Today is the 60th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s first professional appearance on stage. He performed opposite John Lee Hooker at the famous Gerde’s Folk City in New York on 11th April 1961. In his autobiographical Chronicles Volume One (2004), the back cover of my copy of which I’ve photographed above, Dylan recalls that the co-owner of the venue, Mike Porco, signed for him as a guardian for his cabaret and union cards, becoming “the Sicilian father that I never had”. Dylan was still only 19 years old.
So today in between other activities I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan on Spotify. The tracks played were from a playlist on the app and should be visible on my blog site’s music feed.
I cannot claim to have been a lifetime fan or follower of Joan Baez. Not in the way I kept up with Bob Dylan over the decades since I heard him first in 1969 when I was 13. There’s the issue for me. Dylan’s songs are best sung by Dylan. Why listen to others singing them? Baez sang a lot of Dylan. That was the casually uninformed view I picked up in my teenage years, and so Joan Baez’s music never was embedded in my formative experiences of musical discovery.
There was one exception though. I have possessed, in its original vinyl and cover, her album Come from the Shadows since the mid-70s. I don’t recall whether I was given it or sought it out. It made a profound impression. Certainly I recall it rarely strayed far from the turntable in my early student years 74 -77. Baez’s voice is unique and beautiful for sure, and listening to this album I appreciated it, but it was the social justice message of the songs which really hit me. “All the weary mothers of the earth” is a lyric which became one of my lifetime earworms, even during the two decades before Spotify and the vinyl revival, when the record player and vinyl albums languished in the loft.
Earlier this week I found myself reading Elizabeth Thomson’s paen to Joan Baez: Joan Baez The Last Leaf. It was the first full day of the presidency of Joe Biden. He, of course, is an exact contemporary of Baez, only a year or two younger than her.
So here I was reading a book written for Baez’s retirement from her professional career, not unreasonably at almost 80 years old, on the day Biden was entering the pinnacle and greatest challenge of his. Singer and politician are very different careers, as Bob Dylan’s story shows. So there might not generally be any cause for comment, except as this book sets out to make very clear, Baez, whilst a musician to her core, has always been more than that.
Not ever a holder of political office, she became both an active and an iconic leader nonetheless, in the groundswell for global social justice and human rights which began to rise in the 1960s.
More than a singer of protest songs, Baez both founded and funded charities and campaigns dedicated to a vision of a better social compact and world order, in particular based on principles of non- violence she had found in her family connection with the Quakers and her friendship with Martin Luther King. Without subordinating musical integrity to political messaging, Thomson argues, Baez placed her musical gifts , her celebrated fame as a performer, and her money in the service of the cause of global justice. Amnesty International’s growth in the US owes much to Joan Baez.
Notwithstanding Reagan/Thatcher and all that has followed of rampant neoliberal capitalism and the reactionary Right, reaching its noxious apogee, really a nadir, in Trump, the star of social justice has continued to rise. It is the true and only voice of the future, if human species self-destruction is to be averted. With the election of Biden and Harris this week that star shines again.
The poetic voice of social justice has been handed on rightly to the young generation, the likes of the astonishingly talented Amanda Gorman.
Admitting openly her unabashed admiration for Joan Baez as an artist and as a human being, Thomson wants to set on record the true wonder and power of Baez’s life work. Her book has done that for me. It has made me a little regretful that I forgot somehow to keep listening to Baez in the decades I deserted her work. Perhaps too it has been a wake-up call to me, and can be for all who hunger and thirst for justice, not to lose faith, especially now, that “we shall overcome”.
We live in a culture which on one hand venerates, and hugely rewards, talented entertainers whatever their personal characters, and on the other hand offers no better than humiliating punishment to “ordinary” people who display similar failings for all the same reasons (bullied by father, loveless childhood). Isn’t this a sickness in our culture? And isn’t paying high tribute to Jackson on his death spreading that disease?
Oxfam Music is my favourite online music store. It sells albums and tracks for 99p from a wide range of artists; and 10p in every pound goes to Oxfam. The majority of tracks are also streamable at 1p a track. You buy credit upfront and then purcahse against that.
I discovered some of the music of Africa way back in 1978/9 when I worked as a teacher in a rural Kenya; but in the last 10 years I have learnt more about the different styles and types of music across the continent with all its fusions and influences too. The rhythms of Africa are energising, and I find its music so life-affirming even when the lyrics of many songs are all about the struggle for survival, for dignity, freedom and justice. This clip from YouTube (via Foxy Tunes) features Toumani Diabate, one of the greatest players in the world of the kora.