Steve Earle: outlaw blues and ‘chick songs’

Steve Earle: outlaw blues and ‘chick songs’

Steve Earle performing at The Auditorium in Liverpool Echo Arena (pic Dave Munn)

Steve Earle at The Auditorium in Liverpool Echo Arena (photo by Dave Munn, Liverpool Echo)

For once, said Steve Earle during his performance on Wednesday night at Liverpool’s newest venue, The Auditorium, he had been able to spend two days ‘walking around town, taking the Beatles tour’.  ‘This town is so gorgeous’, he continued. ‘There’s so many beautiful places to play and it’s a great place to live now. You should be really proud of it.’  Not surprisingly he received a warm round of applause for that observation.

The Auditorium is described as ‘an intimate performance space’ so I expected something smaller than the 1000-seater into which we were ushered for Steve Earle’s solo acoustic show.  But it’s a great new venue, with comfortable seats, clear sightlines and excellent acoustics.  Earle came on stage to a rapturous reception from an audience which was clearly familiar with every twist and turn of his long and chequered career. The singer went on to give a heartfelt and deeply personal performance of more than two hours.

Before Steve Earle, there was a truly terrible support act: Redsky July presented what can only be described as saccharine Home Counties country. With the exception of ‘Renegade’, a song inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian that featured  haunting violin, the rest was embarrassingly mawkish, plumbing the depths with a cover of Donna Fargo’s ‘The Happiest Girl In The Whole U.S.A’:

Shine on me sunshine
Walk with me world, it’s a skippidy doo da day
I’m the happiest girl in the whole U.S.A.

I found it hard to believe that Steve Earle had had any involvement in choosing this lot for his support.  It was a relief, therefore, when Steve took to the stage, powering straight into ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ as a tribute to Liverpool’s most famous sons.  Many artists throw a token Beatles number into their set when they perform here, but for Steve it’s serious business.  As he said later, he’s been playing that particular song since he was a teenager. Two decades ago, on Train A-Comin’ he did a great version of ‘I’m Looking Through You’, while in a piece he wrote for Tracks magazine in 2004 he explained how his respect for the Beatles goes right back to his childhood:

I was nine years old and living with my family in Schertz, Texas, in February of 1964, when the Beatles landed in New York and everything changed. I knew about the Beatles the way I knew about anything that had to do with music—through my uncle, my mother’s half-brother, who was five years older than me. All the records I had –including the first Beatles album—and my first pair of Beatle boots and my first guitar were hand-me-downs from him. […] Back in 1964, I was caught up in it the way every kid was. But when I look at it now, I’m reminded that, God damn, they were good. They were making do-it yourself music at an incredibly high artistic level.

With that out of the way, Steve began a two hour odyssey through a back catalogue that constitutes, in the words of the Liverpool Echo review, ‘subversive country, confessional folk and outlaw blues’.  From early albums like Guitar Town he served up outlaw songs and anthems that dream of escape from small-town America: ‘My Old Friend the Blues’, ‘Someday’, ‘I Ain’t Ever Satisfied’ and, of course, ‘Copperhead Road’.  Alongside those were ones he introduced as the ‘chick songs’ – delicate and tender songs that stopped the women in the audience from walking out, such as ‘Every Part of Me’ (‘The result of being lonely in Kings Lynn’), ‘Sparkle and Shine’, and ‘Valentine’s Day’.

In a very personal presentation, Steve opened up in a way few performers would be willing to risk, linking songs to difficult moments in his life when he was regarded as a ‘lost cause’ (usually, as he admitted, as a result of his own actions).  He spoke of the years between 1990 and 1994 lost to heroin and crack cocaine addiction, and of his time in jail; how, on parole with no driver’s licence, and unable to get into town, he came to write  ‘Valentine’s Day’:

I ain’t got a card to sign
Roses have been hard to find
I only hope that you’ll be mine
On Valentine’s Day

He told of an obsession for collecting guns in his younger days, and how he stopped when he realised he was placing his son Justin in harm’s way.  Songs like ‘Feel Alright’, ‘Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain’ (written twenty years ago this September 13: welcome my nightmare’) and ‘Devil’s Right Hand’ spoke of such episodes. At this stage in the show, Steve played a succession of blues, his guitar work much better on these numbers than on earlier songs, where he tended to rely on repetitive strumming.  ‘South Nashville Blues’ speaks volumes of about those lost years:

I went downtown, it was just to ease my pain
I ended up out walkin’ in the rain
I took my pistol and a hundred dollar bill
I had everything I needed to get me killed …

I start way up top and I walk down to the end
I go way down in the bottoms
And I come back up again
Now Mama told me, Papa too
They both talked til they turned blue
But I got them ol’ South Nashville blues again
I won’t be satisfied until they lock me up again

But, Steve Earle is a survivor: clean now, he spoke of how he had not touched alcohol for twenty years.  It would seem, though, that some things never change: married eight times, he spoke of how this summer’s solo tour around Europe was a process of coming to terms with himself after another divorce. He’d been doing smaller shows like this one, in smaller venues where he can look out and see the audience ‘and it’s like into looking in the mirror – all of us getting older hairier’.

