Tag Archives: joan baez

The origins of the songs on Joan Baez’s first album

Most of this information is taken from the Traditional Ballad Index (TBI). In particular the dates of earliest recordings, and the lists of regions where each song has been recorded, are taken from the TBI and may not be as early or as complete as they could be.

Silver Dagger
A traditional American folk ballad recorded from Appalachia, the Rocky Mountains, the Midwest, Southeast and South-Central United States, and the Canadian Maritimes, with the earliest date of recording being 1866. There is another traditional folk ballad with similar lyrics called “Drowsy Sleeper“ which has been recorded from Appalachia, the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Southeast and South-Central United States, New England, the Canadian Maritimes, Newfoundland and Scotland, with the earliest date of recording being 1830. Hence the ballad may ultimately have a Scottish origin.
East Virginia
A traditional American folk ballad recorded from Appalachia and the Southeast and Southwest United States), with the earliest date of recording being 1917.
Fare Thee Well (10,000 Miles)
A traditional English, Scottish and American folk ballad. There is a confusing variety of songs on this same theme; the closest one listed in the Traditional Ballad Index seems to be “Fare Thee Well, My Own True Love”, which has been recorded from Appalachia, the Midwest, Southeast, South-Central and Southwest United States, Southwest England and Aberdeenshire, with the earliest date of recording being 1867. However, the Index identifies this song by the inclusion of the line “Who will shoe your pretty little foot?”, which is actually not included in Joan Baez’s version. The song must be older, because the last stanza of Robert Burns’ “A Red, Red Rose” (1794) is clearly derived from the lyrics of this song. According to Lesley Nelson it was included in the Book of Roxburghe Ballads and dated to 1710 (the book was published in 1847, but the ballads were collected much earlier).
House of the Rising Sun
A traditional American folk ballad recorded from the South-Central United States, with the earliest date of recording being 1933.
All My Trials
A traditional American folk ballad recorded from the Southeast United States, with the earliest date of recording being 1961 according to the TBI. This is the date of the Pete Seeger recording, but Joan Baez had already released this song in 1960. It seems to have been picked up by the folk revival without having been recorded in any collections made earlier. A song called “The Tallest Tree in Paradise” recorded in 1954 has some similar lyrics and some completely different lyrics. The TBI mentions that a verse including the lines “If life were merchandise that money could buy / The rich would live and the poor would die” was found in a gravestone in Tysoe (Warwickshire) in 1798.
Wildwood Flower
A traditional American folk ballad recorded from Applachia and the Southeast and South-Central United States, with the earliest date of recording being 1928. This is the date of the Carter Family recording. The origin of this song has been traced to a song called “I’ll Twine ’Mid the Ringlets” published by the composer Joseph Philbrick Webster in 1860 with lyrics by Maud Irving. Maud Irving seems to have been a pseudonym used by a spiritualist poet called J. William Van Navee. Over time, as the song was passed down through the oral tradition, the nonsensical lines heard in the Carter Family version (“I’ll twine with my mingles”) must have evolved through mishearing—the song is thus a good illustration of the effect of the folk process.
Donna Donna
One of the two non-traditional songs on Joan Baez’s first album. It was written for the Aaron Zeitlin Yiddish-language play Esterke (1940-1941). The music was composed by Sholom Secunda.
John Riley
A traditional Scottish and American folk ballad recorded from Appalachia, the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and Southeast United States and Aberdeenshire, with the earliest date of recording being 1845. But the theme of a lover who is unrecognised by his love after a long journey away at sea is an old one—it goes right back to the Odyssey.
Rake and Rambling Boy
A traditional English, Scottish, Irish and American folk ballad recorded from Appalachia, the Southeast, South-Central and Southwest United States, Ontario, Southwest and Southeast England, as well as East Anglia, Scotland and Ireland. The TBI gives “before 1830” as the earliest date of recording.
Little Moses
A traditional American folk ballad recorded from Apalachia and the South-Central United States, with the earliest date of recording being 1905. Of course, the story is much older, having come from the Bible.
Mary Hamilton
A traditional Scottish and American folk ballad recorded from the Scottish Lowlands, Appalachia, the Midwest, Southeast, South-Central and Southwest United States, New England and the Canadian Maritimes, with the earliest date of recording being 1790. The “four Marys” mentioned in the last stanza may be the historical “four Marys” who were ladies-in-waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots. However, none of the four Marys had the surname Hamilton, and there are alternative theories as to the historical events the song is connected to. It is possible that multiple events have contributed to the song, and much of the story could be completely made up.
Henry Martin
A traditional English, Welsh, Scottish and American folk ballad recorded across England and Wales and in Aberdeenshire, Appalachia, the Midwest, Northeast, Southeast, South-Central and Southwest United States, the Canadian Maritimes and Newfoundland. The TBI gives “before 1825” as the earliest date of recording.
El Preso Numero Nueve
The second of the two non-traditional songs on Joan Baez’s first album. It was written and composed by the Mexican singer-songwriter Roberto Cantoral and recorded by him with Antonio Cantoral as part of an act called the Hermanos Cantoral (that is, Cantoral Brothers, in Spanish). The Hermanos Cantoral were active from 1950 to 1954; I don’t know exactly when the song was written or first recorded.

