Monday, January 2, 2012

Joan Baez In Concert Part 1 - Joan Baez

Joan Baez In Concert Part 1
Joan Baez
Vanguard VSD-2122

Joan Baez's third album.  Even though it is a live album it does not contain any songs from her first two albums.  Curiously Vanguard replaced the original cover with the cover photo from "Joan Baez in Concert Part 2" at some point.  I like the original cover better.  I've been reading David Hajdu's book "Positively 4th Street" which is about Baez, Bob Dylan, Richard Fariña and Mimi Fariña.  It is an interesting read and it got me wondering about Baez's enormous popularity during the folk boom which I've never really understood.  Growing up in the Bay Area I knew Baez more as a political activist than as a singer.  I saw her once at a rally at Sproul Plaza when I was at Berkeley although I can't remember if she sang or even what the rally was about, probably anti-draft registration or anti-apartheid.  Musically I only knew her for her hit cover of the Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" which I didn't like much as well as her songs on the Woodstock soundtrack which I didn't really like much either.  Baez's pure soprano voice bothered me, it reminded of my grandmother singing hymns in church.  I probably would have never bought any of her records were it not for my interest in Fairport Convention.  That great band triggered my interest in English folk music, particularly the Child Ballads which were a big part of Baez's early repertoire prior to hooking up with Dylan.  This was the first Baez album I bought and I bought it because it had a version of "Matty Groves" which of course was one of Fairport's most famous songs.  It is one of three Child Ballads on this record, the other two are "Geordie" and the haunting "House Carpenter" and they are my favorite cuts on the record.  She sings the songs beautifully and they benefit from her rich voice.  I prefer the Fairport version of "Matty Groves" which rocks and has a passionate vocal from Sandy Denny.  Baez's version is lovely but pales in comparison even though it is her most stirring performance on the album.  "House Carpenter" though really sends me, I listened to it over and over when I got this record and I still really like it.  None of the other songs interest me as much, but there are a few that I appreciate.  "What Have They Done to the Rain" by Malvina Reynolds was Baez's first protest song and it is more subtle than most songs of that type.  I like her subdued version of "Gospel Ship" which she got from the Carter Family and I enjoy the moonshining ballad "Copper Kettle" by Albert Frank Beddoe.  The other songs don't appeal to me much.  "Lady Mary" is pretty but dull and "Black Is the Color" too genteel for my taste.  She opens the album with Anne Bredon's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" although it is listed as a traditional song.  Her version sounds stilted compared to the superior versions by Quicksilver Messenger Service and Led Zeppelin.  I find her beautiful vocal on Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd" to be counter-productive, it does not suit the words or spirit of the song at all.  Her ventures into world music with "Danger Waters" and "Ate Amanha" are lively but unconvincing.  "Kumbaya" makes me cringe, it brings back unwanted childhood memories of folk masses in church and hippie camp counselors and teachers with acoustic guitars in grade school.  I played this album to try and figure out why Baez was so popular in her time and it is still a mystery to me.  I guess she was a transitional figure bridging the sappy pop music of the 1950s and the earthiness of the folk tradition.  I prefer my folk music rougher and more immediate, but I appreciate Baez's integrity.  Recommended to people who prefer Judy Collins over Judy Henske.


  1. I never could get into Joan Baez either...just too straightforward and, frankly, dull. It would be sort of like getting all excited about a Buffy Ste. Marie album...

  2. I kind of like Buffy Sainte-Marie, that crazy vibrato in her singing makes her more interesting to me, but I know what you mean.