Good friends were recalled. Introducing the achingly beautiful ‘Goodbye’, recorded on Train A-Comin‘ in 1995 as a duet with Emmylou Harris, Steve announced that just the other day Emmylou had lost her mother.  Then there was a segment of the set in which he spoke of his long friendship with Townes Van Zandt.

Steve Earle, left, with Townes Van Zandt in the 1990s

Steve Earle, left, with Townes Van Zandt in the 1990s

He’s a great storyteller is Earle (he’s written two books to date, the most recent being I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, described as ‘a sort of poetic ghost story’, the ghost being that of Hank Williams), and throughout the evening he regales us with stories about Townes, ‘a migratory bird’ who would spend his summers in Colorado, his winters in Tennessee.  How those who lived along the route he followed would eagerly anticipate his arrival.

Steve first met Townes in the early 1970s, when Van Zandt was the leading light of a brilliant Texas music scene. Earle was a teenager at the time, and Van Zandt was roughly a decade older, to all but a handful of his closest friends a remote, elusive figure, apt to disappear or turn up at unpredictable moments.  He became Earle’s mentor, though hardly a steady, guiding hand, as Steve pointed out: advising him to always put the top back on the bottle so that the drink wouldn’t spill when it inevitably got kicked over and to always use clean needles.

Stories told, Steve sang ‘Fort Worth Blues’, his tribute to Townes:

You used to say the highway was your home
But we both know and that ain’t true
It’s just the only place a man can go
When he don’t know where he’s travelling’ to

But Colorado’s always clean and healing’
And Tennessee in spring is green and cool
It never really was your kind of town
But you went around with the Forth Worth blues

And somewhere up beyond the great divide
Ohh where the sky is wide and the clouds are few
A man can see his way clear to the light
And just hold on tight, that’s all you gotta do

Steve reminded us that he once made a record that consisted entirely of Townes Van Zandt songs. Then, preversely, he chooses to sing one not on the album – ‘Rex’s Blues’, with its typically mournful Van Zandt lyric:

Ride the blue wind high and free
She’ll lead you down through misery
Leave you low, come time to go
Alone and low as low can be

There was a new song – ‘Girl on the Mountain’ – which Steve informed us will be on a new album, due to be recorded in October and scheduled for release in early 2015.  Later, there’s a story that precedes ‘Outlaws Honeymoon’, a song he wrote for the film Niagara, Niagara, but which was never used because he insisted on retaining publication rights.  He recorded it later for The Mountain, the beautiful, intense and blazingly-energetic album he made with the Del McCoury Band.  ‘I Believe in God’ followed (‘the sort of song you write at 55’), before Earle lovingly removed a dulcimer from its case on a table behind him. Divorced again, he spoke of how if he could keep only one thing, it would be this dulcimer.  He sang two songs with the dulcimer – ‘Dixie Land’ and ‘Galway Girl’ (before which he talked of his love for Ireland – his next port of call – and the troubles the country has been through since the crash.

Brought back by a tumultuous standing ovation for an encore, Steve launched into a lengthy spiel about Israel, why he’s opposed to artistic boycotts, and his collaboration with David Broza, an Israeli singer-songwriter and activist.  Steve produced Broza’s latest album East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem, featuring songs and musicians that cross cultures and languages.  Its theme is coexistence – in common with Earle’s first encore, ‘Jerusalem’, which sounded more than ever like a lost cause on a day when conflict flared again in Gaza, and an American journalist was beheaded by ISIS:

I woke up this morning 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

But Earle doesn’t believe in lost causes, ‘because I’m a recovering heroin addict, and for a long time everyone thought I was a lost cause, and I even thought so myself, but I turned my life around’.  Well, sure, though I think the Middle East is a different kettle of fish entirely.  After that, we were back on home ground for the final encore, ‘Guitar Town’.

