Joan Baez Song Reviews
Joan Baez (1960)
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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!
Joan Baez, Vol. 2 (1961)
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Wagoner’s Lad B
She opens this album with an a cappella song. Could you possibly enjoy an a cappella song? This sort of thing used to irk me, but I’ve mellowed out now. The way the song opens catches my attention, anyway. ( “Oh, hard is the fortune of all woman kind / She’s always controlled, she’s always confined / Controlled by her parents until she’s a wife / A slave to her husband for the rest of her life” ) The song then goes onto describe a man who is courting her, but he is poor and her parents don’t like him. And then he decides to leave her alone. …If you’re looking for a romance, I guess you shouldn’t be looking here.
The Trees They Do Grow High A
Here’s another depressing love song. This one’s about a 24-year-old woman whose father marries her off to a 14-year-old boy—a Lord’s son. She’s mopes a lot, but she ends up going through with it, knowing the kid will grow up eventually. But last stanza: The boy dies at 16. …And you think you’re having a bad day? …Anyway, this somber melody is beautiful, and of course Baez’s earnest delivery sells it.
The Lily of the West B+
This was an Irish folk ballad that was turned into an American folk ballad (with American locations of Louisville and Lexington). The lyrics aren’t so fascinating to me this time…just about a woman who chooses another man over the narrator, so the narrator kills the other man. The melody is fine, but nothing that sticks to me.
This is a lovely English ballad, albeit it’s written in some kind of dialect I don’t understand, except it also appears to end in people getting killed. Kudos of course to Baez who sings this, treating the source material I’d imagine as well as could be expected. …The only thing keeping me from truly embracing this song is just that it’s such a typical folk ballad in that it’s paced rather slowly and each stanza repeats the same melody.
Engine 143 B+
Well I would assume you wouldn’t even listen to Joan Baez in the first place if you weren’t a hardcore folkie. The best I can hope to do is sit here and try to pick and choose some highlights for you to play to yourself… I wouldn’t highlight this song, even though I appreciate that this one sounds very American. I picture Baez strumming this guitar within a scratchy daguerreotype. The melody is pretty. Baez’s singing style is also different here—losing her soprano warble, singing more deeply, which seems folksier. (Oh I read the lyrics. This time, the death at the end occurs by way of murder at a railroad.)
Once I Knew a Pretty Girl A
I think I’m always going to prefer the songs that seem like they’re mournful old English ballads. (Although I don’t seem to be able to verify at this time the origin of this song.) The melodies haunt me, and so does Baez’s ghostly voice. …The only thing negative I can say about this song is that Baez seemed to drop the ball and accidently picked a song that doesn’t end in somebody getting killed. This one’s just about how the looks of beautiful young women don’t last. ( “For the leaves they will wither / Roots will decay / And the beauty of a young girl / Will soon fade away / Ohh, will soon fade away” )
Lonesome Road A-
Ooof such a bitter song. The narrator wishes she was never born or died as a baby so that she’d not have to sit and eat cold bread and salty gravy with somebody who has a “lying tongue.” ( “So look up and down that lonesome road / All our friends have gone, my Lord! / And you and I must go” ) Again, here’s another song that doesn’t end with people dying, but this might be the worst kind of death of them all…the death of a friendship. :’(
The Banks of the Ohio B+
Just proving to myself how much I’ve mellowed over the years, I have distinct memories of listening to this song circa 2007 and thinking those back-up singers Baez employs here were like nails to a chalkboard. Now, I think they sound fine! Yes they’re unrefined, but what do you want in folk music? These back-up singers (The Greenbriar Boys) also brought their instruments along with them, so we get a little extra strumming. The melody is pretty. Also, reading the lyrics, Baez seems to be back in good form as far as song selection goes. (Somebody dies at the end.)
Pal of Mine A-
The melody sounds like “This Land is Your Land.” But my knowledge of how folk musicians used to write music, stealing melodies was just standard practice. Anyway, really nice song…The Greenbriar Boys are back, they’re harmonizing a little more nicely, and we get some excellent banjo plucking in the background. ( “There is just three things I wish for / That’s my casket, shroud and grave / When I’m dead, don’t weep for me / Just like those lips that you betrayed” ) So this song doesn’t exactly result in somebody dying…just a person looking forward to it.
Barbara Allen A
Here, Baez finds another haunting, mournful melody and delivers it with unmatchable beauty and grace. Really, the only things to top this are from her debut album. I also notice that she pronounced ‘Barbara’ as ‘Barbrie.’ Is that how that name used to be pronounced? Or maybe that’s some English dialect. …Anyway, this song also ends with somebody dying. It’s somebody’s lover. The dying starts at third stanza, happens at the fifth stanza, and then the rest of the song is the widow slowly dying from grief. And you thought you had a bad day.