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.

A review of “Joan Baez/5”

Joan Baez’s fifth album, released in October 1964 and simply called “Joan Baez/5”, was among her most commercially successful, charting at #12 in the USA and #3 in the UK. Its title track, “There But For Fortune”, was released as a single and became a hit in the UK singles chart at #8, although it only charted in the USA at #50 (where it probably suffered due to its political message). It was written by the contemporary folk singer Phil Ochs, and was one of a number of contemporary songs on the album including Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday”. The other 8 songs on the album were the traditional folk tunes that people were used to hearing from Baez, but as her career progressed, she gradually moved away from such songs and towards more contemporary songs—so this album was the first step on the path. This album is a great introduction to Baez, since it shows both of those sides. If I was going to recommend someone an album, I’d go for “Farewell, Angelina”, the album released after this one, but the two are very close in quality.

“There But For Fortune” is clearly the most successful of the contemporary covers here, and it deserved its success. The idea of the song is to get you to empathise with the unfortunate and downtrodden people of the world—prisoners, drunkards and so on, and to realise that “but for fortune”, you could be one of those people. Even if you don’t approve of this message, you have to admit that musically, this is a pretty good song. I really like way the guitar sounds here, in particular.

The next song is a light-hearted 19th-century ballad about a horse called “Stewball”. This one has a nice melody, so nice that John Lennon used it for “So This is Christmas”. So if it sounds familiar to you… that’s where you heard it. The last line might make you laugh. After this is “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, a Bob Dylan song which seems to have been quite popular to cover at that time. Johnny Cash and The Turtles both released well-known versions. Joan Baez’s version isn’t really anything special; I don’t think it really works as well as most of her Dylan covers. But if you’re not comparing it to other versions, you’ll probably like it—it’s one of the catchier Bob Dylan songs and like many of his songs and regrettably few of Joan Baez’s, it has a touch of humour to it.

“The Death of Queen Jane” is a stone-cold serious traditional folk song about Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife. It’s one of the Child ballads, collected by folklorist Francis James Child during the 19th century. These are generally high quality: “Silkie” and “Barbara Allen” on “Joan Baez, Vol. 2” were Child ballads as well. I don’t think “The Death of Queen Jane” is quite as good as those two—after all, they’re pretty amazing—but it continues the run of good songs which begins this album.

The next one is something different: it’s called “Bachianas Brasileiras”, it was written by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. For the first three minutes it’s basically an instrumental, with Joan Baez using her voice to accompany the instruments. Then there’s a kind of break in the music and she starts singing very strikingly in Portugese. She sounds a lot like an opera singer to my uninformed ear (though take note that I have never intentionally listened to opera, so I’m not sure if I know what opera singing actually sounds like). It’s definitely a skilled performance, and not unpleasant to listen to between “The Death of Queen Jane” and “Go ‘Way From My Window”, but it’s not like I’m ever going to listen to this song in isolation. But if you’re more interested in classical music than me, you might like it.

“Go ‘Way From My Window” is a nice traditional song with some great high-pitched singing. The following song, a cover of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”, is mostly sung at a much lower pitch, but Baez can sing both kinds of songs really well. Baez’s version is very similar to and just as good as the original; it’s just in a different voice. Next is “When You Hear Them Cuckoos Hollerin'”, a more guitar-driven traditional song; this one is a bit forgettable. The final contemporary cover on the album is Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday”. I’ve never heard the original version of this song—it doesn’t seem to be on Spotify—but I’d certainly like to, because it has a wonderful sort of mysterious-sounding melody. Joan Baez’s voice is very good at singing that kind of melody, so this is one of the best songs on the album.

Another good song follows called “So We’ll Go No More a-Roving”; this was actually originally a poem by Lord Byron, so the lyrics are excellent. The words are set to a pretty good melody too. However, it’s very brief at just 1 minute 45 seconds. The next song is in Spanish, so I can’t judge the lyrics; unfortunately, unlike “El Preso Numero Nueve” on the debut album, the singing here isn’t interesting enough to compensate.

The album finishes with another Child ballad called “The Unquiet Grave”. It was wise to choose this as the closing track, because it’s probably the best song on this album, although it may not stand out to you at first. It simply has a great melody and wonderful lyrics. Many people have interpreted this song—it’s deservedly popular—but I don’t think anyone sings it more beautifully than Joan Baez.