Set list

You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
Girl on the Mountain (new song)
My Old Friend the Blues
I Ain’t Every Satisfied
Every Part of Me
Sparkle and Shine
Valentine’s Day
I Feel Alright
South Nashville Blues
Cocaine Can’t Kill my Pain
Outlaws Honeymoon
I Believe in God
Rex’s Blues
Fort Worth Blues
Dixie Land
Galway Girl
Devils Right Hand
Copperhead Road
Guitar Town



Steve Earle: redemption songs

Steve Earle: redemption songs

Steve Earle

Steve Earle on stage at the Phil. (Photo: Simon Nicholl)

At Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall last week, Steve Earle opened with the Woody Guthrie-styled title song from his excellent new album The Low Highway.  Later in the concert, Steve talked about the song’s genesis: travelling across his country and seeing everywhere the signs of economic failure, just as Woody did in the Great Depression: ‘I’m writing on the road, and the song is about what I was seeing out of my window as I travelled around North America last year. And the world too, because times are hard all over – we could see that just travelling from here from Manchester.’

‘The Low Highway’ is a song that observes today’s empty factories, unemployment lines and people ‘lining up for something to eat’.

Saw empty houses on a dead end street
People lining up for something to eat
And the ghost of America watching me
Through the broken windows of the factories

‘None of us remember the Depression first-hand. I realized that what I was seeing, not riding a boxcar but through the window of a three-quarter-of-a-million dollar bus, is a situation very similar to what Woody saw. Times really are that hard out there’.

Steve Earle sings with compassion and – like Rebecca Solnit in her essays – speaks of hope for the voiceless in the ‘bones of a better day’:

Wheels turnin’ round on the asphalt sayin’
Every sound is a prophecy

More than anyone (with the possible exception of Bruce Springsteen) it is Steve Earle who has carried the torch lit by Woody Guthrie into a new century (Bob Dylan having demurred the role), keeping alive the flickering embers of social conscience.  He’s quite explicit about this, singing in ‘Christmas In Washington’ (sadly omitted from his Liverpool concert) of the debt owed to Guthrie and other Americans who took a stand for freedom and justice:

So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow

There’s foxes in the hen house
Cows out in the corn
The unions have been busted
Their proud red banners torn
To listen to the radio
You’d think that all was well
But you and me and Cisco know
It’s going straight to hell

So come back, Emma Goldman
Rise up, old Joe Hill
The barricades are goin’ up
They cannot break our will
Come back to us, Malcolm X
And Martin Luther King
We’re marching into Selma
As the bells of freedom ring

In the liner notes to his latest album, Steve articulates his mission in these words: ‘There’s something calling me out there. Always has been, ever since I was old enough to stand out on the highway and stick out my thumb’.  It’s more than 50 years since he stuck out his thumb – aged 14 and running away from home to follow his idol Townes Van Zandt around Texas. By the age of 19 he was in Nashville, working blue-collar jobs by day and playing music at night. During this apprenticeship he began to write songs and played bass guitar in Guy Clark’s band and on Clark’s 1975 album Old No. 1. It was around that time that Steve appeared in the wonderful film Heartworn Highways, a documentary on the Nashville music scene which included Guy Clark, Townes van Zandt and Rodney Crowell.

I’ve been a fan of Steve Earle ever since hearing the opening notes of Guitar Town back in the mid-1980s. That album – a perfect encapsulation of the frustrated hopes of small town life – sounds as good today as it ever did, with tracks such as ‘Guitar Town’ and ‘My Old Friend The Blues’ (both revisited at the Phil), ‘Someday’ and ‘Fearless Heart’ that remain great anthems of the dream of escape: ‘Someday I’ll put her on that interstate and never look back’.

Earle’s big break into mainstream radio play came with his swaggering, hard-rocking 1988 album Copperhead Road. But that success intensified a downward spiral of addiction to booze, cocaine and heroin that only ended a decade later, after he had come close to losing his life to drugs and spent a year in prison.

Yet Earle survived to turn his recovery and return to recording into a parable of redemption that has clearly been as much an inspiration to the man himself as for those who listen to his music.  In interviews he sometimes seems a little surprised to still be with us: ‘If I thought I’d live this long I would have taken better care of myself’, he remarked recently. But it’s the way that his experience on the edge has infused his writing that is significant.

From the start his songs had displayed an empathy with the small-town losers and ordinary guys who populated them, but since his return Earle’s commitment to empathise with those whom society would rather marginalise or condemn has intensified. In songs about the homeless, murderers on death row or – most controversially – about the captured American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh – he seeks empathy not retribution, understanding before judgement.   It’s as if his own struggles, the prison time and successful rehabilitation have urged him to place the possibility of redemption at the heart of his artistic and social vision. His songs are truly redemption songs: subtle, eloquent and empathetic.

