Fifty years ago, in May 1965, Bob Dylan’s fifth album Bringing It All Back Home was released in the UK. I don’t know for sure when I first began to hear songs off the new album, though it must have been soon after its release since by then I was listening for nearly a year to music beamed from the pirate radio ship Caroline North, broadcasting to sleepy Cheshire from the Mersey Bay. My 17th birthday in September brought a copy of the LP with songs which have remained personal favourites through the years, including ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’, ‘It’s Alright Ma’ and ‘Maggie’s Farm’. Continue reading “Fifty years of Bringing It All Back Home: through the smoke rings of my mind”
Last month Bob Dylan spoke at a benefit in his honour, organised by the MusiCares Foundation, an offshoot of the organisation that puts on the annual Grammy awards which provides medical care for musicians in need. They were honouring Bob Dylan as their Person of the Year, and, unusually, he spoke at length about the formative influences on his music. Continue reading “Dylan’s American music history lecture – illustrated”
Watching Ava DuVernay’s film Selma which takes as its subject the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches brought back memories of how, as a teenager growing up in a Cheshire village at the time, the Civil Rights Movement and the music associated with it played a key part in the awakening of my political consciousness. Reading or hearing on the radio about the marchers, their dignity and bravery, and the murders and brutality inflicted upon black Americans in the South, had a deeply radicalising effect on me.
The anthems sung by the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez, and the electrifying assertions of black pride from soul artists such as Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke just added to the intensity of my feelings. And it wasn’t just me, of course; in the way of these things, the ideas and methods seeded in the civil rights movement spread on the wind – to the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, to South Africa, and to student activists throughout the world. Continue reading “Songs of Freedom: the Selma playlist”
In the Blue Room of New Brighton’s Floral Pavilion Thea Gilmore was explaining how she and partner Nigel Stonier had, for the last five years, organised a literature and music festival in their home town of Nantwich in Cheshire. ‘Anyone know the material for a fifth anniversary?’ she asked. One guy suggested bacon. ‘Er, no…but you can stay at my house anytime’, she responded. The answer is wood, and wood became the theme for the concert that Thea and her band gave at this year’s festival: every song had to be wood-related, and it fell to Thea to sing an old German folk song made famous by Elvis Presley.
‘Wooden Heart’, sung solo by Thea midway through Sunday night’s show in New Brighton, was just one of the spine-tingling highlights of a superb concert; to hear it was worth the price of admission alone. She took the song at a slower pace than Elvis and scoured it clean of the jaunty, tripping rhythm of the original, paring it down to the intimate love song that lies at its core:
Can’t you see
I love you
Please don’t break my heart in two
That’s not hard to do
Cause I don’t have a wooden heart
Gilmore is an accomplished vocalist who can belt out a mean rocker or, as here, infuse a romantic ballad with a sensuous intensity. She did a creditable job of retaining the original German words sung by Elvis a year after he had completed his military service in Germany:
Muß i’ denn, muß i’ denn
Zum Städtele hinaus,
Und du mein Schatz bleibst hier
(Got to go, got to go,
Got to leave this town,
Leave this town
And you, my dear, stay here.)
Earlier, Thea Gilmore had arrived on stage with her band, comprising guitarist, producer and partner Nigel Stonier, Che Beresford on drums, Alan Knowles on acoustic bass and accordion and Tracy Bell on keyboards. On two numbers the band was augmented, and its average age considerably reduced, when joined onstage by six year-old Egan – Nigel and Thea’s eldest child – who wielded a child-size violin.
Gilmore had kicked off with ‘Contessa’ from 2008’s Harpo’s Ghost, and there were to be a fair few numbers from the extensive Gilmore back catalogue in the course of the evening – for as she informed us, after tours promoting albums of songs by Dylan and Sandy Denny, she was thrilled to be doing what she likes doing best, singing the songs that she writes herself. She’d thought long and hard about the songs she really wanted to sing, and had dusted off a fair few which have not been performed for years. She’s halfway through recording a new album, due out in the spring, and at the gigs there is very limited edition EP available, called Beginners – because it’s a sort of taster for the main course to follow. She did two numbers off the EP, and one completely new song which may, or may not, be on the next album.
