Joan Baez’s debut is a classic folk album of the purest kind: interpretations of traditional ballads, with no instrumentation other than an acoustic guitar. It’s probably one of the best such albums there are. It’s true that if you’re not really into this kind of folk, you may think all the songs sound the same. However, considering the limitations of the genre, this is actually a quite diverse collection of songs. There are much more memorable songs here than on “Joan Baez, Vol. II”, for example. I would say that if you are accustomed with traditional folk music, you should be able to immediately appreciate this album. But if, like me, this is one of the first albums of traditional folk music you’ve come across, it may take a few listens for you to appreciate it properly.
One thing anyone can appreciate immediately about this album is Joan Baez’s voice, which is a thing of beauty. There are few singers of popular music of comparable technical quality. I always find it very hard to describe the quality of singers’ voices, so I won’t try to: just listen to the song below and you’ll see how amazing it is. The only flaw in her voice is that she can sound unpleasant when she hits really high notes. Most of the time she pulls them off really well—it’s actually one of her strengths—but sometimes she does seem to overexert herself. I think this album, however, is pretty much free of that problem; it’s “Joan Baez, Vol. II” where it first appears.
As for the songs—the opening “Silver Dagger” is an excellent ballad which became one of Baez’s signature songs. “East Virginia” and “Fare Thee Well (10,000 Miles)” (which isn’t really a traditional song, but it sounds like one) are equally captivating. Both of these songs feature particularly stunning vocals, even for a singer who regularly has stunning vocals. Her interpretation of “House of the Rising Sun” is not the most famous one, nor the best one, but it’s still great. “All My Trials”, which follows, is possibly the best song on the album. It has a slight political slant, too, with the line about a “book with pages three” whose “every page spells ‘Liberty'”.
Next is a version of the Carter Family’s most famous song, “Wildwood Flower”, with its characteristic guitar riff, played perfectly here. This is probably the most fun song; the rest of the album has a rather sombre tone (and in fact, the lyrics of “Wildwood Flower”, as opposed to its tune, aren’t very cheerful). “Donna Donna”, a more modern song, is a highlight with its memorable, haunting melody. After this song, I find the album a bit less accessible: “Rake and Rambling Boy”, “Little Moses” and “Henry Martin” are less memorable than the rest, and “John Riley” and “Mary Hamilton” are great songs, but they may take repeated listens to appreciate. “Mary Hamilton” is a long ballad with a historical theme; you need to pay attention to this one and listen to the lyrics. As for “John Riley”, I first thought it was a bit boring, but it’s grown on me. The guitar on this track plays a little flourish over and over again which is striking and a little alarming, while Joan Baez sings slowly and mysteriously. And there’s a twist ending. Expect goosebumps. The album ends with “El Preso Numero Nueve”, sung in fluent Spanish. I don’t understand Spanish at all, but the song is sufficiently exciting musically that I can enjoy it.
If you can, get the new edition of this album, which contains three additional bonus tracks. In particular you will want “I Know You Rider”, a blues with an excellent melody that’s played on the guitar as well as sung. The other bonus tracks are “Girl of Constant Sorrow”, a nice but somewhat unremarkable, and an extended version of “John Riley”, which is identical to the original except that it has an extra verse. I think the extra verse was cut because it’s kind of ridiculous and might ruin the atmosphere for you. It remarks that John Riley has “fingers both great and small”. Well… doesn’t everyone?