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Woodstock Performers: Joan Baez

Rockin’ before she could walk, Kaili is a vinyl hound who knows the words to every post-1960 song.

This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. Appearing on Day 1 prior to Joan Baez was Arlo Guthrie of "Alice's Restaurant" fame. The Queen of folk music was the perfect star to wrap up the opening day festivities. Due to delays throughout the day Friday, Joan didn't actually take the stage until about 1:00 a.m. on Saturday August 16th. So, technically, she became the first artist on the bill for Day 2. In reality, that honor went to Boston-based Quill.

Who Is Joan Baez?

Joan Chandos Baez was born on Staten Island, New York, on January 9, 1941, the middle daughter of a Mexican-born physicist father and a Scottish mother. The family moved many times in support of Baez's father's career with UNESCO, living in such diverse countries as England, France, Spain and Iraq.

A friend of her father's presented Baez with a ukulele, and she taught herself to play enough chords that she could play along to the R&B music she loved. When she was 13, her aunt took her to a Pete Seeger concert for her birthday, and she was hooked. She taught herself to play Seeger's folk songs and it wasn't long before she was playing in public. In 1957, she bought her very first guitar and practiced that instrument until her fingers were blistered.

He father's posting to MIT in 1958 had the family on the move again, this time to Boston, Massachusetts. Baez enrolled at Boston University to attend the theater school there, but dropped out after only a short time. She was drawn to the strong folk music scene in and around Boston, and started playing clubs in Boston and Cambridge, and even recorded a record with two friends on the Veritas label that had limited circulation, mostly around Cambridge. It was around this time that she met folk singer Bob Gibson, who was so impressed by her voice and presence that he invited her to perform with him at the Newport Folk festival in 1959. Her wonderful voice captivated the audience, and also caught the attention of a representative from Vanguard Records.

Baez released her first solo LP on Vanguard in October 1960, a self-titled record of folk songs, laments and ballads that reached the number 20 spot in the US, a feat unheard of for folk music, especially a completely unknown artist.

Baez went on to release eight more LPs on Vanguard between 1961 and 1969. Some fared better than others, with 1965's "Farewell, Angelina" making it to the #10 spot on the Billboard Pop Album chart.

Early Activism

It was in 1956 that Baez first heard Martin Luther King, Jr. give a speech on nonviolent social activism. The following year, she attended a lecture by Ira Sandperl, a Gandhian scholar who was also to have a big influence on her. By the early '60s, Baez was participating in marches, sit-ins and occupations and lending her voice to raise money and awareness for the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1963, Baez performed “We Shall Overcome” at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—on the very steps where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech—linking her name to that song forever more. War protests too, occupied her time, and she withheld 60% of her Federal taxes in her 1963 income tax return as another form of protest. In 1967, she went to jail briefly—twice—for participating in anti-war protests, and she also participated in organized sit-ins against the Vietnam war, joining crowds of demonstrators who were blocking entrances to draft centers.

Her distinct voice and her active and passionate involvement in marches and protests gave rise to a new form of popular music.

Joan Baez's Woodstock

The drizzle had started up again when Baez arrived onstage. She made a comment about how her's would likely be a sunrise set, and opened with "Oh, Happy Day." She then moved through a song by Tom Paxton, followed by Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." It was at this point that Baez told the audience about how her husband David Harris was serving time in a federal penitentiary for resisting the draft. She then launched into the old union/organizing song "Joe Hill."

By the time Baez finished up about an hour later, the sky had opened up again. Closing her set with "We Shall Overcome," she had the crowd singing along with her to this civil rights anthem. It was 2:00 a.m.

Joan Baez Performing "Joe Hill" at Woodstock

Woodstock? Hell, I was already pushing my luck. I'd been on the music scene for ten years and I still didn't take dope or use a backup band. But Woodstock was also me - Joan Baez, the square, six months pregnant, the wife of a draft-resister, endlessly proselytizing about the war - I had my place there. I was of the '60s, and I was already a survivor.