There were no Dylan covers in this show, but there were two of the previously unpublished Sandy Denny songs that Gilmore was commissioned to set to music, which comprised the album Don’t Stop Singing and were featured in the tribute show that toured the country this summer, The Lady: A Homage to Sandy Denny. Here she featured ‘Don’t Stop Singing’ and the Olympic summer single ‘London’.
Following the pen-portrait of an unwelcome reminder of a dissolute past in ‘Contessa’, we were treated to Thea’s angry and bitter portrayal of political arrogance in ‘God’s Got Nothing On You’ before she presented a song off the new EP, ‘Beautiful Hopeful’, all about the tribulations that await young musicians entering today’s music business. A little later Thea talked at some length about the process of making an album: always having too many songs, finding that after a while a dozen or so songs seem to chime together, leaving many more to be sadly cast aside. This was by way of an introduction to one of those songs – ‘The Amazing Floating Man’ – that appears on the new EP. Thea half-apologetically presented the song as being about the banking crisis; it was a solo a capella performance that lifted the hairs on back of your neck:
Roll up, roll up
For the best show in town
See him balance the books
As the markets crash down
And he never does much
But he does what he can
The Amazing Floating Man
By way of complete contrast (and you do get that with Thea – her songbook displays a tremendous variety of mood and material) we were treated us to a lively performance of the raunchy ‘Teach Me To Be Bad’: as she said, a song that ‘celebrates sex and the little devil in all of us’:
If I were coming off the rails
Dropped my eyes and dropped my dress
Would your moral stand prevail
Or would you fold like all the rest
Ooh ain’t we got fun
Ooh let’s come undone
I said one two well hand me a light
Oh three four I don’t wanna be right
By way of contrast, another new song from the EP, ‘Me By Numbers’ carried the refrain:
I can be a good girl
I can be a queen
I can be a soldier
I can be the thinking man’s dream
I can be a warrior
I can be the eye of the world
But most of all
I can be a good, good girl
Thea Gilmore grew up in Oxfordshire, her interest in music developing from listening to her father’s record collection, which included Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and The Beatles. She began writing poetry at the age of 15 as a way of coping with the divorce of her parents, and got an early start in the music industry, working in a recording studio and recording her first album Burning Dorothy as a teenager in 1998. In the following four years she released three more albums that earned her a growing critical reputation, but no chart success. It was around this time that I first discovered her songs: I remember listening repeatedly to Rules for Jokers, her third album that had standout tracks such as ‘This Girl Is Taking Bets’ and ‘Things We Never Said’, on the drive to and from work in 2001.
That album also included a song called ‘Inverigo’ that I could never really figure out: it had a lovely melody, but the meaning of some of the lines, and particularly the title, always puzzled me. On Sunday night, introducing the song to the audience in the Blue Lounge, Thea solved the mystery. She wrote ‘Inverigo’ in Italy, in the town of the same name; she was there with her partner, Nigel Stonier, who was recording an album. Though the trip, for her was ‘little more than a jolly’, at the time she needed to convince a record company that she had songs worth backing. ‘Inverigo’ was written in the company offices, they liked it, and she got a contract. After the concert, as Thea signed my copy of her new EP, I explained how that title had mystified me for a decade or more. ‘Well, there you go’, she replied, ‘puzzle solved’.
We are running from storms of our youth into more of the same …
We are free as the wind through the trees or so we are told …
In the last 15 years, Thea Gilmore has produced another ten albums, and has established a reputation as one of Britain’s leading songwriters. Though they can be a little uneven, each of her albums contains at least one gem that ranks alongside the work of the best lyricists. Joan Baez recognised her worth, picking up on ‘The Lower Road’ from Liejacker, and recording her version of the song on The Day After Tomorrow, and inviting Thea to join her tour.
