It's been told that some artists live in history - and the lives of other artists are history. From the very beginning of her musical career, Joan Baez has never sought to draw lines between real world, real time events and her own artistic vision. Her instincts have often been that of a journalist - or an incurable romantic. There is plenty of both to be found on Dark Chords on a Big Guitar, Joan's first new album of studio recordings in six years.
In the tradition of many of her classic albums, Dark Chords on a Big Guitar is a fresh collection from contemporary songwriters whose work resonates with Joan Baez. The songs are drawn from the pens of Ryan Adams ("In My Time Of Need"), Greg Brown ("Sleeper" and "Rexroth's Daughter," whose lyric gives the album its title), Caitlin Cary ("Rosemary Moore"), Steve Earle ("Christmas In Washington"), Joe Henry ("King's Highway"), Natalie Merchant ("Motherland"), Josh Ritter ("Wings"), and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings ("Elvis Presley Blues" and "Caleb Meyer").
Joan's appreciation of distinctive songwriting - a hallmark of her recordings and performances ever since she first stepped on a stage - has been heightened over the past decade as a result of collaborative mentoring with an impressive roster of younger artists and songwriters. After attending an early Indigo Girls concert in 1990 (the year after their major label album debut) and then playing concerts together, Joan reinforced her belief in the current generation of songwriters' ability to speak to her. When Joan's album Play Me Backwards came out in 1992, it featured songs by Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Hiatt, John Stewart, and others. Each new album since then has incorporated its share of exciting material, often juxtaposed with songs that reflect Joan's rich folk music heritage.
Every song chosen by Joan for Dark Chords on a Big Guitar speaks to the times in which we live - could Joan Baez have recorded an album that did anything less? From her earliest LPs, when she introduced a wider audience to songs written by Bob Dylan (whose career has intertwined with Joan's since 1961), Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Richard Farina, Johnny Cash, Donovan, Malvina Reynolds, Tim Hardin, and others, Joan was charting new waters. She was among the singers who rejected the hit parade and established a precedent whereby the music of a new generation became the conscience for an emerging era of social activism.
Living in an age today when musicians of every description routinely (and publicly) participate in social causes (popular as well as unpopular ones, at that), enlist in benefit concerts, and donate their energy and income for a myriad of reasons dictated by conscience and commitment, it's useful to remember the role that Joan Baez played in this evolution more than four decades ago.
At a time in our country's history when it was neither safe nor fashionable, Joan put herself on the line countless times, and her life's work was mirrored in her music. She sang about freedom and Civil Rights everywhere, from the backs of flatbed trucks to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington in 1963. In 1964, she withheld 60% of her income tax from the IRS to protest miltary spending, and participated in the birth of the Free Speech movement at UC Berkeley. A year later she co-founded the Institute For The Study of Nonviolence near her home in Carmel Valley. In 1966, Joan Baez stood in the fields alongside Cesar Chavez and migrant farm workers striking for fair wages, and opposed capital punishment at San Quentin during a Christmas vigil. The following year she turned her attention to the draft resistance movement. As the war in Vietnam escalated in the late '60s and early '70s, she traveled to Hanoi with the U.S.-based Liaison Committee and helped establish Amnesty International on the West Coast.
The soundtrack to those times was provided by a stunning soprano whose natural vibrato lent a taut, nervous tension to everything she sang. Yet even as an 18-year-old, introduced onstage at the first annual Newport Folk Festival in 1959, and during her apprenticeship on the Boston-Cambridge coffeehouse folk music circuit leading up to the recording of her first solo album for Vanguard Records in the summer of 1960, Joan's repertoire reflected a different sensibility from her peers. In the traditional songs she mastered, there was an acknowledgment of the human condition - underdogs in the first, inequity among the races, the desperation of poverty, the futility of war, romantic betrayal, unrequited love, spiritual redemption, and grace.
Hidden within the traditional ballads and blues, lullabies, Carter Family songs, cowboy tunes, and ethnic folk staples were messages that won Joan strong followings here and abroad. Among the songs she introduced on her earliest albums that would find their ways into the rock vernacular were "House Of The Rising Sun" (The Animals), "John Riley" (The Byrds), "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" (Led Zeppelin), "What Have They Done To The Rain" (the Searchers), "Jackaroe" (Grateful Dead), and "Long Black Veil" (The Band), to name but a few. "Geordie," "House Carpenter," and "Matty Groves" became staples for a multitude of British artists whose origins are traced to three seminal groups: Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span.
In the wake of the Beatles, the definition of what constituted folk music - a solo performer with an acoustic guitar - broadened significantly and liberated many artists. Rather than following the pack into amplified folk-rock, Joan recorded three remarkable LPs with classical instrumentation. Later, when the time was right, as the '60s turned into the '70s, she began recording in Nashville. It provided the backdrop for her last four albums on Vanguard Records (including her biggest career single, a cover of The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") and her first two releases on A&M.