The Cherry Tree Carol B+
Oh for once we have a song that isn’t so depressing. Just only about Mary and Joseph in an orchard picking cherries. Oh wait, but then Mary reveals to Joseph she’s with child. Joseph gets angry and tells her “Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee!” And then baby Jesus starts talking to them from Mary’s womb. “Bend down the tallest branches, that my mother might have some.” And the cherry tree branch bends itself, and Mary grabs herself a handful. Yum!
Old Blue A-
Aw, here’s a nice song, about somebody who loves his old dog named “Blue.” But unfortunately, the dog ends up dying of an acute case of appearing in a Joan Baez song. ( “Now, Old Blue died and he died so hard / Made a big dent in my back-yard / Dug his grave with a silver spade / Lowered him down with a link of chain / Every link I did call his name / Singing Here old Blue / Good dog you”) This song is characterized by an interesting tune, some relatively dense guitar strumming, and those long, high-pitched notes Baez sings as she calls for “He-re Blueeeeeeeee!” (I know, that call used to irritate me. But I’m an old, mellow man these days.)
Railroad Boy B+
This one’s about a girl who loves a ‘railroad boy,’ but it ends up going south, so she ends up hanging herself. Her father cuts her down and reads her suicide note. “Go dig my grave both wide and deep / Put a marble stone at my head and feet / And on my breast put a snow white dove / To warn the world that I died of love.”
Plaisir d’Amour (The Joys of Love) A-
The melody is the same as Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Yes, apparently that Elvis classic was an old French song. How dare those French take revered American classic and retroactively make it one of their own? …Anyway, the melody of course is beautiful, and that gently arpeggiated guitar is so sweet. This is so lovely, and it isn’t even about death this time. It’s only about falling in love with someone and then never seeing them again. Thank God!
I Once Loved a Boy A+
This is just about the loveliest song of the whole album, and it isn’t really even part of the album. The high-pitched, arpeggiating guitar I find brings me to a dreamy place, and Baez’s earnest, sweet vocal delivery brings it home. The melody is as beautiful as anything I’ve ever heard. I would guess the reason it wasn’t included on the album was that it’s a sweet, wistful love song that’s not particularly depressing or anything. Except, she doesn’t really know she loves him back, yet. But she isn’t dwelling on that too much about that at this point.
Poor Boy A
Here’s another beautiful melody, and Baez delivers as always with an earnest vocal performance. The lyrics are depressing for sure, but it’s only about a man who cries because the woman he loves runs off with another man. Unlike “The Lily of the West,” he doesn’t kill anyone. He only sulks.
Longest Train I Ever Saw A
I wonder why she didn’t release these on the proper album? The melody once again is beautiful. Maybe it’s the lyrics again. It’s just about some girl’s crush leaving town forever by train, and she just sulks, saying she never needed a man anyway.
Joan Baez in Concert, Part 1 (1962)
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Babe I’m Gonna Leave You A
This song would become best known for the cover Led Zeppelin would later do. Somehow, I guess, the song didn’t originally include the excessive Babys? Led Zeppelin sang “Babe / Baby baby / I’m gonna leave you / I said baby you know I’m gonna leave you” whereas Baez reduced that down to “Baaaaaaabe I’m gonna leave you.” …I finally understand what folk purists were afraid of when Dylan went electric. By the way, Led Zeppelin actually chose to cover that song after listening to this, so there’s some nice historical value here. And it’s also a nice little folk tune. The melody is gorgeous and so is Baez’s vocal performance.
Oh yeah. Joan Baez was an expert in performing songs about people who die. This is a cover a traditional English ballad about a woman with two children and a third on the way whose husband (the title character) was scheduled to be “hanged in a golden chain.” She implores the judge to spare her, but the judge says ‘nah.’ …If you wanted a happy ending, then maybe you should watch Daddy Day Care.
Copper Kettle A+
Here is another well-known song whose popularity stems back to this very version I’m listening to now. This also undoubtedly a great old song that—for once—isn’t about people getting killed. It’s about something much more cool: moonshiners. “My daddy he made whiskey / My granddaddy did too / We ain’t paid no whiskey tax / Since Seventeen Ninety Two.” That line elicits a lot of laughter from the crowd. After reading the Wikipedia entry about this song, I finally understand why the line is funny (because the US Federal Government imposed an unpopular whiskey tax in 1971, which eventually led to the Whiskey Rebellion). I’m surprised so many people knew enough about early American history to give a chuckle there. Then again, these are all beatniks who had nothing better to do than to hang out in libraries. No wonder their parents were so worried about them.
Do I even like this one now? How I have mellowed. I’m pretty sure I gave this one an ‘F’ in my original review. This is another super well-known song, but this time Baez wasn’t the one who popularized it this time. In fact, the audience joins in with her, as they’d all likely sung this song around a campfire once or twice. I even remember singing this when I was in elementary school. (Do they still sing this?) Undoubtedly, I used to dislike this song because it’s been so overplayed that you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone these days performing it without irony. But hey, here is an unironic version, and I have to say once and for all…It’s a very nice song.
