A review of “Farewell, Angelina” by Joan Baez

“Farewell, Angelina”—the first Joan Baez album not to be named something along the lines of “Joan Baez, Vol. 2”, and the first Joan Baez album I really got into—is, in my opinion, her best album of all. It was released in 1965, the same year that her friend Bob Dylan went electric. You might not have realised that Joan Baez actually went electric at the same time, with the release of this album. Well, she included an electric guitarist (Bruce Langhorne) as a backup musician, and she included a bass guitarist too for the first time. Even so, the extra instrumentation is subtle and the album still sounds very similar, musically, to the preceding ones.

With this album she also continued to progress towards interpreting contemporary folk songs rather than traditional ones, particularly the songs of Bob Dylan: no less than four of the songs on this album were written by him (five if you include the bonus tracks). Although Bob Dylan’s songs are very popular choices for covers, I find that surprisingly few of these covers are successful. If they try to imitate Dylan’s style, they inevitably fail, since nobody can really do that as well as the man himself. If they try to do something different with the song, it often just doesn’t work, though there are exceptions like Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower”. However, Joan Baez does justice to nearly all of the Dylan songs she covers, and I often even prefer her version to the original. For example, her version of “Mama, You Been On My Mind”, which is the second track on this album as “Daddy, You Been On My Mind”, will always be my favourite one.

The first track, though written and first recorded by Bob Dylan, was never released officially until 1991 as part of his “Bootleg Series”. So it’s Joan Baez’s version of “Farewell, Angelina” which has become the definitive one. It’s a very typical Dylan song, full of interesting turns of phrase, with the melody stolen from a traditional folk song (“Farewell to Tarwathie” in this case). Though it’s not a bad song at all, I prefer the two Dylan covers which follow this one: “Daddy, You Been On My Mind” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. The first is also a song more associated with Baez than Dylan: it wasn’t released until 1991, and although Dylan did perform it live a few times, it was only as a duet with Joan Baez, and presumably it was she who requested it. You can hear an example duet on Bob Dylan’s “Live at Philharmonic Hall” album. I don’t know if they were always like this, but this duet was kind of a disaster; the vocal styles of the two don’t mix well, and it doesn’t help that Baez has to remind Dylan of the words at the start of the last two verses. It was certainly an entertaining disaster, though.

Anyway, Baez sings the song alone on this album, without Dylan there to mess it up, allowing you to hear it for what the song actually is: a rather melancholy, introspective song, with some thought-provoking lines, and a lovely descending melody. It’s a highlight of the album, and always seems too short to me. After this, we have “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. This is one of Bob Dylan’s most famous songs and there are some other great covers of it out there, such as one by the Animals. I don’t think any of them can be considered superior, though, to the original recording on “Bringing It All Back Home”. Bob Dylan’s voice is just perfect for this song. I’m supposed to be talking about Joan Baez’s version here though—well, it’s still pretty great, and the way she alternates between high and low pitches is very impressive. While Dylan’s version sounds kind of like a taunt, and has an element of meanness, Baez’s version is simply sad.

After three Bob Dylan songs in succession, the next song is one of a more familiar kind: a traditional folk song. Baez’s vocal performance on “Wild Mountain Thyme” is possibly the most beautiful vocal performance she’s ever done. After this, Woody Guthrie’s “Ranger’s Command” may seem dull in comparison. But the vocal performance on this song is still great: notice how long she holds the notes for! And the melody is one you might find yourself humming. After this we have another contemporary song from Donovan, who’s often seen as an inferior British version of Bob Dylan. I haven’t heard enough of his songs to judge whether this is fair, but “Colours” isn’t very promising. It’s one of the two songs on this album that I find a little boring.

“Satisfied Mind” is up next; this was written in the 1950s by Joe Hayes and Jack Rhodes, who were both fairly obscure artists mainly known only for writing this song. It’s a song with an interesting message, which probably appealed to Joan Baez’s left-wing political sympathies, although it does come across as a little smug. The melody is nice, but it’s not one of the best songs here. “The River in the Pines” is much better; this is another traditional folk song with a haunting melody. Baez’s excellent singing on this song will give you chills. After this is another traditional folk song called “Pauvre Rutebeuf”. This one is entirely in French, and it has an interesting history. It was originally written by a 13th-century poet known only by the pen-name “Rutebeuf” (or “rude cow”); Léo Ferré, who was apparently a famous French singer-songwriter contemporary with Baez, set it to music and it became one of his most famous songs. I find its melody a little boring though, and I can’t find any translation of the lyrics on the Internet, so I can’t judge them.

The next song is an interpretation of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, which is a very famous folk classic. In order to further show off her language skills, perhaps, Joan Baez decided to sing the song in German and therefore it appears on this album as “Sagt Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind”. Or perhaps she just thought it sounded really good in German, in which case I’d agree with her. I really like this version, perhaps because I can actually understand the German to a limited extent. However, the lyrics are slightly different in meaning due to the rhymes needing to be preserved.

To finish the album, Baez included a recording of Bob Dylan’s amazing 7-and-a-half-minute-long epic, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, and did an extremely good job. I think this version is just as good as Dylan’s, if not better. She adds some lovely little vocal flourishes, like when her voice suddenly goes from a higher pitch to a lower pitch in the middle of the word “rain”, that weren’t present in the original. One thing that is missing is the simple but very effective guitar riff that Dylan plays throughout his version. In case you haven’t heard Dylan’s version before, I should tell you that the poetic imagery in this song is wonderful.

Of course, if you pick up the album today you’re going to have three extra bonus tracks, which is kind of a pity because “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is a perfect song to end an album on. But these bonus tracks are excellent. First there’s “One Too Many Mornings”, a melancholy Dylan ballad similar to “Mama, You Been On My Mind” that was first released on “The Times They Are a-Changin'”. I don’t think Dylan’s original version works very well; it seems like he’s trying very hard to sound apologetic and vulnerable, and in the process forgets to sing the tune properly. Joan Baez sings the song more properly, and it turns out to have quite a nice melody, although I would say it’s probably the least good Dylan cover on this album. Secondly there’s “Rock, Salt and Nails”. This is a rather bitter love song—in a good way—written by Utah Philips. Apparently he was speaking directly to a former lover of his, and after singing it once to his friend and fellow folk singer Rosalie Sorrels, he never sung it again because he thought it was no nasty. It’s not any nastier than a lot of Bob Dylan’s love songs, anyway, and Baez’s performance on this song is excellent. Both of these bonus tracks were done again by Baez on later albums, but with more instrumentation.

As far as I know, Joan Baez never released the final bonus track, “The Water Is Wide”, on any of her main albums, although I think she did perform it live fairly often. This is surprising, since it’s an incredible song. I said earlier that “The Wild Mountain Thyme” is possibly Baez’s most beautiful vocal performance, but it’s facing severe competition from “The Water Is Wide”. You can find a few other versions on Joan Baez compilations, but none of them are quite as impressive as the bonus track here; her voice doesn’t reach the same heights. The lyrics of this song are also some of the best of any of the traditional songs she’s covered. You really can’t afford to miss out on this song, so make sure you get the bonus tracks if you buy the album.

[Unfortunately this video is low quality, but it’s the only one I could find which plays the version of the song from this album.]

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