After she recorded ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ for a Dylan covers CD for Uncut Magazine in 2002, the accolades poured in, including one from Bruce Springsteen who, on encountering Gilmore backstage at a 2008 concert, showed his appreciation for the track, calling it ‘one of the great Dylan covers’. For, alongside her own songwriting credentials, Thea Gilmore is also a gifted interpreter of songs written by others. Some of these are to be found on Loft Music, an album of cover versions she put out in 2004; it includes wonderful interpretations of songs as varied as Pete Shelley’s ‘Ever Fallen in Love’, John Fogerty’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’, the great Phil Ochs song ‘When I’m Gone’, and ‘Buddy Can You Spare a Dime’. Other favourites include great versions of Pete Burns’ ‘You Spin Me Round’, Yoko Ono’s ‘Listen The Snow Is Falling’ and Springsteen’s ‘Cover Me’. And then of course there is her album of songs by Sandy Denny, and her recreation of Bob Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding.
I have my own strong favourites from her own compositions; one that I always hope she will sing live is ‘Old Soul’, and she did not disappoint on this occasion. When we hear a song it may have a personal meaning that can differ from the writer’s original intent. I listened to ‘Old Soul’ a long time before I became aware that old souls are those that have experienced several previous incarnations from which they have gained greater wisdom. On this video clip, Thea introduces the song, talking about how it was written while she was pregnant, and how the lyric’s meaning for her was related to the imminent birth of her child:
- Don’t Stop Singing
- God’s Got Nothing on You
- Beautiful Hopeful
- Red White and Black
- Teach Me To Be Bad
- The Amazing Floating Man
- Me By Numbers
- Old Soul
- Roll On
- You’re the Radio
- Are You Ready?
- Goodbye My Friend
- Thea Gilmore at Pacific Road
- Thea Gilmore: Recorded Delivery
- Thea’s birthday tribute to Bob
- The Lady: Sandy Denny tribute at the Phil
- Strange Communion
- Thea Gilmore: official website
- Nantwich Words & Music Festival
You don’t get to choose how you are going to die or when.
You can only decide how you’re going to live.
– Joan Baez
Joan Baez is 70 today. By way of a celebration, here is a re-post of my appreciation from October 2009, on the occasion of seeing the documentary about her life, How Sweet The Sound:
I saw first Joan Baez perform live at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1964, being at the time addicted to her first two studio albums, with their strange and mysterious songs such as ‘Silkie’, ‘Barbara Allen’ and the ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’. I recall that I was surprised and thrilled that the ‘Queen of Folk’ was both funny and hip: joking and singing snatches of the Beatles and the Supremes. Tonight I watched Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound in the PBS American Masters series (streaming online until December 10). For me, nearly 50 years have passed since I first dropped the needle on a Baez album. However, the film’s director, Mary Wharton, writes on the PBS website that,
growing up in the 1970’s, I was mostly aware of Joan Baez from her hits of that decade, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Diamonds and Rust.” I don’t think I had any idea about her connection to Bob Dylan (I didn’t know that “Diamonds and Rust” was about him) and I was pretty much unaware of Joan’s earlier incarnation as the Queen of Folk. I do remember knowing that she was “political” and that as a kid growing up in the South during the Vietnam War, I had respect for a woman who was not afraid to speak her mind.
Well, she’s produced a fine film that primarily focuses on those two themes – the folk years (with amazingly crisp film shot at Club 47 in Boston in 1958, when Joan was only 17 years old – see below) and her long-standing political committment to the causes of peace and human rights. In fact, it’s this latter theme that shines through most powerfully, with many details that are fresh and striking. We learn that when Joan was ten her father was sent by Unesco to work in Baghdad and that her awareness of real poverty was the first step in her journey towards a sense of social justice; that she was a conscientious objector as early as age 17 when she refused to take part in a nuclear attack drill.