As Joanna Colangelo wrote on the Huffington Post earlier this year:

It’s well-known that Steve’s hard-drug living days, a year in prison and decades of life on the road have led him into the shadows of the country – nooks of darkness and shame, which can too often be swept under a patriotic rug. Yet, it’s his poetic embrace of the beauty and dignity in these nooks that makes Steve Earle the most important highway philosopher of American culture today. His songs are reminders of the complexities and contradictions that exist in a country as massive as ours, and his albums are a dose of humanity, often times when it’s most needed.

At the Phil, Steve sang ‘Invisible’ off the new album, a song in which he gives voice to the homeless guy living on the street, invisible to passers-by:

Everywhere I go
People pass me by
They never know ’cause I’m
A shadow hangin’ low
A footstep just behind
They carry on but I’m

Songs from the new album, The Low Highway, some of them inspired by Earle’s observations of people enduring hard times, others by time spent in New Orleans as a performer on David Simon’s post-Katrina saga Treme, made up a large slice of his set at the Phil.  On stage for well over two hours, and including assorted gems from his back catalogue, Earle made plain his respect for the latest incarnation of his band The Dukes: ‘the best band I have ever played with’.

True, too: this is a bunch of fine musicians, lending sympathetic support to songs from all stages of Steve’s career, from pounding rock to sensitive bluegrass or country melodies.  The Dukes now consist of original members Will Rigby (drums) and Kelley Looney (bass) joined by Chris Masterson (lead guitar and pedal steel) and Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle, piano and harmony vocals).  The latter two musicians also comprise The Mastersons, who opened the night as support performing a handful of songs from their album Bird Fly South.

Mastersons and Steve Earle

Steve Earle and The Mastersons on stage at the Phil. (Photo: Simon Nicholl)

Earle himself played an impressive variety of instruments including acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, and even keyboards on one song. Eleanor Whitmore is an extremely versatile musician; she turned her hand at different times to guitar, mandolin and keyboards, but most especially plays terrific fiddle, as exciting as that played by Lucia Micarelli, Steve’s busking partner in Treme. Whitmore also accompanied Earle on most songs, while Kelly Looney on acoustic and electric bass and Will Rigby on the drums provided a forthright yet varied pulse.

Since making his comeback Earle has been busy in many departments: as well as recording a string of critically-acclaimed albums, he has been actively involved in political campaigns, most notably in opposition to the death penalty.  He has published a collection of short stories and, last year, his first novel.  Alongside all this, he has appeared in two David Simon TV series: in The Wire Earle played a recovering addict, while in the first two seasons of Treme he played street musician Harley Watt.

Naturally, with Treme being so concerned with music, Earle contributed songs to the show, and several of these appear on The Low Highway and were featured at the Phil.  There were the two songs, co-written with Lucia Micarelli – ‘That All You Got?’ and ‘After Mardis Gras’, as well as the classic post-Katrina anthem ‘This City’:

This city won’t ever die
Just as long as our heart be strong
Like a second line stepping high
Raising hell as we roll along

Here, Steve talks about writing the song and performs it live in the studio:

While this is the band’s performance in Eindhoven last month:

Another New Orleans-inspired song from Treme is the languid ‘Love’s Gonna Blow My Way’ which featured great fiddle from Eleanor Whitmore.  This was the song performed in Glasgow two nights later:

Then there was that remarkable moment when Steve sat down at the keyboards.  As he explained: ‘hang out in New Orleans long enough and you start believing you should be able to play piano’.  This was by way of introduction to the bar room boogie of ‘Pocket Full of Rain’

Alongside the new songs, old favourites were dusted down: ‘Guitar Town’ rocked like it was still the 1980s with Chris Masterson providing that twangy Duane Eddy riff:

Hey pretty baby are you ready for me
It’s your good rockin’ daddy down from Tennessee
I’m just out of Austin bound for San Antone
With the radio blastin’ and the bird dog on

By way of contrast, ‘My Old Friend the Blues’ also from the debut album, began with Earle performing solo. It’s a simple song that still retains its power to move.  The pounding rock of ‘Copperhead Road’ and ‘Taneytown’ contrasted with the bluegrass fiddle sound of songs like ‘Warren Hellman’s Banjo’ and ‘The Galway Girl’, reflecting the engaging blend of genre influences that have defined Steve Earle’s albums.

