Joan Baez has, through the work she's done, made the world a little bit of a better place. Few would argue with that. Case in point—the new documentary in PBS' American Masters Series: Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound. Baez's public life has spanned from worldwide political protest to quiet concert hall, and beyond. Trying to comment on her body of work is different than doing so for most artists, as it includes more than just a collection of songs. This film serves as both introduction to history and exploration of one of America's greatest folksingers.
Joan Baez on Growing Up
It's no secret that Joan Baez's childhood was itinerant at best. Her father's job took the family across the country from California to Boston, and beyond. Baez spent a character-forming year in Baghdad as a pre-teen, and she credits that experience with some part of her extraordinary empathy for human rights and social justice. How Sweet the Sound
spends a good amount of time exploring Baez's childhood, the impact it had on her not only as a musician and singer songwriter, a traveler and artist, but also as an activist and advocate.
She talks about being quite literally painfully introspective and aloof, exploring R&B, country, and folk music, and the struggle she experienced when all of a sudden dubbed the Queen of Folk Music. She talks about the drawbacks and confusions of fame, the fierce and flawed pull of ego, and her ultimate realization that "If you're going to be committed to singing meaningful songs, you have to also be committed to living a life that backs that up."
Joan Baez on Civil Rights
Joan Baezphoto: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
The Civil Rights
Movement had a number of challenges and victories, and Joan Baez had a hand in many.
Probably the most stirring story dredged up for this documentary, however, is about a concert she performed at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1964—an all-black school in the town which was home to the KKK. The artful and respectful ways in which she integrated her audience helped the incredibly segregated town take one more step toward understanding.
Also shown here is footage of Baez walking African-American children to their newly integrated schools, lending her celebrity to ensure there would be enough press and security to help these kids get to school safely. She comments that she didn't realize how much she was living on the edge at the time, but she recognizes it now.
Joan Baez on the Peace Movement
There's also incredibly moving footage in this documentary of Baez visiting various war zones and people affected by the destruction of war. She talks about hiding in a bomb shelter for over a week in North Vietnam, and the trauma which solidified her contention that the only thing that fails more than nonviolence is violence.
We're shown footage of her visiting Cambodia, Czechoslovakia, and Sarajevo. In a particularly stirring moment, she takes the seat of a street musician once he's moved away and, in a completely unplanned gesture, breaks into an a cappella rendition of "Amazing Grace" (purchase/download).
The Bottom Line
From intimate portraits of her personal life to memorable live concert performances, outtakes from Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue
tour, conversations with Dar Williams, Steve Earle, and others, and rare footage of Baez writing songs with Dylan and visiting war-torn nations, How Sweet the Sound
makes it impossible to ignore the incredible worldwide impact of Joan Baez's life and career.
This documentary serves as an exceptional peek into American history, the advent of mainstream popularity for folk music, topical music and political song. It will satisfy long-time fans and those just discovering Baez's remarkable musical canon.