A review of “Joan” by Joan Baez

Joan Baez’s first few albums are all very similar musically, with all the songs having sparse arrangements rarely involving anything other than an acoustic guitar. But on “Joan”, and the Christmas album “Noël” which preceded it, Joan Baez collaborated with the composer Peter Schickele (who is, apparently, mainly known for making humorous music), who arranged orchestral accompaniments for many of the songs, meaning the album has a somewhat different song. That said, there are still a few songs on this album of the old guitar-based kind, and it doesn’t sound drastically different from the earlier albums. This is still an album following the usual Joan Baez formula, just with a little distinctive quality.

I don’t consider this to be among Baez’s best albums, but it’s more to do with the song selection than the instrumentation. The only songs on this album I really look forward to hearing are the last two—”Annabel Lee” and “Saigon Bride”. The others have their interesting qualities and certainly aren’t bad songs, but having listened to them a few times, I don’t think I’ll be regularly listening to them. If I compare this album to “Joan Baez/5”, another one I think of as decent but not among her best—well, that one has “There But For Fortune”, “So We’ll Go No More a-Roving”, and “The Unquiet Grave”, which are all perhaps better than anything on this album.

Perhaps part of the reason the songs here don’t appeal to me so much is that they are mostly by contemporary singers. There is only one traditional song, “The Greenwood Side”, which is a Child ballad but it isn’t as good as earlier examples of Child ballads like “The Unquiet Grave” or “The River in the Pines”. It’s not that contemporary songs are less good than traditional ones, but they are less likely to have the kind of enchanting quality I want to hear when listening to folk music. Also, some of them, like “Eleanor Rigby”, are perhaps too over-familiar to me for me to be excited about Joan Baez covering it. Although really, I’m not sure why some covers seem to work and others don’t. I mean, I’m far more familiar with certain Bob Dylan songs like, say, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, than “Eleanor Rigby”, yet I really love Joan Baez’s cover of that song. To some extent this may be due to the fact that Baez brings something different to the song—to some extent it may simply be due to the fact that I’m more able to be interested in covers of songs that are among my favourites, rather than those of songs I merely like.

There are two more songs on the album which aren’t by a contemporary singer—”North” and “Saigon Bride”. The lyrics for these were written by a woman called Nina Dusheck who is a little obscure. Googling for her just gets you to pages about these two songs. The liner notes for the reissued album have this to say about her:

The lyrics to “North” and “Saigon Bride” were sent to Joan by a woman she never got to meet, Nina Dusheck. “She was an obscure lady,” the singer remembers. “I don’t even know if she’s still alive. She gave me these two poems, and I just wrote the melodies. I can tell you where I was sitting. It was in the upstairs room of my home in Carmel Valley. And I was very excited because I was actually writing a tune.

I’d definitely be interested in seeing if Nina Dusheck made any more of her writings public, because these two songs are excellent. In fact, they are among the best on the album. I already mentioned “Saigon Bride”, but “North”, although it may not stand out on a first listen, is also excellent. Schickele’s orchestration really shines on these songs, too.

So, let’s go through the songs. The album opens with “Be Not Too Hard”. It was written by a poet, Christopher Logue, but I don’t think the lyrics are particularly great. Its tune doesn’t do that much for me either. There are people commenting on Youtube saying they love it, but I just don’t find this song very appealing. “Eleanor Rigby” is a good song, but as I said above, I didn’t need to hear Joan Baez covering it. In general, the first half of the album isn’t great—all the good songs seem to be stacked towards the end.

However, the next two songs, “Turquoise” and “The Dove”, are definite improvements over the first two: I actually enjoy listening to these two. “Turquoise” is a really beautiful song, although it passed me by on the first few listens since it is a little understated. The instrumentation and the melody just work really well. Listening to this one makes me think Donovan might actually be worth listening to, because he wrote this song (as well as “Colours” from “Farewell, Angelina”, but that one didn’t impress me very much). As for “The Dove”, well, it would be hard for this to pass you by on the first few listens. This song is very grand and impressive and it really uses the orchestration—it wouldn’t work at all without it. It was originally a French song, “La Colombe”, written by Jacques Brel, who is quite famous although this song was my introduction to him. I haven’t listened to much else by Brel, but his “Ne me quitte pas”, which is his most well-known song, is definitely worth listening to.

