AND A VOICE TO SING WITH -- A MEMOIR
Sometime in the mid-sixties Maynard Solomon at Vanguard had suggested an album of poetry both spoken and sung to music, In 1968, I recorded the album Baptism, which included selections from Rimbaud, Lorca, Treece, Prevert, Blake, Joyce, and others, set to classical accompaniment. It was on the charts for the last third of 1968: my audience could apparently withstand a broader range of musical experimentation than many people thought possible.
The next time in the studio was for David's Album and Any Day Now, a double album of all Dylan material. I loved recording in Nashville, and because of the richness and variety of Bob's music, it was one of the easiest albums I've ever recorded. I just spread his sheet music all over the floor of the studio, shut my eyes and pointed, and sang whichever song came up. Any Day Now plus David's Album, the collection of country and western songs took me and my now good ol' buddies, the Nashville pickers, exactly four days to make. Any Day Now went gold and David's Album roamed around the charts for months. The fact that David's Album sold was due more to my strong following in those years than to the fact that it was country and western as it never made the country and western Charts.
In 1970 Vanguard released a retrospective two-album set called The First Ten Years. In 1970 I also made One Day at a Time, another record leaning toward country, which included three songs with Jeffrey. Both The First Ten Years and One Day at a Time were on the hit lists for months.
During these years I did not know what it was to have pressure put on me to "be commercial," because my albums sold well, and because Maynard Solomon was more interested in art than he was in keeping me a hot item. The fact that I stayed hot was due to the times, which were still highly political, and the fact that I could sing.
In 1971, again in Nashville, I recorded Blessed Are ... , the first album to include a number of my own songs.
"A Song for David" was about waiting for him by the stony gate of the prison, with "the little one" in my arms, and about the stars being the same for him as they were for me, and about old man Earl, who was his prison mate, and who ended up being Gabe's godfather. I wrote the "Hitchhikers Song" about the backpackers in their beads and face paint, thumbing along the route through the Santa Cruz mountains. And "Blessed Are ... ," a song to the parents of the kids like Janis Joplin who didn't want to bother being survivors. "The Last, Lonely, and Wretched" told of the crazy, filthy, godforsaken guy who barged into our house one day and took a bath in our sunken tub. "Outside the Nashville City Limits" was about a magical day in the country with my secret but not so secret friend, when my love for him overflowed onto the beauty of the land" and the leaves came out so tender at the turning of the winter,/I thought my eyes they would brim over as we talked." "When Time " Is Stolen" was about when the love affair ended, and as though trying desperately to settle back down, I dreamed up the lullaby "Gabriel and Me." While traveling through Europe with Gabe on my hip I wrote "Milanese Waltz," and "Marie Flore," about my little ten-year-old friend from Arles. Some songs came fast and suddenly, some in the middle of the night. Some were laborious efforts. They were very personal, and in my opinion none rated much over a five. But writing gave me a kind of satisfaction I'd not felt from singing other people's work.
David painted the cover to Blessed Are. . . while he was in jail. It was in the top twenty for a while and eventually went gold. I re leased "Let It Be" from it, which rode alongside in the top fifty.
Through the late sixties and early seventies I continued to tour either alone or with Jeffrey and Fondle. I continued giving away most of my money. Some of the royalties from my records went to the draft resistance. My public image was clear: a girl, a guitar, her songs, and a message. My hair was short by then, but I don't think most people saw it that way. To the diehard fans, I was still Joanie with the waist-length tresses and achingly pure soprano. I was not only anti-commercial, I was impossible. In my concert brochure I wrote things like:
[I] ... wanted to be, when I grew up,
... The entertainment industry would have me tell you about "Joan Baez, the Folksinger." How I "got started" and where I've sung and what laurels I have gathering dust under my bed.
But I'll tell you simply, that there is no "Joan Baez, the Folksinger."
There is me, 28 years old, pregnant, my husband just beginning three years in prison for draft refusal and resistance organizing.... Me, sitting here listening to Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home" and thinking about children dying in Vietnam, Biafra, India, Peru, U.S.A. . . . . In the midst of all these things, how could I pretend to entertain you?
Sing to you, yes.
To prod you, to remind you, to bring you joy, or sadness, or anger ... And I will say ...
Give life priority over all things.
Over all things.
As I read this, seventeen years later, it appears excessively grim. It was a long, long way from the petunia beds of Struggle Mountain to the Raphael Hotel in Paris and the Via Veneto in Rome.
All the while David was in prison, work continued on the film Carry It On, our beautiful little documentary about two people with a mission. It shows David speaking, us traveling or just sitting in the mottled sunlight in the yard on Struggle Mountain planning "the Revolution." It shows my concerts while he was in jail, carnations on the stage at the Madison Square Garden two-dollar-a-ticket concert. The title comes from a song by Gil Turner which says:
There's a man by "my side walking
Just before David and I split up, Carry It On was released, a sound track album from the documentary. At about the same time Maynard Solomon of Vanguard and I decided that it was time to part company. Perhaps he felt the beginning of the end of the time when I could sing whatever the hell I pleased, put it out with a homegrown picture on the cover, and have it make the charts.
It was a genial split, as those things go. He has since packaged and repackaged my thirteen years of music with him, Hits, Greatest and Others (which I wanted to be called Hits and Misses, but he didn't think that was funny), Joan Baez Ballad Book, The Joan Baez Lovesong Album, Greatest Folk Singers of the Sixties, and others. Each time Maynard wrote and announced another release I'd feel like an old cow being milked when. I'd already gone dry, but I must confess the records were always well packaged, and to this day they continue to sell all over the world when many of the newer models do not. As I was leaving Vanguard, we released "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," which became my only big "hit" to date, going up to number five on the pop charts and staying in the top forty for fifteen weeks.
I signed with A&M records. It was a refreshing change. I felt as if I'd crossed over into the big-time-offices and studios in L.A., limousines, and star treatment. On the other hand, I felt I would be given more artistic license at A&M because of its size and personnel than I might have at a larger, even glitzier company.
I was right. My first album with them was Come from the Shadows, a title taken from a line in the French Resistance song called "The Partisan." It was not a commercial album. The cover is a photograph of an elderly white, middle class couple being arrested at an antiwar demonstration. The concept of a less than very political album had not yet occurred to me, but in two of my own songs on this album I was climbing from the "five" category to the "six or seven": "Prison Trilogy" and "Love Song to a Stranger."
At the end of that year, 1972, I had my Christmas visit to Hanoi, and put together a record company's nightmare when I came home. I promised A&M that on the next album there would be no bombs, sirens, antiaircraft, or weeping mothers. Miraculously, Where Are You Now, My Son? made it onto the charts in 1973 for a few months. I happen to think the album is brilliant, but it was pushing a good thing pretty far. The American public had not yet begun the massive trend toward "feeling good about itself," or that album would have been buried alive.
In 1974, in reaction to the coup in Chile, I recorded an album in Spanish as a message of hope to the people who were suffering under Pinochet. The album was called Gracias a la Vida! (Thanks to Life!). Highly musical, using backup that included a mariachi band from the restaurant next door to the studio, a group of farmworkers on the chorus to "No Nos Moveran," and a Chilean harpist, it is one of my favorite albums. It sold moderately well in the States, and very well in Spanish-speaking countries.
All in all, A&M was inordinately good to me. Yes, I still sold well for who I was, but the times were beginning to change. Though I had not officially sung "folk songs" for years, I was still called a "folksinger."