Within the context of those albums and the approaching end of hostilities in Southeast Asia, Joan decided to cast light on the suffering of those living in Chile under the rule of Augusto Pinochet. To those people she dedicated her first album sung entirely in Spanish, a record that inspired Linda Ronstadt, later in the '80s, to begin recording the Spanish songs of her heritage. One of the songs Joan sang on that album, "No Nos Moveran" (We Shall Not Be Moved), had been banned from public singing in Spain for more than forty years under Generalissimo Franco's rule, and was excised from copies of the album sold there. Joan became the first major artist to sing the song publicly when she performed it on a controversial television appearance in Madrid in 1977, three years after the dictator's death.
Joan's productive years at A&M Records in the 1970s included the landmark release of her self-penned "Diamonds & Rust" single, the title track of an album that included songs by Jackson Browne, Janis Ian, John Prine, Stevie Wonder & Syreeta, Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers Band - and Bob Dylan. His Rolling Thunder Revues of late 1975 and 1976 (and resulting movie Renaldo and Clara, released in 1978) would co-star Joan Baez. Later that year she traveled to Northern Ireland and marched with the Irish Peace People, calling for an end to the violence plaguing the country.
Even as she began brief associations with new record labels in the late '70s (CBS Portrait) and after a long hiatus, the late '80s (Gold Castle), Joan Baez did not diminish her political activities. She appeared at rallies on behalf of the nuclear freeze movement, and performed at benefit concerts to defeat California's Proposition 6 (Briggs Initiative), legislation that would have banned openly gay people from teaching in public schools. She received the American Civil Liberties Union's Earl Warren Award for her commitment to human and civil rights issues, and founded Humanitas International Human Rights Committee, which she headed for the next 13 years.
After winning the San Francisco Bay Area Music Award (BAMMY) as top female vocalist in 1978 and 1979, a number of film and video and live recordings documented Joan's travels and concerts. In 1983, she performed on the Grammy Awards telecast for the first time (singing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind"). In the summer of 1985, after opening the U.S. segment of the worldwide Live Aid telecast, she later appeared at the revived Newport Folk Festival, the first gathering since 1969. In 1986, Joan joined Peter Gabriel, Sting and others on Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope tour. Later that year, she was chosen to perform The People's Summit concert in Iceland at the time of the historic meeting between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
After performing at a 1989 concert in Czechoslovakia attended by many of that country's dissidents, President Vaclav Havel (who was in attendance) cited Joan as a great influence in the so-called Velvet Revolution. Two years later, Joan teamed with the Indigo Girls and Mary Chapin Carpenter (as Four Voices) for the first of several benefit performances. In 1993, Joan became the first major artist to perform in Sarajevo since the outbreak of the civil war as she traveled to war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina at the invitation of Refugees International. The next year she sang in honor of Pete Seeger at the Kennedy Center Honors Gala in Washington, D.C. Also in 1994, Joan and Janis Ian sang for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Fight the Right fundraising event in San Francisco.
After receiving her third BAMMY (as Outstanding Female Vocalist for 1995), Joan's nurturing support of other singer-songwriters came full circle with her next album, Ring Them Bells. Recorded live at the Bottom Line in New York City, the CD featured guest artists Mary Black, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Mimi Farina, Tish Hinojosa, Janis Ian, Indigo Girls, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Dar Williams. The album that followed, 1997's Gone From Danger, again revealed Joan as a lightning rod for young songwriting talent, with compositions from Williams, Sinead Lohan, Kerrville Music Festival newcomer Betty Elders, Austin's The Borrowers, and Richard Shindell (who went on tour extensively with Joan over the years).
In August 2001, Vanguard Records began the most extensive chronological reissue program ever focused on one artist in the company's history, as expanded edition CDs were released of her debut solo album of 1960, Joan Baez, and Joan Baez Vol. 2 (1961). The campaign (which is more than half completed as of this writing) will eventually encompass every one of the 13 original LPs she recorded while under contract to the label between 1960 and 1972. Spurred by Vanguard's success, Universal Music Enterprises undertook in 2003 to gather Joan's six complete A&M albums of 1972 to 1976 into a mini-boxed set of four CDs, also with bonus material.
"All of us are survivors," Joan Baez wrote, "but how many of us transcend survival?" More than four decades after the release of her first recordings, she has never meant more to fans across the globe, has never shown more vitality and passion in her concerts and records, and has never been more comfortable inside her own skin. Always searching, always on the lookout for a good song, or a worthy social movement that would benefit from her support, Joan Baez is one of our most valuable treasures. In this troubled world, the paraphrase "Wings," a song from Dark Chords On A Big Guitar, she will always continue to seek "a place where they can hear me when I sing." --Arthur Levy, June 2003