We see her in 1964 marching beside Martin Luther King in Grenada, Mississippi, to integrate local schools; and, of course, alongside King at the March on Washington in 1963 where she sang ‘We Shall Overcome’. This was the era of church bombings lamented in Joan’s rendition of Richard Farina’s ‘Birmingham Sunday’ about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama on 15 September 1963, a meeting-place for civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy and Fred Shutterworth.
There is film footage of her confronting conscripts at the Oakland Induction Centre – she and her mother were jailed for 45 days for blocking the doorways. In 1968 she married David Harris, a leader of the movement resisting the draft for Vietnam. In July 1969 Harris was imprisoned again for refusing induction into the draft. Baez was pregnant with their son, Gabe, but within three months of Harris’s release from jail they separated, and were divorced in 1972. There is moving footage of them meeting again and recalling those times.
In 1972 Baez was in Hanoi as a guest of the North Vietnamese and to deliver mail to American PoWs. On her third night in the city the Americans began carpet bombing the city, which continued for 11 days. ‘It was the first time I’d ever really felt mortal’. The maimed and broken bodies lying in the streets after the raids, and the frightened and confused American PoWs, were the most shocking and heartbreaking spectacle Baez says she has ever seen. She describes how for years she suppressed all of the horror she had felt.
Perhaps the most moving section of the film is when we see Joan in Sarajevo in 1993, the first major artist to perform in the beseiged city since the outbreak of the civil war. There she encountered the ‘Cellist of Sarajevo’, Vedran Smajlović (see this post) and in the film we see him play in the alley where the atrocity had occurred, after which Joan takes his seat and sings ‘Amazing Grace’.
Mentioning Richard Farina earlier reminds me of another passage in the film, when Joan talks movingly of her sister, Mimi, who died after a two-year battle with cancer in 2001. In the sixties she too was a folk icon, recording with her husband Richard Farina. They did a lovely version of ‘Pack Up Your Sorrows’.
Others who appear in the film include David Crosby, Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn and Reverend Jesse Jackson. The film includes footage shot in Nashville, where she was working with Steve Earle as producer on her latest album, Day After Tomorrow. What’s interesting is that she talks about both Bob Dylan and Steve Earle as her muses – Bob Dylan enabling her to break out from the traditional folk song reportoire to incorporate songs that reflected her own political values; now Steve Earle is an inspiration, providing songs on her three most recent albums.
Certainly Joan has always had an ear for a good song – from the early folk ballads, through the Dylan covers (some of them definitive such as ‘Farewell Angelina’, ‘Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word’ and ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’) to recent albums with choice songs from luminaries such as Steve Earle, Natalie Merchant, Tom Waits, Thea Gilmore, Elvis Costello, Diana Jones and John Hiatt. And they are choice; take these:
Well I recall his parting words
Must I accept his fate?
Or take myself far from this place
I thought I heard a black bell toll
A little bird did sing
Man has no choice
When he wants everything
We’ll rise above the scarlet tide
That trickles down through the mountain
And separates the widow from the bride
Man goes beyond his own decision
Gets caught up in the mechanism
Of swindlers who act like kings
And brokers who break everything
The dark of night was swiftly fading
Close to the dawn of the day
Why would I want him
Just to lose him again
Scarlet Tide – Elvis Costello
I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say
And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find
That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem
Well maybe I’m only dreamin’ and maybe I’m just a fool
But I don’t remember learnin’ how to hate in Sunday school
But somewhere along the way I strayed and I never looked back again
But I still find some comfort now and then
Then the storm comes rumblin’ in
And I can’t lay me down
And the drums are drummin’ again
And I can’t stand the sound
But I believe there’ll come a day when the lion and the lamb
Will lie down in peace together in Jerusalem
And there’ll be no barricades then
There’ll be no wire or walls
And we can wash all this blood from our hands
And all this hatred from our souls
Jerusalem – Steve Earle
Cut me down, bury this rosary
Somewhere out of town, somewhere out by the sea
And take this ring, and give it to Emily
Tell her I’m peaceful now, Tell her I’ve been released
I will be rolling on, I will be rolling on
Well I know that drill, I know it all too well
It starts like a lonely voice, and it shifts to a tolling bell
Like rain on the dusty ground, small bones in the driest well
The spark breeds a fiery tongue, and the tongues kiss the cheek of Hell
There’s no telling which way, boys, this thing is going to take hold
From the fruit on a poplar tree, to the bruise round a band of gold
From the blood in a far country, to the war of just growing old
We travel a lower road, and it’s lonely and it is cold
But we will be rolling on, we will be rolling on
We’ve had our part to play, now we are going home
We will keep rolling on, we will keep rolling on
‘Cos for every midnight hour, there’s always a rising sun
The Lower Road – Thea Gilmore
Where in the hell can you go far from the things that you know
Far from the sprawl of concrete that keeps crawling its way about 1,000 miles a day?
