Joan Baez

We folkie boomers can recall the first time we heard “Silver Dagger” on Joan Baez’s debut album. No light bulb lit up in me, as it did the first time I heard Dylan’s “Freewheelin’,” but this record’s liner notes led me to pay attention to the English/Scottish sources of these beautiful, Americanized songs. Two generations and tidal waves of cultural change later, Vanguard has re-released Baez’s first two albums from 1960 and 1961, and the holiday set of songs Noel from 1966. Who would have imagined based on those late-’50s appearances at Newport that this slim, dark-haired young woman with a crystalline soprano would become a lightning rod for political/social change on an international scale? Reviled by Al Capp and other war supporters, exploited and abandoned by Bob Dylan—yet somehow through it all Baez maintained her dignity and principles. Both her debut and Vol. 2 hold up remarkably well 40 years later. Baez’s personal magnetism and shimmering vibrato caught the public’s ear at the time. She re-ignited a moribund folk movement driven underground by McCarthyism and focused our sights on the roots of this music. Vol. 2 is a bit stronger because of the song selections. “Lonesome Road,” the a cappella “Wagoner’s Lad,” and “Banks of the Ohio,” the latter with the added presence of the superb Greenbriar Boys, sound as fresh today as they did in 1961. The added tracks “I Once Loved a Boy” and “Poor Boy” are worthy additions to the collection. The holiday release Noel, with its “Bach-folk” orchestrations by Peter Schickele is a deservedly perennial favorite. The added tracks continue the approach of the original release, especially the gentle “Virgin Mary” and string-quartet supported “Burgundian Carol.” Baez’s attempts to update her musical approach in the late ’60s were spotty at best. Since these recordings, the single performer with just a guitar and a bundle of songs has never left the American scene, though few have become rich from it. Joan Baez has been a major contributor to that tradition.