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Joan Baez - 'The First 10 Years'

Released on Vanguard Records, 1990

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Joan Baez - The First 10 Years

Joan Baez - The First 10 Years

© Vanguard Records
Joan Baez is, without question, one of the finest singer-songwriters to have ever graced the scope of American folk music. She began her career singing traditional folk ballads (pulling them from the US as well as across the rest of the world), and emerged as one of the leaders of a topical and protest song movement, as the civil rights and anti-war movements heated up. She earned considerable praise and acclaim for recording songs written by Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, and a couple of those compositions are included on this compilation. "With God on Our Side," "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall", and "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright", especially, are performed here with some of the most musical inflection those songs have ever seen before or since.

The Power of a Single Voice

Certainly, Baez rose to prominence in the folk music world because of the power of her voice. Her expansive range was - then as now - at once so strong and languid as to embody all various creative, meditative, and destructive forces. At times, her voice seems to be painting a melody with a delicate brush, decorating a backdrop, setting a scene. The next thing you know, it comes along with a punch and a kick, a raspy, guttural shove across an intimidating threshold. Then it whips around and catches you on the other side, embracing and warm, comforting, darn near lulling. All this can she do in a single song, a single verse. Sometimes, as in "Ghetto" (purchase/download), it all comes in the course of a single note.

It's that remarkable composition which kicks off this somewhat collection of her greatest early hits. Also in the collection are quite a number of Bob Dylan compositions (including the three listed above) and her remarkably stirring turn Phil Ochs' "There But for Fortune" (purchase/download), which was a big hit for her.

Also featured on this recording are her depictions of the Spanish-language song "Te Ador" and the Brazilian tune "Manha de Carnaval". It's always a precarious proposition when someone for whom English is their primary language takes on a song in a foreign tongue. But, Baez was a child of the world, who spent her child traveling across Europe and South America before making her way in American folk music. Her command of these languages is natural and relaxed. Where many folksingers share songs like these as an attempt at sharing a style with American audiences, Baez sings these songs with the intention of telling a story. Her understanding of not only the language but also the culture, is evident in her delivery, allowing the listener to peer through the language barrier toward the more universal humanity of the music.

A Wonderful Introduction

Greatest hits collections are often a great avenue for music fans to discover the breadth of an artist's work before delving into it one album at a time. In the case of Joan Baez's canon, this is an artist who continues to record poignant music and make timely recordings. (Her last album, 2008's Day After Tomorrow, was produced by Steve Earle - easily one of the finest performers of topical music these days.) But, when seeking to understand the impact Baez's music had on her generation, when her career began to steer the arc of popular music, The First 10 Years is a wonderful entry point.

From "Sweet Sir Gallahad" and "Geordie" to funkier recordings with synthesized sounds and mid-60s grooves, this disc depicts an artist who has been able to naturally progress with the world around her, all the while maintaining an allegiance to tradition and remaining firmly rooted in the folk aesthetic. And, for long-time fans, it's a great go-to collection to allow us a reminder of her early appeal while skirting some of the less-impactful songs which hid in the corners of some of her early albums. In other words, it does everything such a compilation should do, while delivering music which is just as good now as it was then.

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