You don't get to choose how you're going to die, or when.
You can decide how you're going to live now.
- Joan Baez: singer, songwriter, civil rights activist
The middle daughter of Albert Vinicio and Joan Bridge Baez, Joan Baez was born January 9, 1941 on Staten Island in New York. When she was ten years old, her father accepted a position in Baghdad and the family moved to Iraq for one year, returning to the United States in 1952 and settling in California. When Joan was fifteen, two events occurred that foreshadowed the path her life would take: she purchased her first guitar, and attended a lecture given by Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke on non-violence and civil rights. Her own first act of civil disobedience came the following year, when she refused to leave her high school during an air raid drill.
After Joan graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1958, she recorded a demo album that was entirely ignored by record companies. Her father had gotten a job in Boston, and the Baez family moved there in late summer. Joan enrolled at Boston University, but after discovering the folk music scene in Cambridge she spent more time in coffeehouses than classrooms, eventually dropping out of school altogether. In 1959, she and a few other artists recorded an album called Folksingers 'Round Harvard Square for a Boston-based company known as Veritas Records. That summer, she made an unscheduled appearance at the Newport Folk Festival and was immediately popular within the folk music community.
That performance launched Joan's career. She was a soloist at the festival in 1960, and released a self-titled album for Vanguard Recording Society that became wildly successful. The first few years of the 1960s were a whirlwind, with the release of her second album Joan Baez, Volume Two and a national concert tour in 1961, and the 1962 release of Joan Baez In Concert and an appearance on the cover of the November 23, 1962 issue of Time Magazine. In 1963, Joan's interest in activism increased, and she led a boycott of the ABC program "Hootenanny" because producers had banned Pete Seeger from the show. At the March on Washington for civil rights, Joan sang "We Shall Overcome" in front of an estimated 250,000 participants.
Joan's role as an anti-war demonstrator began in 1964, when she learned 60% of income taxes were used for military purposes and withheld that amount in April. The IRS placed a lien against her, but she continued to withhold 60% of her income taxes for the next ten years. That same year, she filed an injunction to block the distribution of Joan Baez in San Francisco, an unauthorized Fantasy Records release of her old demo tape from 1958. She joined the Beatles on a portion of their U.S. tour, and the next year toured with Bob Dylan; her first performance outside the United States was a 1965 show at London's Royal Albert Hall. She continued her anti-war work by joining a protest outside the White House against American involvement in Vietnam, and continued her civil rights work by joining the march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama. She joined Martin Luther King Jr. again in 1966 for a march in Mississippi to protest the beatings of black schoolchildren that occurred during desegregation, and on Easter she joined an anti-war march in West Germany. Her activism was not limited to demonstrations: Joan also gave many benefit concerts. In 1966 she performed to support striking farm workers; that year she also joined a vigil at San Quentin Penitentiary urging the commutation of sixty-four death sentences. Also in 1966, her first three albums were certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.
1967 was a tumultuous year for Joan. She was to perform at D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., but the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the performance because of Joan's anti-war activities. She gave a free concert at the base of the Washington Monument instead, which drew 30,000 listeners - much more than could have attended at Constitution Hall, whose capacity was just 3,702. While on tour in Japan, her remarks were intentionally mistranslated; the translator claimed he had been pressured by the CIA into changing her words, but the agency denied any involvement. With a number of others, she filed suit to reclaim portions of her 1965 and 1966 income taxes as a conscientious objector, but the suit was dismissed in January 1968. Joan was arrested twice in 1967, both times for blocking the entrance to the Armed Forces Induction Center in Oakland, California. Her first arrest, in October, was one of 119 made for that action, and she served ten days in the Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center. In December, she and 49 others were arrested for blocking the same entrance, and Joan was sentenced to ninety days but was released after a month.
Joan spent more time on her music in the late 1960s - even though her recordings were banned from Army PXs - but didn't stop her activism either. On March 26, 1968, she married fellow activist David Harris; shortly thereafter she released an album called Baptism in which she recited and sang poetry. At the age of twenty-seven, she published a memoir called "Daybreak" which quickly became a bestseller. She appeared on the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" in 1969, but her remarks on draft resistance were censored from the program aired. In July, her husband began serving a three year term for resisting the draft, missing Joan's August appearance at Woodstock and the birth of their son Gabriel Earl in December. Harris was released in mid-March 1971, having served twenty months of his sentence, but he and Joan separated and eventually divorced.
She continued to protest the Vietnam War into the early 1970s, including organizing a demonstration called "Ring Around the Congress" for which she gathered 2,500 to surround the Capitol building in June 1972. Having signed with A&M Records and released Come From the Shadows in 1972, she then released Gracias a la Vida, her first Spanish language album, in 1974 for A&M. In the fall of 1974, she visited Sing Sing Prison and taped a film special called "Sing Sing Thanksgiving." When the war ended in 1975, she appeared at a rally called "The War Is Over!" in New York's Central Park. The city of Atlanta proclaimed August 2, 1975 "Joan Baez Day."
