Joan Baez has been one of the most ardent activist-folksingers in the history of the craft, and an inspiration to many other artists and fans alike. If you're just learning about Baez's work, here's a playlist of essential Joan Baez songs to help get you started.
"Diamonds and Rust" is arguably one of the finest songs about love and disappointment, and all the confusing emotions surrounding such things - the unattainable expectations, the loss and forgetting, the things time does to two parallel lives. It's a beautiful, if dramatic, song and one of Baez's greatest hits, indeed.
2. "Oh Freedom"
On the morning of Martin Luther King's speech at the March on Washington for Civil Rights, Joan Baez sang "Oh Freedom" for the sea of people. It's a traditional spiritual song whose refrain is defiant and bold - a perfect anthem for the struggles of the civil rights movement: "Before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave."
"Amazing Grace" has been sung and sung again by just about every folksinger (and artist in pretty much any other genre, for that matter). But, nobody sings it with quite as much conviction as Joan Baez. Her voice on this song brings as much melancholy and nostalgia as it does daring and determination, calling to mind the complexity of the struggle one faces when they seek grace.
Joan Baez has recorded many songs written by Bob Dylan, but of all her renditions of his work, "Blowin in the Wind" is the most resonant. Her powerful voice together with his series of poetic and provocative questions aimed at the absurdity of denying anyone equal civil rights, makes Baez's recording of the song particularly stirring.
5. "God is God"
"God is God" is a song Steve Earle wrote for Joan Baez to sing on Day After Tomorrow - the album he produced for her, and on which he played and sang. It not only raises questions about God and faith, but also about humankind's propensity to think itself in a position of such power.
This is another Bob Dylan-penned tune which, in Baez's hands, comes off differently than it does when Dylan sings it. Baez has always had a way of bringing a certain level of empathy and grace to her recordings, which reaches well beyond what other versions of this song deliver.
Phil Ochs never achieved the level of success that his songs did on their own. "There but for Fortune" is an excellent example. Joan Baez had quite a bit of success with her cover of this song, which is a song about empathy itself, sharing a series of vignettes about people who have fallen on hard times, along with the refrain, "There but for fortune may go you or I."
"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" was a song originally written by Robbie Robertson and famously recorded by the Band, as well as by Joan Baez. Baez's version was a Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and is still one of her most recognized and adored cover tunes. Its lyrics tell the story of the end of the Civil War.
"Long Black Veil" is a widely covered country ballad from the 1950s, which has been recorded by Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Kingston Trio, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen, and numerous others. Baez's version of the song was recorded twice, and she continues to perform this murder ballad in her live shows.
Patty Griffin's "Mary" has been covered by a number of artists, but Joan Baez's version is definitely one of the finest. The lyrics look at the biblical story of Mary through a very working class lens - the woman who works and grieves and cleans up after her son has been slaughtered. It's a very layered and complex song grappling with religion, yes, but also judgment, war, peace, and feminism, among other things.