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Friday, March 31, 2017

Joan Baez

Perhaps the most controversial inductee in this year's slate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is Joan Baez. Not because of quality (that might be Journey, which I'll discuss soon) but because, as they usually say when the inductees are announced, she never rocked nor rolled. Baez is a great American artist, but I never considered her a rock performer. It's best we all agreed that the Hall of Fame should just name itself after Popular Music.

Baez, who is still touring and recording, is best remembered as pure-voiced fixture of the folk revival of the early 60s, and if Bob Dylan was the crowned prince, she was the princess. The two were an item for a while, and I'm sorry I was too young to experience that time, when the world was changing, led by young people who turned to old songs.

Baez has made more than thirty albums, and has performed for over fifty years, so there's a lot of material out there. I picked up a greatest hits collection from her work with A&M records in the '70s, and it's eclectic. I couldn't say what her signature song is--maybe "Diamonds and Rust," which is obviously about Dylan:

"Well you burst on the scene
 Already a legend
 The unwashed phenomenon
 The original vagabond
 You strayed into my arms
 And there you stayed
 Temporarily lost at sea"

The record also includes a few Dylan covers, such as "A Simple Twist of Fate" (in which she sings a verse in the nasal twang of Dylan) and "Forever Young," John Lennon's "Imagine," and one of my favorite songs, Robbie Robertson's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," the only hit song I know of about the Civil War.

Baez, like any good folksinger, knows hundreds of songs, and there a few standards here, notably "Amazing Grace" in an audience sign-a-long. If I could include one more song on this album it would be "Joe Hill," about the legendary union organizer--no one can sing that like Baez.

It's interesting that people like Baez, who were activists back then and vilified by some--cartoonist Al Capp satirized her as "Joanie Phoanie," a communist and limousine liberal. Today Baez's stances, on the environment, death penalty, and LGBT rights, are solidly in the Democratic playbook, and she's received all sorts of accolades, while no one under 50 knows what "L'il Abner" was.


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