On Day After Tomorrow, folk icon Joan Baez comes full circle with her
strongest recording in years.
By Derk Richardson
In 1958, a 17-year-old singer with long, raven hair took the stage at
Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Accompanying herself on acoustic
guitar, she drew her repertoire from a bottomless pool of old folk
tunesthe kinds of songs that would fill up her first albums when she
started recording for Vanguard Records in 1960: "Silver Dagger," "All
My Trials," "Wildwood Flower," "Mary Hamilton," "House of the Rising
Son," "Wagoner's Lad," "Lily of the West," and "Barbara Allen."
By July of that year, the young woman with the pure, high soprano
voice had cultivated connections with folk kingpin Albert Grossman
and folksinger Bob Gibson and was invited to join the latter during
his set at the Newport Folk Festival. The buzz generated by that
appearance assured that Joan Baez would be invited back the next year
and that she would soon become the queen of the burgeoning folk scene.
Over the subsequent half century, Baez, who was born in Staten
Island, New York, and spent her teenage years in Palo Alto,
California, until the family moved to Massachusetts, garnered
legendary status with a personal and professional resumé rife with
unparalleled milestones: as the subject of a 1962 Time magazine cover
story; an early champion (and girlfriend) of Bob Dylan; the singer of
"We Shall Overcome" at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington; an
early and consistent pacifist activist against the Vietnam War; a Top
Ten recording artist with her version of the Band's "The Night They
Drove Old Dixie Down"; the composer of such songs as "Sweet Sir
Galahad," and "Diamonds and Rust"; a world traveler speaking and
demonstrating on behalf of peace, human rights, and environmentalism
(alongside Václav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Julia Butterfly Hill, and
others); and a late-career cohort of such younger singer-songwriters
as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dar Williams, the Indigo Girls, and Steve Earle.
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the launch of her performing
career, Baez went into a Nashville recording studio with Earle as the
producer; a set of songs written by Earle, Eliza Gilkyson, Tom Waits
and Kathleen Brennan, Elvis Costello and T Bone Burnett, Patty
Griffin, and others; and an all-star group of players that included
Tim O'Brien, Darrell Scott, Viktor Krauss, and Kenny Malone. (For
Steve Earle's thoughts about the album, see "Steve Earle on Working with Joan")
In a phone conversation from her home in Woodside, California, just
before embarking on her tour in support of Day After Tomorrow (with a
band consisting of guitarist John Doyle, acoustic bassist Todd
Phillips, and fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and accordion player Dirk
Powell), Baez talked about the recording of the new album, the
evolution of her song choices and songwriting over the past half
century, and the rising and falling arc of her recording career.
What convinced you to work with Steve Earle on Day After Tomorrow?
BAEZ I can't really figure out where it started. I had presented him
with an award in England [a lifetime achievement folk award from
BBC], and he sang with me onstage several times. But by the time
planning this record started, we were already talking on the phone
and planning something, and my instincts felt this was exactly the
right thing to do. Especially at this time in my life, because it
really is a bookend, this record, to the very beginning of my career.
[This record is] the most like the early music of anything I've done
in a long time.
Was that something you were looking for? Something you talked about
with Steve in terms of style and sound?
BAEZ You know, I think that was one of those organic things.
Did the two of you collaborate on song selection?
BAEZ I came up with all the songs, except the ones he wrote. Then,
even the ones that he wrote fell into the same feeling of what we were doing.
What was the working process like in the Nashville sessions?
BAEZ Nashville has some of the best musicians in the world, and we
had some [of them], and so we didn't have to write anything out. We
didn't do anything but play the song, maybe talk about it, and then
they'd begin to develop what they're going to do. Sometimes Steve
would direct them a little bit or suggest things, and once in a while
I would do the same. But mostly musicians like that just take off,
and then I find where my slot is, where I fit to make the whole thing balanced.
Did the recording require very many takes or much overdubbing?
BAEZ I usually make albums quickly, and so does Steve, so after the
first five or six days, we had everything down. Certainly the band
didthey never came back to do anything. But I am fussy about my
upper range. Steve couldn't care less. We had the feeling there, and
he said he was going to go off on tour and didn't want to think about
it. I said, 'OK, I'll stay here and fix the things that I think need
fixing.' So I re-sang a few songs, and then we just added in whatever
overdubbing we had over a few days.
When you're choosing songs, the lyrics are obviously crucial, but how
important are the musical elementsthe way melodies and the movement
of harmonies fit your voice?
BAEZ People ask that and I don't even know. I'm thinking of "Jericho
Road." There's not much of a melody there. It doesn't matter. It's
about something else, the rhythm, and it sounds as though you're just
plodding off, walking. In the song, people are walking, and that's
what that rhythm says, at least the way we did it. So sometimes you
hear a tune and you go, "Oh, that's beautiful." Sometimes you hear
the tune first and the words are really already there in your head,
like [Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan's] "Day After Tomorrow."
Steve Earle has said he thinks Waits and Brennan's "Day After
Tomorrow" is the best song to come out of the current war. There's
something about the intervals in that song that almost automatically
BAEZ Oh they do. I've struggled with it in several concerts. Because
toward the end I just can't stand it.
How did you find that song?
