Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Joan Baez

There was an interesting programme featuring Joan Baez on BBC TV last night.

It was fascinating to watch again her early appearances in Club 47 in Cambridge, her collaborations with a young Bob Dylan, and her very public stance as a political activist (esp. as supporter and friend of Martin Luther King).

Looking at the concert footage is compelling as one sees a truly beautiful young woman with a unique guitar style and singing voice flawlessly presenting a large repertoire of the "old" folk songs. However on the critical side, perhaps these performances were just a little too perfect leading to the material acquiring a certain off-putting similarity. Ironically though her meeting with Dylan is credited with inspiring her with wonderful "new" songs, somehow even these started to sound like the "old" when given the familiar Baez treatment.

I instinctively felt this reservation about her performances - even back in the early 60's - which prevented me from becoming a true fan. It seemed to me that she was adapting too closely to her own idealised image of what a folk singer was supposed to represent. Indeed there was perhaps an interesting hint of this in her admission - that unknown to the wider public - she suffered greatly from stage fright at this time (suggesting an unconscious fear of failure). This also came out in her account of the dissolution of her romantic involvement with Dylan (where he did not conform to her preconceived role for him as a fellow political activist). Likewise even here - though I greatly admire the genuine courage and commitment that she steadfastly displayed - to a degree she seems to be conforming to a perfect image, always serene and smiling and cheerfully dismissing every setback.

In fairness Joan had clearly obtained much greater insight over the years into the true nature of her personality. Indeed she honestly admitted at one stage that she had always found it very difficult to come to terms with loss (as for example when her younger sister, Mimi, died of cancer). All in all she came across as an attractive engaging personality who still looked remarkably beautiful despite the passage of so many years.

She has continued to record new material, diversifying in the process well away from her original folk roots. And she still loves to perform (though now free of stage fright).

Some years ago I came across another song unknown to me by Jim Webb (remember "Postcard from Paris") with the intriguing title "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" . Though I found a couple of recorded versions - including one by Glen Campbell - I did not feel satisfied that I had heard a definitive treatment.

I had long forgotten about Joan Baez and was not even aware whether she was still recording. Then out of the blue I heard her version of this song one day on the radio and I was completely knocked out. For the first time - perhaps because of the change in context - I became aware of the truly superb quality of her voice. And, dare I say it, there is a certain passion evident in her performance, that somehow had eluded me on her earlier recordings.

No less than "Postcard from Paris" (as sung by John Denver) this unexpectedly has now become one of my all time favourite recordings.

So forget your diamonds and rust; for me this is just pure gold!

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