Of course, if you get the reissued version there are two more bonus tracks for you: “Tramp on the Street” and “Long Black Veil”. But these are probably the worst bonus tracks so far; it’s not really essential that you get them. I don’t mean to say they’re bad songs, but they’re simply mediocre. “The Tramp on the Street” is probably most well-known from the version by Hank Williams; it compares a tramp on the street to Jesus. Hank William’s whining voice makes the song, and without it, Joan Baez’s version just isn’t interesting enough. “Long Black Veil” is also most famous for a version sung by a country legend, Johnny Cash in this case. It’s better than “The Tramp on the Street”, but again, Baez’s version isn’t particularly appealing to me.

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.]

A review of “Joan Baez, Vol. 2”

As the name suggests, Joan Baez’s album is a simple continuation of what she was doing on the first album: singing traditional folk songs accompanied by an acoustic guitar (well, actually I think there are a few more instruments here, like a banjo on “Pal of Mine”). Musically, it’s exactly the same. Her voice is just as wonderful. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the quality of the songs: it seems like Baez had already included all the most interesting songs she knew on the first album. In comparison, the songs on this album are somewhat forgettable and boring, and I’ve found it a lot harder to really listen to them. When I do listen to the songs with careful attention, I can find lots of positive things to say about them, but as a whole they simply don’t seem to be able to hold my interest as much as the songs on the first album. That said, there are some which stand out, like “Barbara Allen” and “Plaisir D’Amour”, and would have held their own among the songs on the debut.

The opening track, “Wagoner’s Lad”, exemplifies these problems. It’s sung a cappella, but it isn’t interesting enough for this to work. She sings it extremely well, as ever, but the song doesn’t give her an opportunity to really show her voice. The only thing it has going for it are the sort-of-feminist lyrics, which is probably the reason she put it at the start of the album, to get your attention. The next one, “The Trees They Do Grow High”, I find slightly amusing, although it’s probably not intentional. It’s about a girl who’s married to a boy who’s too young; she reassures herself that he’s “young, but daily growin'”. If you’re familiar with how these traditional songs usually go, you might be able to predict how it ends. Musically though, it’s not that interesting either.

“Lily of the West”, on the other hand, will grab your attention with its really fast, energetic guitar playing. Joan Baez reaches a really high pitch at some points in this though, to the extent that it can sound unpleasant. It’s an excellent song, but not done perfectly by Baez. In fact, I’ve never heard any version of this song I’m fully satisfied with. My personal favourite is actually Bob Dylan’s version, from his notoriously terrible 1973 album “Dylan”. But I don’t expect everyone to agree with that.

Somehow, on my first few listens to this album, I didn’t really notice “Silkie”. I don’t know how this could have happened, because it’s an absolutely beautiful, mysterious Orcadian ballad, and possibly the best thing on this album. The next three songs are more unremarkable. “Engine 143” is a train wreck song by the Carter Family. Since this is a country song, Joan Baez adopts the sort of nasal, quavering style typical of country singers, and she pulls it off pretty well, but this just isn’t that much of an interesting song. “Once I Knew a Pretty Girl” and “Lonesome Road” are standard folk songs. “Lonesome Road”, in particular, has a very nice, catchy melody.

Now, I think “Banks of the Ohio” is one of the best songs on this album, up there with “Silkie”. But Don Ignacio, the only other guy I can find who has reviewed this album on the Internet, thought it was so terrible he had a kind of textual fit of rage while listening to it. I can sort of understand where he’s coming from—it’s probably true that Baez and the backup singers who accompany her on this track are all singing off key, though I don’t know enough about singing to judge for myself. Even so, I don’t think it sounds bad. The thing is, if you listen to the lyrics, this is a very bleak, depressing song and the slight dissonance just accentuates that feeling, without making the song unlistenable.

“Pal of Mine” is another song sung in the country style. The backup singers from “Banks of the Ohio” are still here for this one, and now there are added banjos! It’s a nice country song, but nothing special. “Barbara Allen” comes next. This is one of the most famous traditional folk songs, and Joan Baez’s interpretation is one of the best. Her voice sounds really beautiful here. After this, there’s a Christmas carol! “The Cherry Tree Carol” is pleasant enough. “Old Blue” is a nice fun song about a dog, which sounds like it was fun for her to sing. “Railroad Boy”, in contrast, is a sad, serious folk song. I find all three of these songs a little boring, though.

Thankfully, the album finishes on a good note with “Plaisir D’Amour”. This isn’t actually a folk song, it’s a beautiful 18th-century French chanson written by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini. Some verses are in French, some in English, but the melody and the singing are extremely pretty. By the way, if the melody sounds familiar to you—that’s right, Elvis used the melody for “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”!

Like the rest of Joan Baez’s early albums, you can get a reissued version with three bonus tracks. These are worth getting, since they’re pretty good. If she’d replaced some of the more forgettable songs on the album with these tracks, I might like it better! “I Once Loved A Boy” is lovely; her voice is especially spellbinding on this one. “Poor Boy” is another good one. Note the last verse, with its slightly sinister lyrics. “Longest Train I Ever Saw” has a nice melody, but I don’t think it’s as good as the other two; her voice grates a little when it hits the high notes.

A review of “Joan Baez”

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?