Joan Baez Life of Music and Activism In How Sweet The Sound

By Stephen Pate – How Sweet The Sound the PBS 2009 documentary on the life, music and politics of Joan Baez is a heart warming, entertaining and inspiring documentary the holds up extremely well on multiple viewings.

Included with the DVD is a 15-song choice of great Joan Baez performances spanning 1958 to 2009.

If you are opposed to Joan Baez activist politics you can watch for it for the gorgeous music and grumble at her sweet unabashed and unwavering support for social justice and world peace. I saw the video first on PBS back in 2009 and was enchanted all over again with Joan Baez, one of the biggest stars of the 1960’s folk music craze.

Since then I’ve re-watched this DVD 4 times and each time it seems fresh and appealing. While Joan Baez is still modest about her talent, it sends chills up the back of my neck.

Joan Baez turned 74 on January 9, 2015. I must admit, despite being an early fan, I lost touch with her work after the 70’s and did not realize how consistently excellent she has been for almost 60 years.

In 1958 Joan Baez burst onto the folk scene in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the Club 47 coffee-house. She had a natural and beautiful voice with warmth, emotion and that gorgeous soprano range.

She is not a screamer so expect her performances to be mellow and relaxing although she can belt it out from time to time. She really gets into the rocking mood on “I Pity The Poor Immigrant” for her duet with Bob Dylan at the end of The Rolling Thunder Tour in 1976.

Joan Baez How Sweet The Sound

Joan Baez How Sweet The Sound

“She was extremely talented and could knock people off their feet,” said singer David Crosby (of Crosby Stills Nash and Young) on the DVD. “We were all trying to make a living singing folk music and Joan was just one of the best at it.”

Joan Baez accompanied herself effortlessly on a small “0” sized Martin guitar finger picking guitar – love ballads young beauty. “She was beautiful, she didn’t just strum the guitar she finger picked and that impressed me a lot,” said Roger McGuinn of The Byrds.

“She had a very unusual way of playing the guitar,” said Bob Dylan in one of his several interview clips on the DVD. “Nobody did it like Joanie did. I practiced it but I couldn’t get that style down.”

When Joan Baez appeared at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival it was obvious she was a highly unusual talent. She became the folk music queen. She admits enjoying the attention while trying to avoid commercialism.

“She had that hot soprano voice,” said Dylan “I couldn’t get it out of my mind and her range of songs was very unusual for that time, the combination put together in a miraculous way.”

As you can tell from this article, the DVD has plenty of quotes from famous artists. The quotes ring true and are not disingenuous like the typical gushing quotes that fill some documentaries.

The press named Joan Baez the Queen of Folk Music. She was featured on the cover of a 1962 Time Magazine at 21 years old.

“Joan was at the forefront of the movement,” said Bob Dylan. “She put a record out just called Joan Baez and everybody was listening to it, me included.”

Her first 2 albums went gold  “which was unusual for a folk album,” said Steve Earle.  Joan Baez 2 went gold first and carried interest back to the first self-named LP and it went gold.

It was fated the Queen of Folk Music should meet and become romantically involved with Bob Dylan, the new vagabond prince.  There has been reams written on their romance and break up. The documentary handles the affair openly and with the kindness that old love affairs deserve. Which one of us can say we handled ourselves perfectly in our love life?

“I was crazy about him,” says Joan Baez with a smile. “We were an item and we were having wonderful fun.”

Speaking about the 1965 tour of Britain recorded in Don’t Look Back, she called it an unhappy time. Dylan said he was trying to deal with the madness that had become his career. “Unfortunately she got swept along,” he said . “I felt really bad about it. I was sorry to see our relationship end.”

From early in her career, Joan Baez was attracted to causes of social activism. Her parents were Quakers and her father a scientist left the industrial military complex in California to work in non-defense industries in Massachusetts.

Joan Baez joined the USA civil rights movement. She fought her whites only performance contracts. During the race riots in Granada Mississippi Joan showed up despite the beatings and violence. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked Joan to lead the protest before he got.

“She came as a member of the black family,” not just another white protester said Rev. Jesse Jackson.-

Like her Quaker parents, Joan Baez has promoted non-violent protest Her first protest was against bomb drills in school at age 17.  She was still protesting war in 1993 in Sarajevo when she performed in the streets with the Vedran Smailović, Cellist of Sarajevo despite daily sniper killings at the same site.

I worked with people who escaped from that hell. One said the biggest difference between Sarajevo and Canada is that people don’t shoot you on the way to work. I cannot imagine why anyone would be willing to sit in that market and perform but Joan Baez did it to protest the war and bring media attention to the plight of the people.

All the events in between where she risked her life to promote peace – Oakland draft protests, Hanoi City visits with POW’s and the North Vietnamese, Czechoslovakia during the Russians occupation, Cambodia, Chile, too many to name here – how did she do it. I’ve been a lifetime social liberal but cannot conceive of having put my life on hold and at risk so many times for other people.

Between moments of sheer beauty in her music and the real dangers she faced as an activist, Joan Baez How Sweet The Sound is an emotionally engaging documentary.

Watching the DVD, those places and events become real, dangerous and prove her courage under fire and unwavering belief. Each one was an emotional jolt for me.

Of course, there are people who dislike her politics of social justice and pacifism. For them Joan Baez is a nuisance. Personally, I feel immense awe and respect for her commitment, dedication and the example she has lived.

Bob Dylan fans will appreciate the DVD’s extensive commentary from both Dylan and Baez on their relationship and the folk scene in the 1960’s. It was more than a romance. From Dylan’s song With God on Our Side on “Dylan was the link between music and politics,” said Baez.

“I always liked singing with Joan,” said Bob Dylan. “We could sing anything together and make it make sense.”

At first, Joan’s audience didn’t like Dylan.  She was the virginal singer: he was the scruffy vagabond. But as a singer not songwriter, Baez admits a professional interest in Dylan.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Newport Folk Festival

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Newport Folk Festival

“Bob was a goldmine of music,” said Baez. “The music on my records took a leap forward. He was the writer and I was the singer. We were in the bubble and it didn’t last.”

As Dylan stopped writing so many overtly political songs, tension grew. “I wanted him to be a political spokesperson out in public to be on our team.”

“That was my hang up,” she said. “I was trying to shove him into a mold.  It wasn’t until years later I realized he didn’t need to be on the team.  He wrote the songs. It was the most powerful stuff we had in our non-violent arsenal like Blowing In The Wind.”

Joan Baez also talks about her marriage to David Harris, a leader of the anti-draft movement, her son Gabriel, and her lack of intimacy with other humans for which she substituted with intimacy with an audience.

Get the DVD

If you haven’t seen the DVD, it is well worth the price without the CD, which is a great bonus. “Joan Baez How Sweet The Sound” is available from Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk in the UK and Amazon.ca in Canada.

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