Arc of Joan


VIDEO/Vietnam War Song Project/You Tube

Sixty years ago this week, a teenager stood in the rain by the side of the stage at the very first Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. Her talent had already been recognised in the coffee shops of Boston, but here was her chance to share it more widely.

After what must have seemed an interminable wait, Don Gibson introduced her to the audience, and she clambered up the steps, barefooted. Virgin Mary Had One Son was their first duet, followed by We are Crossing the Jordan River. Her siren voice mesmerised the audience.

That landmark moment transformed the trajectory of Joan Baez’s life and career. By 1963, she already had four albums to her credit. Having opted for a small, mainly classical label called Vanguard, resisting the riches promised by Columbia as it wooed her — not least because Vanguard’s roster of artists included The Weavers and Paul Robeson — she sang We Shall Overcome at the monumental rally in Washington where, as she puts it in her memoirs, Martin Luther King “put aside his prepared speech and let the breath of God thunder through him”. She brought along to the March on Washington a then relatively unknown singer-songwriter called Bob Dylan.

Baez’s touring days will be over within weeks.

She marched by Dr King’s side in the segregated south as part of her unquestioning commitment to the struggle for civil rights, and then poured her pacifist heart into the movement against American aggression in Vietnam, her commitment best epitomised perhaps by a visit to Hanoi in December 1972, which began just before Richard Nixon launched his infamous Christmas bombing campaign. The B-52s spared her hotel only because it was known to host foreigners. In the bomb shelter beneath the hotel, she eventually got over her jitters and sang to keep up the spirits of fellow inmates.

On one of her post-bombing-raid excursions in the North Vietnamese capital, she came across a bereaved mother’s haunting lament, “Where are you now, my son?” Baez turned it into the centrepiece of her next album, devoting an entire side of the LP to excerpts from the hours of audio she had recorded in Hanoi.

In subsequent years, she was also willing to lend her voice to the cause of post-war Vietnamese dissidents. That was perfectly consistent with her Gandhian philosophy of non-violence. Ideology didn’t matter where human rights were concerned. She performed private concerts for Lech Walesa and Andrei Sakharov while they were beleaguered figureheads, and let Vaclav Havel carry her guitar into a Prague venue from which he would otherwise have been excluded.

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