— Joan Baez, when asked years later about Woodstock

Joan Baez Performing "We Shall Overcome" at Woodstock

Life After Woodstock

Baez hadn't needed a career boost from Woodstock, but she got one anyway. She continued to tour and record, lending her time and talent to causes that she believed in. During Christmas of 1972, Baez was even part of a peace delegation to North Vietnam.

Her LPs over the years have ranged in style, from traditional folk and gospel to pop. In 1971, she released a version of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which reached the number five position on the US charts. Her 1975 album Diamonds & Rust was certified gold in the US and contained a cover of Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate," as well as a duet with Joni Mitchell. This is a spectacular album, and I highly recommend it. In 2008, she released her 24th studio album, which was produced by Steve Earle. In 2018, she released her 25th album "Whistle Down the Wind."

She has chalked up eight certified gold albums, a 2007 Grammy "Lifetime Achievement" award and nine additional Grammy nominations, as well as two honorary doctorate degrees. She has published books about her career and, in 2017, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Joan Baez "Diamonds & Rust"

Joan Baez performing for sold out audience in Albany, New York in March 2016

Joan Baez performing for sold out audience in Albany, New York in March 2016

Five Musical Facts

  1. In 1958, Baez committed her first act of civil disobedience when she refused to participate in an air raid drill at her high school.
  2. Baez was one of the only big performers to play a set at the "free" stage at Woodstock. When she heard that a tent had been set up so that people who couldn't afford to pay to attend the festival could still hear some music, she volunteered to perform. Of course, by that time, the fence had been pulled down and everything was free.
  3. Baez was six months pregnant when she performed at Woodstock. Her son, Gabriel Harris, makes his living making musical instruments.
  4. In the 1970s, Baez helped to establish the west coast branch of Amnesty International.
  5. "Diamonds & Rust" was also covered by Judas Priest on their 1977 LP Sin After Sin and the song remains a staple of their live performances. This is one of my favorite Judas Priest songs, and even Baez has said that she loves their version of the song.

Could Baez appear at a Woodstock 50th anniversary event? It certainly looks to be a possibility. She embarked on her "Fare Thee Well" tour in September of 2018, and has US dates booked into July 2019 at this point. What a coup it would be for the Bethel Woods Center, the site of the original festival, to have her on the bill, taking her final bow.

© 2019 Kaili Bisson


Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 01, 2019:

Hi Linda,

You are so welcome! She has had a fascinating life, that's for sure.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on March 31, 2019:

I love listening to Joan Baez sing. Thank you very much for sharing these interesting facts about her life.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on March 29, 2019:

Hello Pamela and thank you!

Yes, it seems she has always had the courage of her convictions. I learned a few new things researching this article; I didn't know, as an example, that her father was a physicist who had a very interesting career.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 29, 2019:

Joan Baez has a beautiful voice. Yhis is such an interesting and well written article, I learned several new things about her life. It does sound she was always a very independent woman.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on March 29, 2019:

Hello John and thank you. Her voice is still really wonderful, isn't it? I love her early stuff. Looking at her tour schedule, it is really possible she could be at Woodstock 50...that would be amazing.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on March 29, 2019:

Thank you so much Flourish :-) I think Joan has always marched to the beat of her own drum, so the air raid protest was only the beginning. She was 17, and declared herself to be a "conscientious objector." She told the local paper that she didn't see the point of the drill, that it wasn't a method of defense and that the only real defense was peace.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on March 29, 2019:

Kaili, this is another wonderful article in your Woodstock series. Joan Baez is an amazing artist and person. I saw her perform a song live on Tv while in Australia about 18 months or two years ago. She is still a great performer.

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 29, 2019:

Exceptionally well written. She is one performer who epitomized the event. I wonder what her point was in the civil disobedience of the air raid drill in high school though.