, the lyric matter is once again fairly depressing, but you can rest easy this time, because it's only about a cow. “Calves are easily bound and slaughtered / Never knowing the reason why / But whoever treasures freedom / Like the swallow has learned to fly”. Except, this isn't really about the beginnings of hamburger production; it's about human suffering and the quest for freedom.

John Riley A

This is a medieval folk song and not about that guy who starred with Will Ferrell in Step Brothers. That guy's name is spelled “Reilly” anyway. ...It's yet another beautiful ballad that Baez managed to unearth, and it directly inspired The Byrds' to create their own version of it. I do prefer this version, though... it's simple and pure, and I find its mournful melody resonates with me. The lyrics, are once again, about a woman keeping herself from marrying anybody, because she is waiting for someone who had—for seven years—been at sea, and she has no idea if he lives or dies. ...The more I listen to these songs, the more I want to get a silver dagger for myself to keep all the men away.

Rake and Rambling Boy A-

This sounds like a 19th Century American folk song, and it's another entertaining listen. The manner of guitar strumming and singing is brighter, just like “Wildwood Flower,” but somehow the melody compels me less than the more mournful stuff. The song also tricks me, again, with a happy line like “And now I've married me a pretty little wife / And I love her dearer than I love my life.” But then she compels him to go and robs “the broad highway” and goes to jail. So he doesn't get to be with her anymore. Oh well. (What is “the broad highway?” A road or a train tracks? Some smartypants on the Internet out there probably knows...)

Little Moses A-

This is a song about the Bible, and not about somebody dying or losing the love of their life. With that said, there's more death here by volume here, since this about Moses parting the read sea, and the Egyptian army all drowns. Since the Egyptians are the villains of this particular piece, I guess we don't have to feel too sorry for them. Even though individuals in the Egyptian army, I'm sure, had wife and kids just like everybody else, and perhaps some of them even had reservations about attacking the Israelites. But God would've killed them too. (I'm going to have to listen to something a little happier after I'm finished reviewing this album.) ...For sure, this is another excellent folk ballad that Baez unearthed, and I enjoy listening to it. The melody is nice, but it's not one of the moments of the album I remember the most.

Mary Hamilton A+

Ah, so beautiful! This is a Scottish ballad, and it has such a captivating melody... and the way Baez sings it makes me want to listen carefully to it. The subject matter isn't so depressing this time...only about the death of a fictional woman named Mary Hamilton, a woman who was to be crowned queen, and she has a baby with the king. Then she kills the baby and is convicted and executed for the crime. (“Last night there were four Marys / Tonight there'll be but three.”) The other three Marys, in case you are curious, are Mary Beaton, Mary Seaton and Mary Carmichael. Virginia Woolf was so curious who these people were it inspired her to write A Room of One's Own. There you go: a factoid.

Henry Martin A+

Another utterly beautiful Scottish ballad! This one in particular, I like Baez's acoustic guitar strumming, particularly those little flourishes she does during the refrains. This song equals “Little Moses” in the amount of deaths; this time, it's an entire ship. (“Bad news, bad news to old England came / Bad news to fair London Town / There's been a rich vessel and she's cast away / Cast away, cast away / And all of her merry men drowned”)

El Preso Numero Nueve A-

Hola! Baez was especially good at singing songs in Spanish and even released an entire album of Spanish-language songs later in her career. Even though I named myself “Don Ignacio,” I don't speak Spanish that well, but I can tell her pronunciation is precise. This song also has the added bonus of being in a different language, so I don't have to get so wrist-slitty when I listen to it. Though I'm guessing it can't be too happy, since the title translates to “The Prisoner Number Nine.” (Number 9... Number 9... Number 9...) ...This is also by far the newest song of the album, written by Mexican singer-songwriter Roberto Cantoral in the 1950s. It does sound like a Mexican folk song, and the melody—once again—is beautiful.

Girl of Constant Sorrow A+

This is the beginning of the bonus tracks, and these tracks are so good that they further enhance the quality of this album. ...This song is better known as “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which is most popular these days for being featured in O Brother Where Art Thou?, but it was a popular song even before Baez recorded it. But she helped resurge its popularity, directly inspiring Bob Dylan and Judy Collins to record versions of their own. And nope, Baez didn't change the sex of the character on her own; women folk singers did that before her. The song sticks with the ages because the melody is so catchy. And the lyrics are once again incredibly sad (“All through this world I'm about to trouble / Through sun and wind and drought and rain / I'm about to ride the west railways / Perhaps I'll die the very next train.”) ...Were people in the old days always this sad? That's what comes from not having TVs, I guess.

I Know You Rider A+

Here is another great ballad, this time a blues ballad. The way these acoustic guitars are so densely strummed, it captivates me. The lyrics are a little vaguer this time, but they're poetic and worth dwelling on. Even though, when I read the lyrics, my mind meanders to other places. (“To love you baby, it's as easy as falling off a log / Wanna be your baby but I sure won't be your dog”). The void created by this must be how Iggy Pop got the idea to become a rock star.

John Riley N/A

This is an extended version of the song we already heard!

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All reviews are written by Michael Lawrence.