Take one last look behind, commit this to memory and mind.
Don’t miss this wasteland, this terrible place.
When you leave keep your heart off your sleeve.
Motherland cradle me, close my eyes, lullaby me to sleep.
Keep me safe, lie with me, stay beside me don’t go.
Motherland – Natalie Merchant
Those early songs were rich in imagery and language, full of strangeness, mystery, injustice and death. In ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ a young woman who is ‘twice twelve’ sings of being done a great wrong – married by her father to a boy who ‘is but fourteen’ who will ‘make a lord for you to wait upon’. But death brings an end to all hopes and aspiration:
At the age of fourteen, he was a married man
At the age of fifteen, the father of a son
At the age of sixteen, his grave it was green
And death had put an end to his growing.
Neither mother nor father can stop the tragedy of the woman wronged by in ‘Railroad Boy’:
That railroad boy that I love so well.
He courted me my life away
And now at home will no longer stay.”
“There is a place in yonder town
Where my love goes and he sits him down.
And he takes that strange girl on his knee
And he tells to her what he won’t tell me.”
Her father he came home from work
Sayin’, “Where is my daughter, she seems so hurt”
He went upstairs to give her hope
An’ he found her hangin’ by a rope.
‘Hard-hearted Barbara Allen’ dies of sorrow and remorse for failing to comfort her dying William, but redemption comes through nature:
Barbara Allen was buried in the old churchyard
Sweet William was buried beside her,
Out of sweet William’s heart, there grew a rose
Out of Barbara Allen’s a briar.
They grew and grew in the old churchyard
Till they could grow no higher
At the end they formed, a true lover’s knot
And the rose grew round the briar.
But strangest of all, and truly haunting, was the tale told in ‘Silkie’ (for me, also one of Joan’s very best vocals):
An earthly nurse sits and sings,
And aye she sings a lily wean –
“Little ken I my bairn’s father,
Far less the land that he dwells in.”
For he’s come one night to her bed’s foot
And a grumly guest I’m sure he’d be,
Saying, “Here am I, thy bairn’s father,
Although I be not comely.
‘I am a man upon the land,
I am a silkie in the sea,
And when I’m far and far from land,
My home it is the sule skerrie.’
And he has ta’en a purse of gold,
And he had placed it upon her knee,
Saying, “Give to me my little young son
And take thee up thy nurse’s fee.
“And I will come one summer’s day
When the sun shine’s bright on every stane,
I’ll come and fetch my little young son,
And teach him how to swim the faem.
“And ye shall marry a gunner bold,
And a right fine gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
And the very first shot that ever he shoots
Will kill both my young son and me.”
Joan Baez is here singing Child Ballad number 113, which tells of The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, one of
numerous tales of the selkies, or seals, known to the inhabitants of the Orkney Islands. In these stories, the selkies were not malicious creatures but rather gentle shape shifters with the ability to transform from seals into humans. It was that final verse that haunted me, with its crystallisation of the relationship between man the hunter and the natural world – even more remarkable arising from an island culture where seals had long been regarded by fishermen as serious competitors.