What Have They Done to the Rain? A+
Baez introduces this song as “The gentlest protest song I know. It doesn’t protest gently but it sounds gentle.” This is an apt description for it, since it sounds like a rather pleasant little ditty—Baez strums her guitar sweetly, and she sings sweetly. But the song is about nuclear fall-out. (As in, what have they done to the rain? They replaced it with nuclear fallout!) This is the first of what will be many protest songs that Baez has recorded, and … yes, this one does seem to approach a deathly serious topic with such gentleness… and it’s quite eerie.
Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair A-
This is another nice old folk song, and...actually it’s a relatively nice, romantic one. “Black, black, black is the color of my true love’s hair / His lips are something wond’rous fair / The purest eyes and bravest hands / I love the grass whereon he stands / I love my love and he well knows / I love the ground whereon he goes / And if my love no more I see / My life would quickly fade away.” Come on, he’s not that great, is he? Didn’t people use to have hobbies back in the day other than simmer in their attachments in people?
Danger Waters A-
I can hear people the audience sing along with this one, too, but only the chorus, which is roughly as simple as “Kumbaya.” That must mean at least they knew of the song, but it wasn’t on either of Baez’s previous studio albums, so how to do they know it? Wikipedia provides no answers, since the song doesn’t have its own page, nor do either of its authors. It’s a simple and pleasant folk song, though, so maybe they sung this one around the campfire too?
Gospel Ship A
There is such elegance in simplicity, as Baez continues to show. This sounds like an old spiritual, which Baez sings simply to a well-strummed guitar. A spiritual, you say? You mean these lyrics are h…h…h…h…happy? Well, I mean technically it’s still about someone who is looking forward to death, but he’s thinking about all the good things that will happen to him “goin’ far beyond the sky.”
House Carpenter A
A rather long song for this album, well over five minutes, but it has such a beautiful melody, which Baez matches with some beautiful acoustic guitar strumming and singing. And the song is an epic about a woman whose husband goes out to sea, and … by the end of the song, they die and end up in Hell. Just in case “Gospel Ship” gave you a false sense of security, here you go.
Pretty Boy Floyd A
This is a Woody Guthrie cover, which she dedicates to Pete Seeger. (Thus, we have one prominent folk singer dedicating a song by a prominent folk singer to another prominent folk singer.) I would suspect this song was well-known at the time and thus didn’t really need Joan Baez ‘preserving’ it, but it did precede the version by The Byrds. It is also great to hear a song like this about Baez—an outlaw ballad that actually romanticizes the outlaw. I would have assumed the song ended with him getting shot, which is what actually happened to him, but this song uses Floyd’s exploits as social commentary. (“As through this life you travel, you meet some funny men / Some rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen”)
Lady Mary A-
This is a pretty and rather simple, this time about unrequited love. (There’s nothing especially striking to me in the lyrics, so I don’t have to highlight anything.) The melody is lovely, if not especially memorable, but it does make a lovely listen.
Até Amanhã B+
As you might guess, this song is not in English. It’s sung in Portuguese and it’s upbeat, with lyrics that translates roughly to “Goodbye my love, I am going away, and you are going to stay.” (No, I don’t read Portuguese; I found a translation online.) For me the best thing about this song is listening to Baez’s pronunciation, which seems so precise it’s incredible.
Matty Groves A
Here’s yet another song that precedes a version that came later that I know better—by Fairport Convention. Both versions are quite long (this version being nearly 7.5 minutes), and it certainly earns its length by telling such an epic story about the title character who is seduced by a powerful Lord’s wife. The Lord ends up catching them and kills him. Then he asks his wife whom she prefers. Her response: “It’s Matty Groves I’d rather have, than Arlin and all his kin.” When I tried looking up the lyrics to this song, I’d happened upon a different version where Lord Arlin also kills his wife. But for some reason, Baez leaves that off here. Probably since there was so much violence in her previous album.
Streets of Laredo A-
Wikipedia characterizes this as a “famous” cowboy ballad. Me, not being an expert in cowboy ballads, am not very familiar with the tune. But it’s a nice tune, which Baez delivers gently, about a cowboy who was shot and about to die, and he’s asking the narrator what to do after he dies. All these poor people from the 19th Century. No wonder none of them were smiling in the pictures.
My Good Old Man A-
This is a funny song. (Oh man, how embarrassed I feel now I used to make fun at Baez’s jokes and all these people in the audience for laughing at them.) It’s a conversation between a wife and her husband in which the husband gives sarcastic responses. Baez sing’s the woman’s lines with particularly sweet and fluttery vocals while all the husband’s responses are spoken only a couple words. …And then at the end of the song, it is revealed that the wife had been dead, and the he was probably just talking to himself.
My Lord What a Morning A-
This is an old spiritual with relatively simple melody and lyrics that I believe is about Jesus’ return, and of course Baez presents the material with pure elegance. Nope, I’d have to be some weirdo to dislike this song. (*Looks uncomfortably at my old review of this song in which I use the word “boring.”*)
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