Steve’s introduction to ‘Warren Hellman’s Banjo’ was interesting: he spoke of his admiration for San Francisco’s Warren Hellman – the only banker he has ever hung out with.  Hellman earned his praise for financing the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival held at The Golden Gate Park each year.  When Hellman died in 2011 he left sufficient funds for the festival to continue for a while. Earle’s song is a celebration of a wealthy man who didn’t lose contact with the ground he walked on or the society he lived in.

Steve Earle

Steve introduced ‘Nothin’ But You’ as ‘Bob Dylan’s favourite Steve Earle song’. I was pleased that Steve included a couple of songs -‘Ben McCulloch’ and ‘Mystery Train’- from Train a Comin’, the album he recorded in 1994 for a tiny independent label after he had served prison time and was was clean and sober for the first time in many years.  It’s a great record with a relaxed acoustic session feel, featuring some renowned acoustic pickers, including Norman Blake, Peter Rowan, and Roy Huskey, Jr. The mood is akin to the informal gatherings captured in Heartworn Highways.  There’s a great cover version of McCartney’s bitter ‘I’m Looking Through You’ that must have had a special meaning for Steve at the time.

Easily the most moving song on the new album, and one of the most personal songs that Steve has written, is ‘Remember Me’.  It would be difficult, I think, for any parent to hear it through with dry eyes.  As he explained when he introduced the song at the Phil, he wrote it for his three year old son, John Henry, who was born when Steve was 55. ‘I’m 58 years old; my son is four.  That has to be a definition of optimism’, he said.  He went on to explain that John Henry has been diagnosed as autistic: in Earle’s view, ‘This is  a worldwide epidemic. And it’s obviously something environmental. It’s one in 50 kids. Think about it: that’s far bigger than influenza; far bigger than Aids, polio . . . bigger than any epidemic we’ve ever faced. It could be pesticides they spray on crops. It could be genetically modified food. It’s universal. This is about the future of the human race’.

I wasn’t entirely sure about this, and did a bit of online research later.  Experts seem divided on the extent to which autism is primarily caused by genetic or environmental factors. For example, a page, Causes of autism and Asperger syndrome, on the NHS Choices website states:

New fathers who are older than 40 are estimated to be six times more likely to father a child with an ASD than fathers under 40. This is possibly because a man’s genetic material is more at risk of developing mutations as he gets older.  Researchers are currently studying the possibility that air pollution and pesticides may cause ASDs, under what is known as the CHARGE study. However, it will probably be several years before there is definitive information on environmental factors.

In the meantime, Earle is dedicating himself to ensuring the best care for his son:  ‘John Henry, I think, is gonna be okay – but he’s got resources’.  He performs benefits to support The Brown Centre for Autism and their work with early intervention for children with autism.  And he’s writing his memoirs with the aim of devoting the proceeds of publication to his son’s support.

So, Steve Earle continues to carry the Woody Guthrie mantle.  While the set at the Phil mainly featured the political songs off the new album, such as ‘The Low Highway’, ‘Invisible’ and ‘Burnin’ It Down‘, brought back for a third encore, the band blasted us with ‘The Revolution Starts…Now’, the incendiary title track of Steve’s 2004 album, a collection of songs influenced by the Iraq war and the policies of the George W. Bush administration that won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album.

The Revolution Starts…Now was one of a sequence of blistering and predominantly political albums released in the decade after 9/11.  Two years earlier he had released Jerusalem, his most explicitly political album with songs that took on the war on terror, capital punishment, poverty and the growing gulf between rich and poor.  The most controversial song was ‘John Walker’s Blues’ which, while by no means endorsing of Lindh’s actions, attempted to understand how an American boy could find a personal truth in Islam and take up arms thousands of miles from home.  It was an album packed with angry yet thoughtful lyrics presented in musical settings as loud and abrasive as anything from Tom Morello and Rage Against The Machine.

Steve and the band were brought back for three encores. They began with a Beatles cover (they were in Liverpool after all); less predictably, Steve chose ‘Cry Baby Cry’ off the White Album.  Then came ‘Continental Trailways Blues’, one of Steve’s great American road songs.Returning for the third and final encore, the band blasted into ‘The Revolution Starts…Now’ (would that it were that simple!) which ended with Steve raising a clenched fist before kneeling to fiddle with knobs and trigger an endless Hendrix-like chord on his guitar which continued to resound as he left the stage.