Here is an excellent appreciation of Joan, on the PBS website, by Arthur Levy:
Fifty Years of Joan Baez
In the summer of 1958, Joan Chandos Baez, a 17-year old high school graduate (by the skin of her teeth) moved with her family—her parents Albert and Joan, older sister Pauline and younger sister Mimi—from Palo Alto to Boston. They drove cross-country with the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” all over the radio, a guilty pleasure of Joan’s. That fall she entered Boston University School Of Drama where she was surrounded by a musical group of friends who shared a passion for folk music.
A stunning soprano, Joan’s natural vibrato lent a taut, nervous tension to everything she sang. Yet even as an 18-year old, introduced onstage at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959, her repertoire reflected a different sensibility from her peers. In the traditional songs she mastered, there was an acknowledgment of the human condition
She recorded her first solo LP for Vanguard Records in the summer of 1960, the beginning of a prolific 14-album, 12-year association with the label. Her earliest records, with their mix of traditional ballads, blues, lullabies, Carter Family, Weavers and Woody Guthrie songs, cowboy tunes, ethnic folk staples of American and non-American vintage, and much more—won strong followings in the U.S. and abroad.
Among the songs she introduced on her earliest albums that would find their ways into the repertoire of 60’s rock stalwarts 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 a few. “Geordie,” “House Carpenter” and “Matty Groves” inspired a multitude of British acts who trace their origins to Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span.
In 1963, Joan began touring with Bob Dylan and recording his songs, a bond that came to symbolize the folk music movement for the next two years. At the same time, Joan began her lifelong role of introducing songs from a host of contemporary singer-songwriters starting with Phil Ochs, Richard Fariña, Leonard Cohen, Tim Hardin, Paul Simon, and others. Her repertoire grew to include songs by Jacques Brel, Lennon-McCartney, Johnny Cash and his Nashville peers, and South American composers Nascimento, Bonfa, Villa-Lobos, and others.
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 in Mississippi 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 military 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. In 1968, she recorded an album of country standards for her then-husband David Harris. He was later taken into custody by Federal marshals in July 1969 and imprisoned for 20 months for refusing induction and organizing draft resistance against the Vietnam war. As the war escalated, Joan traveled to Hanoi with the U.S.-based Liaison Committee and helped establish Amnesty International on the West Coast.
In the wake of the Beatles, the definition of folk music—a singer with an acoustic guitar—broadened and liberated many artists. Rather than following the pack into amplified folk-rock, Joan recorded three remarkable LPs with classical instrumentation. Later, as the 60’s turned into the 70’s, she began recording in Nashville. The “A-Team” of Nashville’s session musicians backed Joan on her last four LPs for Vanguard Records (including her biggest career single, a cover of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1971) and her first two releases on A&M.
Within the context of those albums and the approaching end of hostilities in Southeast Asia, Joan turned to 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 80’s, 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 40 years under Generalissimo Franco’s rule and was excised from copies of the LP 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.
In 1975, Joan’s self-penned “Diamonds & Rust” became the title song of an LP with 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 75 and 76 (and resulting movie Renaldo & Clara, released in 1978) co-starred Joan Baez.
In 1978, she traveled to Northern Ireland and marched with the Irish Peace People, calling for an end to violence. 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. Joan 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 13 years. She won the San Francisco Bay Area Music Award (BAMMY) award as top female vocalist in 1978 and 1979. A number of film, video and live recordings released in Europe and the U.S. documented her travels and concerts into the ’80s.
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 there since 1969. In 1986, Joan joined Peter Gabriel, Sting and others on Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope tour; her subsequent album was influenced by the tour, as it acknowledged artists and groups whose lives in turn were influenced by her, with songs from Gabriel, U2, Dire Straits, Johnny Clegg, and others. Later in 1986, however, 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. Joan’s 1989 concert in Czechoslovakia was attended by many of that country’s dissidents including President Vaclav Havel who cited her as a great influence in the so-called Velvet Revolution.
