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Joan Baez: The Queen of Folk Merges Music and Social Justice

Since the late 1950s, Joan Baez (b. January 9, 1941) has had a storied career, releasing over 30 albums in six languages, often using her music as a platform for activism, advocating for civil rights, human rights, non-violence, and so many other civil rights and social justice issues. Over the years, Baez has become well known for her essential take on the song “We Shall Overcome”—a traditional gospel song that grew into a protest song during the Civil Rights Movement, made popular by Pete Seeger and a number of other performers. Baez became well known for her version of the classic after performing it at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. To this day she continues to unite her music career and her quest for social justice.

Joan Baez

Joan Baez was an essential player in the story of the folk music revival in Greenwich Village, yet the story begins long before her arrival. In the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, radical idealists such as Josh White, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie converged in New York. It was a fertile time for such influential artists to “[redefine] the genre of folk music from a quaint musical form associated with rural life to ‘the people’s music’—a weapon of ideological battle to mobilize workers to develop a class consciousness.”

With the advent of the Second World War and the rise of American Patriotism, the appetite for folk music’s politicized messages abated. But in 1945, a printer named George Margolin started performing near the fountain in Washington Square, and the outdoor venue eventually grew to become a gathering place for the full anti-establishment spectrum, including protesters, artists, activists, and musicians. By 1960 the park was teeming with hundreds of young aspiring musicians, most of whom played and sang for free.  The seeds of a revival started to blossom, taking root in and around the park. Sunday-afternoon folk singalongs attracted a cross-section of amateurs and pros, armed with guitars, banjos, and bongos. Musicians blended with Beat poets, abstract expressionists, off-Broadway actors, and experimental filmmakers to forge a heady countercultural melting pot. The Square had become the epicenter of folk’s renaissance, with more than 20 clubs and coffee houses, including the Gaslight Café, the Village Gate, and the Bitter End, within a five-block radius.

Folk musician gathering in Washington Square Park

“Greenwich Village had become world headquarters for a folk music scene that, to its own occasional shock and horror, was beginning to matter in the music and popular culture biz,” wrote critic David Hinckley. Spare basements that housed small clubs or coffeehouses were where folk performers came alive and performed. You’d catch them in popular places such as The Gaslight Café’ and Cafe Wha? Folk singers were united in mutual appreciation and respect for traditional pre-war folk music. The folk community became an influential certified subgroup within two larger movements: the civil rights and the peace movement.

View down the step to the entrance of the Gaslight Cafe (116 MacDougal Street), where Joan Baez could be found playing
(Photo © Estate of Fred W. McDarrah. Our special thanks to the Estate of Fred W. McDarrah for their support of Village Preservation. This photo and many others can be found in our Historic Image Archive.)

Enter Joan Baez, stage left!  Joan was born in Staten Island, New York.  Her father, Albert Baez, was a mathematician and a physicist who was born in Mexico. The family moved to Palo Alto, CA when Joan was very young, and she primarily grew up in Palo Alto, California where her father both studied for his PH.D and became a professor. Importantly, the Baez family had converted to Quakerism during Joan’s early childhood, and she deeply identified with the tradition. Her lifelong commitment to pacifism and social issues stems from that upbringing.

Joan was gifted with a beautiful singing voice and learned to play the ukelele at an early age. She spent her childhood singing in local choirs. When Baez was 13, her aunt took her to a concert being played by folk musician Pete Seeger, and Baez found herself enraptured with his music. She soon began practicing the songs of his repertoire and performing them publicly. After graduating from high school, her father accepted a teaching position at MIT, and Joan moved to Boston with her family. She enrolled in Boston University, initially studying in the Theatre Department. She eventually dropped out to pursue her love of music, singing in local coffee houses and, eventually, in the famous Club 47 in Boston.

Joan soon became widely popular. She was invited to sing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, which paved the way for her career. She began to frequently play the clubs and coffeehouses of Greenwich Village, and became both a fixture as a performer and a mentor to young and aspiring singer/songwriters.

Joan Baez at her debut at the Newport Folk Festival, 1959

One of those aspiring artists was Bob Dylan. Baez first met Dylan in April 1961 at Gerde’s Folk City. At the time, Baez had already released her debut album and her popularity as the emerging “Queen of Folk” was on the rise. Baez was impressed with one of Dylan’s first compositions, “Song to Woody,” and remarked that she would like to record it.

American musicians Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Paul Stookey play together in the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, August 28, 1963. The three were there in support of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which provided the setting for the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. (Photo © Estate of Fred W. McDarrah. Our special thanks to the Estate of Fred W. McDarrah for their support of Village Preservation. This photo and many others can be found in our Historic Image Archive.)

By 1963, Baez had already released three albums, two of which had been certified gold, and she invited Dylan on stage to perform alongside her at the Newport Folk Festival. The two performed the Dylan composition “With God on Our Side,” a performance that set the stage for many more duets like it in the months and years to come. Typically while on tour, Baez would invite Dylan to sing on stage, partly by himself and partly with her. Dylan and Baez became longtime collaborators, but their relationship extended beyond only the professional. The pair dated for several years. Dylan rented a room at the Washington Square Hotel (room 305), known then as the Hotel Earle, and Baez stayed there with him on occasion. Baez famously mentioned the hotel in her 1975 release, “Diamonds and Rust”:

Now I see you standing
With brown leaves falling all around
And snow in your hair
Now you’re smiling out the window
Of that crummy hotel
Over Washington Square
Our breath comes out white clouds
Mingles and hangs in the air
Speaking strictly for me
We both could have died then and there

Hotel Earle, now the Washington Square Hotel

Toward the end of their relationship, Dylan’s fame had eclipsed Baez’s. He invited her on a tour of Europe in 1965 but failed to bring her onstage as she had for him. Baez didn’t need the boost in popularity, but she didn’t appreciate his callous dismissal. The couple ended their relationship during the tour.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan

Baez became involved with a variety of social causes, and has spent her life and career dedicated to civil rights and social justice issues both in the U.S. and throughout the world, for over 65 years. As a young woman she declined to play in any white student venues that were segregated, which meant that when she toured the Southern states, she would play only at black colleges. Among the seemingly countless causes she has championed are prison and death penalty reform, LGBTQ+ rights, protesting the war in Vietnam, civil rights in Iran, protesting the war in Iraq, and Occupy Wall Street. She sang at many civil rights marches and rallies in the mid 1960’s. She made free concert appearances on behalf of UNESCO and other civil rights organizations. In 1965, she founded the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence in Carmel, California.

Joan Baez is arrested in 1967

Her activism continues to this day.

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    2 responses to “Joan Baez: The Queen of Folk Merges Music and Social Justice

    1. It is Joan Baez, the humanitarian and activist on behalf of causes, peoples and rights that we should celebrate. Her music and talent gave her a platform, but it was the person she was/is that drove her to use it.

    2. I have always loved Joan’s music and followed her from the beginning of her career. I will always love her for her music and for what she stands for.

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