BAEZ My assistant called me up and said, "I've found this great song
on the Internet." He sent it to me, and oh my god, what a gem. It was
the first song we chose for the album, and everything else kind of
built around itnot necessarily protest songs, but somewhat in that style.
It fits your voice in a way that reminds one of when you did [Malvina
Reynolds's] "What Have They Done to the Rain?" [on 1962's Joan Baez
BAEZ Which is the opposite end of the scale of my voice. That's an
interesting little voice. We're making a documentary, sort of
celebrating the 50 years, and as I look back and see some of the
footage, and I hear that voice, I can't believe that it goes so high
and sounds so true.
How did you discover and choose the other songs for the album?
BAEZ It is discovery, and I don't usually discover many of them. My
assistant happens to listen to lots of music. My manager listens to
it all, because he doesn't want to miss anything. He listens
sometimes up to 40 or 50 times before he decides that he thinks it's
something I would really like and I could do well. So he sends me a
whole batch of songs and I start picking through them, and I choose
Some remarkable singersGreg Brown, Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch, Joe
Henrywere represented on 2003's Dark Chords on a Big Guitar, but
there's something about this batch of songs that seems to coalesce
BAEZ I think it was the perfect storm. It was Steve, it was the 50th
anniversary, it was where my voice is now, and it was the songs. It
was the songs. They were more related to the Earth than the others
have been for a long time.
Growing up, when did you know that singing would be your career?
BAEZ Oh, I absolutely had no idea, even when it started. I mean the
career had started almost in spite of myself. Somebody offered me $10
a night to sing at Club 47, and I loved the singing, and I thought,
'Oh boy, $10 a night, I'm gonna get rich.' But as far as planning a
future, I just didn't. I was carried on this lovely wave, and it
carried me right through the ballads and into current songwriters [of
the day] and topical songs and then the Civil Rights movement.
Do you remember the moment when contemporary, socially conscious
songs entered your repertoire?
BAEZ I think maybe it was ushered in with songs that people really
wouldn't know and that I knew in Cambridge and have not kept in the
repertoire. But I would say [Phil Ochs's] "There But for Fortune" was
the beginning. And of course the Dylan songs are the best of the lot.
"Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream," by Ed McCurdy, was one of the
first you recorded [in 1962].
BAEZ And "What Have They Done to the Rain?" But you're right,
"Strangest Dream" came before that, I think. Speaking of the high
How would you say the arc of your career has dovetailed with or even
been determined by the political tenor of the times over the years?
BAEZ A lot of it has been determined very much by the tenoror the
non-tenorof the times. Bush being my greatest publicity agent. He
really has been. People are so disgusted with him that they remember
people like me. It's sort of a shot of sanity for people to come to
the concerts now.
But I think you're right. After the end of the war in Vietnam, a lot
of people had an identity crisis. I know I did, because when the war
was going on, we had each day planned before we got upwe knew it was
going to be related to that war. Luckily for me, I'd had my political
training starting at age eight, when my parents became Quakers. So it
was already well established in me, before I even started singing
rock 'n' roll in high school. I knew more about nonviolence than I
did about songs. So when the war ended in, I guess, '72, there was a
bit of flailing about for a while, and then we landed on the Diamonds
and Rust [period], the songwriting era, and did OK. But I really
wasn't paying attention to my career until all of a sudden, I
thought, "Hey, why am I singing these pretty songs and making albums
and nobody's going to hear them but my family?"
In what way was your career in fact stalled?
BAEZ I had no representation. I had no machinery. I had no
management. It was all of those things that I woke up to about 20
years ago. Then I started working with [manager] Mark Spector, and he
said, "What do you want to have happen?" And I said, "I want to be
recognized as a viable entity in the entertainment world, and I want
to be pleased with myself for the material I'm doing." And he said,
"It won't be easy." He was right.
Why do you think that was?
BAEZ Because people are very comfortable with the idea of "legend,"
but record companies didn't know what I could do, and so they
pictured me singing "Mary Hamilton" for five hours or something. It
was very hard. If I had put out promotional songs, and written on
them "young woman songwriter," I would have had better luck than by
having my name on it. I really think that's true.
Was there a turning point where you felt like you were breaking
through back into the public's awareness?
BAEZ It was a process over the years, starting 20 years ago, of
breaking through. A breakthrough I would consider was when I started
working with songwritersall of them are younger than I am, and some
of them were half my age. I got to know some of them, and we're still
friends. So that was a wonderful idea. It worked for them, and it
worked for methey got exposure from me, and I got their songs.
It became fun. I began to have more kids in the audience. I've always
had a very faithful audience. Now there are just more of them, and
there are people who hadn't known much about me before. When I sing
an old song in a concert, a lot of people are scratching their heads.
A lot of them are fans now but don't know anything about the early
songs. I have a really close friend who is 50-something, and I sang
for her something from, I don't know, the third or fourth year, and
she said, "I've never heard of that before." And to me it was a staple.
You've said that Day After Tomorrow harks back to the earliest music
of your career. To what degree does this period in your life resonate
with earlier periods?
BAEZ The really early music is the music I feel closest to. Maybe it
resonates through this new music. Or maybe it's simply because I am
67, and it is time to review this life, so I would pick the times
that I really admire. That would be the very beginningthat skinny
little girl standing up there and singing in that most extraordinary
voice. And I don't have a problem saying that because I didn't make
this voice. I just do maintenance and delivery.