After attending an early Indigo Girls concert in 1990 (the year after their major label album debut), Joan teamed with the duo and Mary Chapin Carpenter (as Four Voices) for a series of benefit performances. The experience reinforced Joan’s belief in the new generation of songwriters’ ability to speak to her. When her album, Play Me Backwards, was released in 1992, it featured songs by Carpenter, John Hiatt, John Stewart, and others.
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.
In 1995, Joan received her third BAMMY as Outstanding Female Vocalist. Joan’s nurturing support of other singer-songwriters came full circle with her next album, Ring Them Bells. This idea of collaborative mentoring was expanded on 1997’s Gone From Danger, where Joan was revealed as a lightning rod for young songwriting talent, with compositions from Dar Williams, Sinead Lohan, Kerrville Music Festival newcomer Betty Elders, Austin’s The Borrowers, and Richard Shindell (who went on to tour extensively with Joan over the years).
In August 2001, Vanguard Records began the most extensive chronological CD reissue program ever devoted to one artist in the company’s history. Expanded editions (with bonus tracks and newly commissioned liner notes) were released of her debut solo album of 1960, Joan Baez, and Joan Baez Vol. 2 (1961). The six-year campaign went on to encompass every original LP she recorded while under contract to the label from 1960 to 1972. In 2003, spurred by Vanguard’s lead, Universal Music Enterprises gathered Joan’s six complete A&M albums released from 1972 to 1976 into a mini-boxed set of four CDs with bonus material and extensive liner notes.
The release of Dark Chords On a Big Guitar in September 2003 was supported with a 22-city U.S. tour. On October 3, Grammy Award-winning classical guitarist Sharon Isbin presented her debut performance of The Joan Baez Suite, Opus 144. Written for Isbin by John Duarte and commissioned by the Augustine Foundation, the piece featured songs from Joan’s earliest days in folk music.
On the night of February 11, 2007, at the 49th annual Grammy Awards telecast viewed by more than a billion people worldwide, it was announced that Joan Baez had received the highly prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award, the greatest honor that the Recording Academy can bestow. In turn, she introduced the live performance of “Not Ready To Make Nice” by dark horse nominees the Dixie Chicks. It was an ironic moment, as Joan’s “lifetime” of activism resonated in sync with the trio. They had been blacklisted by country radio and the Academy Of Country Music (ACM) when they criticized the president and the impending war in Iraq back in March 2003.
On Saturday, June 28, 2008, Joan was seen by countless TV viewers worldwide at the 46664 event in London’s Hyde Park, celebrating Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday. After appearing with Johnny Clegg and the Soweto Gospel Choir singing “Asimbonanga,” Joan later stood center stage behind Mandela when he addressed the assembled crowd of 46,664 people. The event coincided with the annual Glastonbury Music Festival that same weekend, where Joan was also performing.
Most recently, on September 4th, in advance of Day After Tomorrow’s release, Joan launches the new 2008-2009 lecture season at New York City’s 92nd Street Y (where she made her official NY concert debut in 1960). The event will be an in-depth conversation with Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis at the 900-seat Kaufmann Concert Hall.
Later, on September 18th, Joan receives the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award at the Americana Music Association’s 7th annual awards show in Nashville. The honor “recognizes and celebrates artists who have ignited discussion and challenged the status quo through their music and actions.” Past recipients include Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Judy Collins, Mavis Staples and Steve Earle, who presents the award to Joan.
“All of us are survivors,” Joan Baez wrote, “but how many of us transcend survival?” 50 years on, she continues to show renewed vitality and passion in her concerts and records, and is more comfortable than ever inside her own skin. In this troubled world, to paraphrase “Wings,” she will always continue to seek “a place where they can hear me when I sing.”
— Arthur Levy
Mary Travers, who with Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow helped popularise folk music in the 1960s as Peter, Paul and Mary, has died aged 72. Peter, Paul and Mary were the most popular folk group of the 1960s and their music had a profound effect on my musical appreciation and political development at that time. Along with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, they provided a doorway to a rich musical tradition. They could trace their roots and inspiration back to music and events from the late ’40s, and the founding of the Weavers. Though they broke up in 1952, the Weavers planted two seeds in American popular culture: one was the folk song revival of the late fifties and the other, a byproduct of their blacklisting, was the emergence of a politically focused branch of folk music.