After the war was over, Joan turned some of her focus to international affairs. In 1976, she traveled to Northern Ireland to join the Irish Peace People in a march calling for an end to violence there. She also ran a mass mailing campaign to draw attention to the plight of jailed Czechoslovakian musicians. While on tour in Europe in 1977, she appeared on a live national TV show in Spain and sang "No Nos Moveran" ("We Shall Not Be Moved") despite a 40-year-old sanction imposed by the late dictator Francisco Franco, who had prohibited the performance of the song. In 1978, she appeared at demonstrations and rallies on behalf of the nuclear freeze movement. She also began her support of the gay rights movement that year, performing at California benefits against Proposition 6 - also known as the Briggs Initiative - which would have banned openly gay people from teaching in public schools. Joan joined the candlelight march to San Francisco's City Hall in memory of the assassinated mayor and supervisor, George Moscone and Harvey Milk. Her encounter with the government in 1978 came when she filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the National Security Agency's files pertaining to her. A federal judge ordered all documents released in November, but the NSA protested the ruling claiming it would "prove harmful to national security."
Joan's attentions turned to human rights at the end of the 1970s. She received the Earl Warren Award from the American Civil Liberties Union that year, and founded the Humanitas International Human Rights Committee. She traveled to southeast Asia to substatiate reports of human rights violations there, and through the Cambodian Emergency Relief Fund she raised more than one million dollars in aid. The following year she joined an effort to bring food and medicine to Cambodia, and received the Jefferson Award from the American Institute of Public Service. She also received two honorary doctorate degrees in 1980, one from Antioch University and another from Rutgers University. Her human rights work continued into 1981, when she traveled throughout Latin America to perform and survey living conditions. She was forbidden to perform publicly in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil - only Nicaragua allowed her to perform - and was subjected to surveillance and death threats throughout the trip. The film "There But For Fortune: Joan Baez in Latin America" premiered on PBS in 1982.
She spent much of the 1980s performing at benefit concerts for various causes. In 1982 she appeared with Bob Dylan in Los Angeles and Paul Simon in Boston to support the nuclear weapons freeze, and in 1983 she gave a free concert dedicated to nonviolence in Paris for 120,000 listeners. She performed "Blowin' in the Wind" on the Grammy telecast and then in 1985 opened the U.S. portion of the Live Aid concert. She met Lech Walesa in Poland in November 1985, and the following year was featured in the Conspiracy of Hope tour sponsored by Amnesty International. During the 1986 Reagan/Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik, Joan performed at a concert called "The People's Summit" that was broadcast throughout Iceland. In 1987, she published a book called "And A Voice To Sing With" which became a New York Times bestseller, and the PBS documentary "Joan Baez" premiered while she was performing in the Middle East. In 1987, she performed at Carnegie Hall against the American support of Nicaraguan contras, and co-produced a benefit for the AIDS Emergency Fund; she worked with Amnesty International again for their 1988 Human Rights Now! tour. In 1989, Joan performed in Czechoslovakia; president Vaclav Havel credited her as a great influence on the subsequent nonviolent "Velvet Revolution."
In 1990, Joan toured Europe and the United States, including some dates with the Indigo Girls. They joined with Mary Chapin Carpenter in 1991 to perform as "Four Voices For Human Rights" as a benefit for Joan's Humanitas International - unfortunately the organization ceased operations the following year. In 1993, she performed in Sarajevo in an effort to bring more attention to the suffering there; she also performed on Alcatraz to benefit Bread and Roses, an organization formed in 1974 by her sister. She spent 1994 touring extensively as well, and performed at the Kennedy Center Honors Gala in honor of Pete Seeger. She joined Janis Ian in San Francisco to perform at the "Fight the Right" fundraiser for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The city of Santa Cruz proclaimed August 27, 1994 "Joan Baez Day." Joan performed for Bread and Roses on Alcatraz again in 1996, this time with the Indigo Girls and Dar Williams.
Joan released an album called Gone from Danger in 1997, and began a world tour in Europe. In 1998, she appeared at a fundraising event to raise money for the legal defense for her cousin Peter Baez, who was fighting charges stemming from his operation of a medical marijuana clinic.
In her entire career, Joan has been nominated for six Grammy awards but never won the prize, though she did win the BAMMY award (the San Francisco Bay Area's version of the Grammy) for top female vocalist in 1978, 1979, and 1996. Her single "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" was certified gold in 1971, as was her album Blessed Are.... Joan's other gold albums include Any Day Now (gold in 1972), Diamonds & Rust (gold in 1975), and Live Europe '83 (gold in 1983).
Folksingers 'Round Harvard Square (1959)
Joan Baez (1960)
Joan Baez, Volume 2 (1961)
Joan Baez In Concert (1962)
Joan Baez In Concert, Part 2 (1963)
Joan Baez In San Francisco (1964)
Joan Baez/5 (1964)
Farewell, Angelina (1965)
Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time (1968)
Any Day Now (1968)
David's Album (1969)
One Day at a Time (1970)
Blessed Are... (1971)
Come From the Shadows (1972)
Where Are You Now, My Son (1973)
Gracias a la Vida (1974)
Diamonds & Rust (1975)
From Every Stage (1976)
Gulf Winds (1976)
Blowin' Away (1977)
Honest Lullaby (1979)
Very Early Joan (1982)
Diamonds & Rust in the Bullring (1989)
Speaking of Dreams (1989)
Play Me Backwards (1992)
Ring Them Bells (1995)
Live at Newport (1996)
Gone From Danger (1997)
I do not consider this writeup to be all there is to say about Joan Baez. While I have written an extensive biography here, there is certainly more to be said about Joan's impact on society, her influence on other singers, and other topics. I invite others to add such commentary.
This node is dedicated to my mother.