Steve Earle fist

The Revolution Starts…Now’ (Photo: Simon Nicholl)

I was walkin’ down the street
In the town where I was born
I was movin’ to a beat
That I’d never felt before
So I opened up my eyes
And I took a look around
I saw it written ‘cross the sky
The revolution starts now
Yeah, the revolution starts now

The revolution starts now
When you rise above your fear
And tear the walls around you down
The revolution starts here
Where you work and where you play
Where you lay your money down
What you do and what you say
The revolution starts now
Yeah the revolution starts now

Yeah the revolution starts now
In your own backyard
In your own hometown
So what you doin’ standin’ around?
Just follow your heart
The revolution starts now

Last night I had a dream
That the world had turned around
And all our hopes had come to be
And the people gathered ‘round
They all brought what they could bring
And nobody went without
And I learned a song to sing
The revolution starts now

Steve Earle encore

Steve Earle doing a Hendrix thing. (Photo: Simon Nicholl)

Leaving the auditorium, the PA played us out with Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’. Here’s Steve Earle singing it:

Set list

The Low Highway
21st Century Blues
Calico County
Hard Core Troubadour
I Thought You Should Know
That All You Got?
Love’s Gonna Blow My Way
After Mardi Gras
Pocket Full Of Rain
This City
You’re Still Standin’ There
Burnin’ It Down
Guitar Town
Copperhead Road
Warren Hellman’s Banjo
Little Emperor
Dominick Street/The Galway Girl
Mystery Train Part 2
Remember Me
My Old Friend The Blues
Ben McCulloch
I Ain’t Ever Satisfied
Down The Road
Cry Baby Cry
Nothin’ But You
Continental Trailways Blues
The Revolution Starts… Now

See also

Treme season 2: deeper, darker

We’ve reached the end of the second season of Treme, the TV drama set in New Orleans in the period following Katrina. In this series, which begins roughly eight months after the end of season one, or 14 months after Katrina, the writing has gone deeper into each character’s psychology and explored even darker areas than those Treme was edging towards by the end of season one.  As Dave Walker, TV critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune (Interruption for an side: I’ve always been fascinated by that journal’s name; it turns out that a picayune was a Spanish coin, worth half a real, its name deriving from the French picaillon, meaning ‘small coin’, then, by extension, trivial or of little value. Great name for a newspaper.) has pointed out, ‘It’s dark because those were very dark days in the city’.

The headlines got pretty grim in the time that they’re depicting. The recovery just seemed to be dragging. Violent crime had returned to the city, after basically being non-existent for a long time.

Two episodes in the second season reflect the darkness.  The first concerns LaDonna Batiste-Williams, played by Khandi Alexander, whose astonishing performance I would hold up as the creme de la creme of this season.  In the first series we saw how LaDonna was determined to keep open the bar she inherited from her father, despite her family living in Baton Rouge and pressure from her husband, Larry, to sell the place. She had troubles even then – after the storm, her brother had gone missing and as the series progressed, the civil rights lawyer Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) worked hard, battling bureaucracy and police resistance to discover the truth about LaDonna’s missing brother.  What she discovered was that he had been shot by a police officer in one of those incidents in the aftermath when the police and other security forces went feral (see, for example, Dave Eggar’s suberb book, Zeitoun).

Khandi Alexander as LaDonna Batiste-Williams

One night in an early second season episode, LaDonna is shutting down her bar when two men break in and, despite her desperate attempt to fight them off by wielding a baseball bat, they rape her. In subsequent episodes we observed the slow disintegration of this strong and forceful woman.  After the rape, LaDonna did what many trauma victims do – retreated deep inside herself behind a protective wall of alcohol and blank stares, occasionally lashing out her husband and family.

However, in the season finale the ice finally shifts and we see the old LaDonna re-emerge, good style.  After seeing one of her rapists enjoying a beer at a local bar, she calls the cops, and as he is arrested she aims blows and vituperation at him. But later, at the Assistant DA’s office accompanied by her husband Larry, she learns that the man has been released due to a clerical error. In a bravura piece of acting, Khandi Alexander precisely modulates LaDonna’s growing anger, from pain to full-blown rage.  In the most poignant monologue in the season she condemns the system’s failings:

What the fuck is wrong with you people? You lose my brother in the damn jail for months and then you let this vicious little motherfucker go first chance you get. We tryin’ to live in this city. We tryin’ to come back here but what little shit we got back together and live and all you manage to bring to that is nothin’. Rebuild the house? Hell no – fill out these forms and wait. Get your child back in school. Which one? You’ve got three different school systems. Two of them ain’t teachin’ shit and the third one can only open so many. Open the hospital back up? Hell no – let’s tear down some more neighbourhoods instead. Solve a crime or two? Oh hell the fuck no.