Travers was born in Kentucky but attended high school in New York’s West Village, where her family lived in the same building as Pete Seeger. She became a disciple of the Weavers and performed with Seeger before Yarrow and his manager Albert Grossman (who later steered Bob Dylan’s career) recruited her for the trio. After seven months of rehearsals, the group made its debut in 1961 performing songs carefully arranged by Milk Okun.
I played their first two LPs till the vinyl smoked, alongside The Times They Are A Changin’ and Joan Baez 1 and 2. Their debut contained ‘Early In The Morning’ (featured recently on Mad Men), ‘500 Miles’, ‘If I Had a Hammer’,’Lemon Tree’ and Seeger’s ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’. The follow-up, In The Wind, included three Dylan tracks (‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, in a version I have always loved, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ and ‘Quit Your Lowdown Ways’) as well as ‘Long Chain On’, ‘Rocky Road’ and ‘All My Trials’.
Peter Paul and Mary sometimes get a bad press, but I never saw any contradiction between listening to the Beatles and the Stones, or the latest top twenty on Radio Luxembourg, and being inspired by the stars of the sixties folk revival. What their songs provided was something different – rich imagery, social comment and the politics of resistance. I remember the electric impact of PPM singing Jimmie Driftwood’s ‘Long Chain On’:
One night as I lay on my pillow,
moonlight as bright as the dawn
I saw a man come a walking,
he had a long chain on.
I heard his chains a clankin’,
they made a mournful sound,
Welded around his body,
draggin’ along the ground.
He stood beside my window,
he looked at me and he said
“I am so tired and hungry.
Give me a bite of your bread”
He didn’t look like a robber,
he didn’t look like a thief
His voice was as soft as the moonlight,
a face full of sorrow and grief.
I went into my kitchen,
fetched him a bowl full of meat
A drink and a pan of cold biscuits,
that’s what I gave him to eat
Though he was tired and hungry
a bright light came over his face
He bowed his head in the moonlight,
he said a beautiful grace.
I got my hammer and chisel,
offered to set him free
He looked at me and said softly,
“I guess we had best let it be.”
When he had finished his supper,
he thanked me again and again.
Though it’s been years since I’ve seen him,
still hear him draggin’ his chain.
You didn’t have to take on board the underlying religious import of these lyrics (I had grown up in a household where my mum was a fervent believer and my dad a fierce atheist, and by then I had followed him in rejecting organised religion) to feel the strange power of the imagery; the sense that eradicating hunger and injustice required more than one blow of a hammer and chisel: it needed a movement.
At 15 years old, hearing Peter Paul and Mary perform ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ at the March on Washington in 1963 was transcendent. The trio reflected the moment in history, politics, and art with Dylan’s song. Civil rights activism was at its height, and ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ embodied the spirit of the time.
The song established Bob Dylan as the conscience of my generation, and PP&M as the voice of that conscience, culminating with their performance at the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I Have A Dream speech. Their recording of the song had been released as a single just two months earlier, in June 1963, and was an instant hit, selling over 300,000 copies in less than two weeks and eventually rising to number two on the U.S. charts.
Mary and the rest of the trio remained politically active, as can be seen in the 1971 YouTube video below. She was outspoken in her support for the civil-rights and antiwar movements, in sharp contrast to clean-cut folk groups like the Kingston Trio, which avoided making political statements. They had always combined their music with radical causes, both onstage and off. Their version of “If I Had a Hammer” became an anthem for racial equality. They were vehement in their opposition to the Vietnam War and in more rcent times performed at the 1995 anniversary of the Kent State shootings and at benefits for California strawberry pickers.
In a 1966 New York Times interview, Travers said the three worked well together because they respected one another. “There has to be a certain amount of love just in order for you to survive together,” she said. “I think a lot of groups have gone down the tubes because they were not able to relate to one another.”