Anyway, the next song on “Joan” is a cover of Paul Simon’s “Dangling Conversation”. I liked this song a lot when I first heard it, and it does have a slightly catchy tune, but I’ve come to find it a bit boring. Like “Eleanor Rigby”, it’s just as good as the original, but doesn’t really add anything to it. For some reason, Joan Baez felt the need to change the line “Is the theatre really dead?” to “Is the church really dead?”. Why? Well, here’s what the liner notes say:

But she had a problem with one of the words. “I know. It was just so sort of New York: ‘Is the theatre really dead?’ is sort of like opera talk, which I don’t engage in. But, ‘Is the church really dead?’ is a pretty serious question”.

So there you go. No, I still don’t really understand it either. But anyway, if you buy this album, you’ll find a little disclaimer in the liner notes stating the original version of the line, which Paul Simon insisted be included.

The next song, “The Lady Came From Baltimore”, is one of two Tim Hardin songs on the album. This has quite a nice tune and tells a neat little story, but it’s a little forgettable nonetheless. After that is the first Nina Dusheck song, “North”, which, as I’ve already said, is really good. It’s a kind of melancholy song, and the melody and instrumentation work together really well to amplify that effect.

“Children of Darkness” is another one of the highlights of this album. It was written by Richard Fariña, a folk singer who married Joan Baez’s sister Mimi and thus became her brother-in-law. A year before the release of this album, Fariña had been killed in a motorcycle accident, so this song was a kind of tribute to him. The arrangement on this is excellent and gives it a kind of epic, stirring feel. It’s meant to evoke the marching of soldiers, since this is one of three anti-war songs on the album (“The Dove” and “Saigon Bride” are the others). Listening to this reminds me that I should listen to Richard Fariña sometime.

After “Children of Darkness” is “The Greenwood Side”, a very depressing traditional ballad about a mother who murders her babies. It’s nearly 8 minutes long, which I think longer than anything Joan Baez had released earlier, but this makes it a bit difficult to listen to all the way through. The other Tim Hardin comes next, “If You Were a Carpenter”. This is a very sweet song, although the sweetest version is the duet by Johnny Cash and June Carter. There’s a little high-pitched tune you can hear at the start which makes this version extra-sweet, perhaps to the point of being a little cheesy. I do like it, anyway.

“Annabel Lee”, the next song, was originally a poem by Edgar Allen Poe; in fact it’s one of his most famous poems, and it was the last one he completed. It’s a wonderful poem, set to wonderful music. I think this song would sound better if it was sung at a lower octave, perhaps, because sometimes the high notes can be a little grating. But this is just a minor quibble—I can forgive imperfect singing when it’s these words that are being sung.

“Saigon Bride”, of course, was originally a poem too, though Nina Dusheck doesn’t have quite the same stature as Edgar Allen Poe. As a poem, I find this one inferior to “North”: some of the lines just come across as a little clumsy. But Baez’s melody, singing and Schickele’s orchestration on this track are excellent and make it one of the best on the album. Possibly the best, but “Annabel Lee” might be better. It’s definitely a great way to end the album.

But wait! There are bonus tracks too! On the reissued version, released in 2003, you can also hear Joan Baez really stretching her voice on “Oh, Had I a Golden Thread”, a song written by Pete Seeger which is quite well known in a version by Eva Cassidy. I wonder if Pete Seeger got the title from the line in “Poor Boy” (on “Joan Baez, Vol. 2”):

If I had a golden thread and a needle for to sew
I’d stitch myself to my true love’s side and down that river we’d go

The other bonus track, “Autumn Leaves”, is sung in French. Like the other French song on this album, “The Dove”, it makes heavy use of the orchestration and is very dramatic. Although the bonus tracks are good, they are a little unwelcome, in the context of the album, since “Saigon Bride” should really be the final song. If you get the original version rather than the reissued one, it’s not a great loss.

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