At this point, the assistant DA dares to speak, saying, ‘I don’t blame you for being upset’. LaDonna spits (as Larry grins) ‘Upset? Bitch, I’m past upset. I’m all the way to lost my fuckin’ mind’.

After, as they wait for the lift, Larry says, ‘Tell ya one thing – we ain’t selling that damn bar. Look at you –  this is who I married. You went away, now you back’. We ain’t sellin’ that bar and we ain’t stayin’ in Baton Rouge neither. We comin’ home. All of us. You ain’t gonna be who you are otherwise. I see it now’.

The second incident to shock viewers to the core in this season came in the ninth episode, ‘What Is New Orleans?’ After an evening of street-corner busking with Annie Tee, Harley Watt (played by Steve Earle) is walking her home when the couple are held up by two armed robbers and Harley is shot in the face.  It was an extraordinarily powerful scene, with no sense of what was coming: it felt like being there.  The last song that Harley had sung for coins was Hank Williams’ ‘I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive’.

A block away Antoine Batiste is trying to hail a taxi with Sonny after a gig. Drunken revellers stumble past and Sonny remarks, ‘That’s true New Orleans – right there’.  Police cars race past, sirens screaming. ‘That’s New Orleans, too’, says Antoine.

Harley's last walk

Not everything has been this dark: the season opened on All Saints’ Day, one of the many important day in the New Orleans music and street-marching calendar.  A youngster practices the trumpet as Antoine Batiste plays at his mentor Danny Nelson’s grave Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say’.  Music is the life blood of this city, and this series.

Lucia Micarelli plays Annie

Lucia  Micarelli who plays the violinist Annie has some thoughts on this:

In the show music is used to represent the culture of New Orleans, and the sense of community. It plays a big part in what separates New Orleans from other cities. It’s definitely a different vibe here. It feels like they’ve held onto their culture more than other places. They’re more concerned about passing down information and stories and craft and talent. I think that’s the role that music plays on the show – to show how the city really celebrates its roots.

Antoine Batiste acts as mentor

One of the storylines this season has concerned Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) being pressured, reluctantly at first, to take on the role of mentor to music students in a local school (including the kid we saw practising trumpet walking down the street in the opening episode).

Wendell Pierce as Antoine Batiste with his band

At the same time, Batiste has put together a band, The Soul Apostles, but found the going can be rough, what with musicians turning up late for gigs, pleading other commitments, demanding advances, or just being too wasted to play properly (that’s guitarist Sonny, eventually taken in hand and, in one of the season’s most intriguing storylines brought to his senses on the Vietnamese shrimp boats out in the Gulf).  By the end of the series, Batiste seems to be finding the school work more fulfilling.

Another great musical thread this season has developed the story of Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown), an accomplished trumpet player. In the first series he found himself drawn more to the music and atmosphere of New York than New Orleans. But Delmond’s father is Albert, Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame, who returns to his washed out home right after Katrina, determined to prepare for the next Mardi Gras parade.

Roy Brown plays Delmond Lambreaux

Delmond’s character is based on jazz innovator Donald Harrison, Jr, brought in by David Simon and Eric Overmyer, Treme‘s creators, as musical consultant for the series. In the second season, we see Delmond trying to make his name in jazz in New York, whilst also attempting to combine traditional New Orleans jazz elements with contemporary hard bop stylings.  He gets his father, Big Chief of The Guardians of the Flame Albert Lambreaux involved, too.

Clark Peters plays Albert Lambreaux

All this is based on Donald Harrison’s own story. He is also the son of a well respected  ‘Old Time Indian’, the late Donald Harrison Sr, Big Chief of the Congo Nation. In 1992 Donald Harrison Jr recorded his masterwork Indian Red which captured the essence of Mardi Gras Indian culture within a jazz context. Just as in Treme, the album featured father and son, along with Dr. John on piano, and Ron Carter on bass.  In the current series we saw Delmond’s band re-creating ‘Hu-Ta-Nay’ from Indian Blues back in 1992.  A track from that album, ‘Indian Red’ featured on the soundtrack to the first season of Treme:

As Big Chief of the Congo Nation and son of Big Chief Donald Sr, Harrison helps keep alive Mardi Gras Indian culture. He is famous for the beaded and feathered suits he creates, part of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tradition of masking. These rituals, which date to at least the mid-1800s, are an African-American homage to the Native Americans who once sheltered runaway slaves. In Treme, Albert Lambreaux represents this important element of New Orleans culture.

