Joan Baez is an American folk singer, songwriter and activist who is best known for songs like ‘There But for Fortune,’ ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ and ‘Diamonds and Rust’ while serving as a voice for protest movements from around the world.
Joan Baez was born on January 9, 1941, in Staten Island, New York. Her father, Albert V. Baez, was a physicist who came to the United States from Mexico at a very early age, and her mother was of western European descent. Of Mexican and Scottish descent, Baez was no stranger to racism and discrimination. But that did not stop her from pursuing her natural musical talents. She became a vocalist in the folk tradition and was a crucial part of the music genre’s commercial rebirth in the 1960s, devoting herself to the guitar in the mid-1950s.
Baez was exposed to an intellectual atmosphere with classical music during her childhood, but rejected piano lessons in favor of the guitar and rock and roll. Her father’s research and teaching positions took the family to various American and foreign cities. When Joan was ten, she spent a year in Iraq with her family. There she was exposed to the harsh and intensely poor conditions of the Iraqi people, something that undoubtedly influenced her later career as a singer and activist. Baez went on to attend high school in Palo Alto, California, where she excelled in music more than in academic subjects. Shortly after her high school graduation in 1958, her family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, Baez enrolled at Boston University’s theater school, greatly disliking the experience and flunking her courses. She eventually delved into the city’s burgeoning folk scene where her interest in folk music surfaced after visiting a coffee shop where amateur folk singers performed. Soon Baez became a regular performer at local clubs and eventually got her big break via an appearance at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, invited onstage by singer/guitarist Bob Gibson. This performance made her a star—especially to young people—and led to friendships with other important folk singers such as the Seeger family and Odetta. Although the performance brought her offers to make recordings and concert tours, she decided to resume her Boston coffee shop appearances.
After Baez’s second Newport appearance in 1960, she made her first album for Vanguard Records. Simply labeled Joan Baez, it was an immediate success. She was then such a “hot item” that she could choose her own songs and prop designs for her performances. In the following years Baez sang to capacity crowds on American college campuses and concert halls and on several foreign tours. Her eight gold albums and one gold single demonstrated her popularity as a singer.
The 1960s were a turbulent time in American history, and Baez often used her music to express her social and political views. Baez thus became an established, revered folk artist who used her voice for widespread change. She sang “We Shall Overcome” at the March on Washington in 1963 that featured the iconic words and leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition to supporting civil rights as an artist and worker, Baez participated in university free-speech efforts led by students and the antiwar movement, calling for an end to the conflict in Vietnam. Beginning in 1964, she would refuse to pay part of her taxes to protest U.S. military spending for a decade. A revered anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome” also became a top 40 hit for Baez in the U.K. in 1965. She achieved her first top 10 single in Great Britain later that year with “There But for Fortune,” also finding success with the Dylan-penned tune “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.”
Baez was married to writer and activist David Harris in March 1968. She was pregnant with their son, Gabriel, in April 1969, and three months later she saw her husband arrested for refusing induction into the military forces. He spent the next twenty months in a federal prison in Texas. Baez was also arrested twice in 1967 in Oakland, California, for blocking an armed forces induction center. The couple divorced in 1972 a few months after Harris’s release.
In 1993 she was invited by Refugees International to travel to Bosnia-Herzegovina in order to help bring attention to the suffering there. In September of that same year Baez became the first major artist to perform in a professional concert on Alcatraz Island (the former Federal Penitentiary) in San Francisco, California. It was a benefit performance for her sister Mimi Farina’s organization, Bread & Roses. She returned to the island for a second benefit in 1996 along with the Indigo Girls and Dar Williams. She has also supported the gay and lesbian cause. In 1995 she joined Janis Ian in a performance at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Fight the Right fundraising event in San Francisco.
In January 2016, Baez hosted a concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre in honor of her 75th birthday, with an array of guests like Judy Collins, David Crosby, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jackson Browne, the Indigo Girls and Paul Simon. The event was released as an album later in the year.
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