Davis McAlary, the former part-time DJ played by Steve Zahn, also wants to reinvent the New Orleans tradition. In the opening minutes of the first episode of Treme last season, Davis walks to his apartment window, hears music and says, ‘Sounds like Rebirth’. McAlary was referring to the Rebirth Brass Band, one of those tuba- and sousaphone-led marching brass bands that are cardinal to the New Orleans tradition. The group was founded in 1982 by  school marching band members from the Joseph S. Clark Senior High School in the Treme neighbourhood, including trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, who appears as himself in Treme.

This is a roundabout way of stating that Davis McAlary knows his city’s music inside out.  This season he puts together a band that blends traditional sounds with New Orleans rap. As the story develops we see that the joke is on Davis: the lead rapper in the band becomes wildly popular, sidelining McAlary’s contributions.

McAlary is another character based on a real-life personality: Davis Rogan, who also worked as a radio DJ, played gigs, and put together a band that fused classic New Orleans brass band and funk sounds with hip-hop. Like McAlary, Rogan knows New Orleans music from Armstrong to rap. His band, All That, was one of the earliest exponents of ‘sousaphonk’, New Orleans R&B in which bass guitar parts are played on the tuba to funky effect. And Rogan is a student of New Orleans bounce, the New Orleans style of rap music that has been featured in this season of Treme.

But there’s so much more than music: Treme’s ambitions go well beyond that  – to tell the story of a city.  Just as Dickens gave us a panorama embracing every class and corner of London, so does Treme reveal New Orleans in all her complexity.  There’s the food:  chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) who in the first season lost her struggle to keep her restaurant open while waiting for insurance to pay for her losses in the storm, is now in New York building a reputation as a chef all over again, but still hankering after her hometown.

There’s politics and business, too: a major new character in season 2 has been Nelson Hidalgo, a property developer and venture capitalist from Dallas who comes to the city to make political contacts and gain contracts for rebuilding.  After Katrina, billions of dollars in federal aid poured in to help the city rebuild. An estimated 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded during the storm and plenty of redevelopment opportunities emerged. Nelson makes hay with his city hall cronies, but by the season finale he’s in trouble.

‘I’m fucked’, he tells his cousin in a bar where he’s drinking heavily. ‘I come to town, make friends, got a kind word for everybody, doin’ what I do, makin’ what I can, get it done. Now, cuz, I could go to fuckin’ jail’. His friends at city hall are being investigated on corruption charges.  Nelson’s cousin is puzzled about what exactly it is he does. ‘I do deals. I make money’, Nelson replies. ‘But what do you make? What is it that you do?’ Nelson responds: ‘I do a deal. Something gets done’.

David Simon has talked about how the storylines on Treme are developed:

We have a spine …  which is what happened in New Orleans over the last six years. You come into the writer’s office. It’s not a bunch of dilettantes deciding what songs from their record collection they want heard on the show, and what this character could do that is really fun or interesting. When you come into the writer’s office on Treme, what you see is bulletin board after bulletin board of color-coded cards listing what happened in New Orleans politics, what happens in terms of crime culture, what happens in terms of redevelopment, city hall, the education system. What happened when. When did New Orleans experience this? When did people become aware of this?  The spine is there. And it’s rooted in the actual events that occurred in New Orleans, beginning in August of 2005.  Treme is truly a long-form story – it’s ten, eleven, twelve hours, a novel really – and you’re doling it out in chapters.  The architecture is subtle. People can’t always see the architecture. Sometimes it’s impossible for them to see the architecture.

This was the trailer for Treme season 2 – and unusually, it consisted of video clips from the forthcoming series shown to a soundtrack of local poet Gian Smith reciting ‘O Beautiful Storm’,a poem written after Katrina.  These are the opening lines:

I got the Rain in my veins…
The flood water in my blood makes my heart beat harder.
I’ve got the scent of the death and decay in the wind
Sinking into my nose and under my skin.
She’s the music in my ears, and the mold in my soul.
Move with her like bellies to congo drums
Write a sonnet to her, serenade her, recite her a poem.
Bump her like sissy bounce or mellow into her like Marsalis.
Let her weave through your brain like a song has moved you
And you can stop the flow…
But don’t let her go.

In the last minutes of the season finale, Davis – who has had to learn a few humbling lessons this season about his own limitations – is back at the radio station as a DJ.  Introducing Louis Armstrong playing ‘Wrap Your Trouble in Dreams’, he speaks these words as we see a final montage of closing scenes:

Anyway New Orleans, we’re all still here. A few more along every day.  And even if it isn’t as it should be, even if they make it hard, where else would we go? Who else would have us? Yeah, you right. Let Pops tell it….


Joan Baez: Happy Birthday

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