Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Two B's, Part II: Quid est Veritas?

Joan Baez's self-titled debut album was released in 1960, when the singer was nineteen years old. Politics and larger cultural issues aside, I've always had mixed feelings about Baez as a folk music icon. Although I grew up in a left-wing household, it was not a Baez household; the primary musical influences on my childhood were Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Kurt Weill, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the wonderful children's vinyl records I'd inherited from my older brothers. It was a wonderful friend of mine in adulthood (a fellow heir to the pink-diaper tradition, who had had himself baptized in secret) who introduced me to Baez's music, making me a gift of her first album.

At first I was stunned by the innocence, beauty, and purity of that distinctive voice (I did find her vibrato a trifle excessive in the upper register, however, and was surprised to read later on that Baez had worked to develop it by manually manipulating her larynx). I also found much to admire in her finger-picking guitar style. But there was also an element of her musicality that repelled me: it was cold -- even calculated -- mercilessly four-square, and especially bad in traditional Black repertoire, where her musical rigidity stood out like a sore white thumb. As a singer who has specialized in neglected (classical) repertoires, I appreciated Joan Baez's attempts to excavate a forgotten musical past and give it the fresh face of youth, and I recognized how influential she'd been culturally, if not musically (the most important of her peers in folk music, like Bob Dylan, shown with her above, were soon moving away from traditional ballads and writing original material).

The most interesting thing to me about Baez is what she stood for at a brief moment in time, before the Vietnam War and the resulting market for protest music. In the early 1960s, Joan Baez was the poster child for the post-Romantic condition: the longing -- expressed musically and aesthetically -- for some sort of authenticity in the face of a vulgar, commercialized culture; the hunger for the truth; the desire to return "home," to one's roots, to the primordial state of unsullied childhood. The tragedy of Romanticism, however, is the truth that home can never be returned to, and that, perhaps, there never was any such home to begin with.

Here is a beautiful number from Joan Baez's first album, "Fare Thee Well," which is an illustrative display of all that is good about her singing and playing; the song's last line is a reference to Matthew 23:34. And here is a song by Brahms, "Heimweh II" (he wrote three songs with that title, translated as "homesickness," or "grief over home"), which is, I think, the most succinct statement possible about the nature of Romanticism. Its lyrics, in a fine rhymed translation by the composer (and pink-diaper baby) Leonard Lehrmann:

Oh, if I only knew the road back,
The dear road to childhood's land!
Oh, why did I search for happiness
And leave my mother's hand?

Oh, how I long to be at rest,
Not to be awakened by anything,
To shut my weary eyes,
With love gently surrounding!

And nothing to search for, nothing to beware of,
Only dreams, sweet and mild;
Not to notice the changes of time,
To be once more a child!

Oh, do show me the road back,
The dear road to childhood's land!
In vain I search for happiness,
Around me naught but deserted beach and sand!


Toby said...

Growing up in a redneck right-wing household, it is amazing I received any familiarity with the folk singers of the 60's, but my parents could not get past the purity of that sound. One of the earliest songs I remember hearing was Joan Baez covering "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," watching my father get sentimental about the Dixie neighborhood in Baton Rouge where he grew up. Thanks for the post.

Pentimento said...

Isn't it funny that certain ideologies seemed to go hand in hand with certain musical genres? I think that must have changed somewhat by now. I've blogged before about my astonishment, when I worked for lawyers in my twenties, that the most right-wing lawyers were digging Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.

I can see even redneck Southerners loving "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," though, because it's a lament for the South. The red-diaper friend who turned me on to JB said he'd always wondered why that was in her catalogue.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece. I enjoy Baez's rendition of "I Shall Be Released" on YouTube with the Smothers Brothers singing back-up.

Pentimento said...

That's a good one TQ - I actually watched it at your recommendation a while back.

Maclin said...

Baez' early pure folkie stuff came out when I was a politically liberal teenager in the deep south, and very much wanting to be a part of that whole musical & political movement. So I tried with Baez. I really tried. But I just never really liked most of her work all that much. Part of it is that coldness and stiffness on which you remark, Pentimento. Hearing her now, her voice seems to belong fully in neither the folk nor classical world. My favorites of her work are the Dylan songs and a few others from the Farewell Angelina album, made right at the dawn of folk-rock. I like "Fare Thee Well," too.

My first girlfriend looked vaguely like her, though, so that was cool..:-)

I guess y'all know "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is a Band song. I never understood why she recorded it, either. I liked (and like) their version much better--hers always struck me as just weird.

I don't know how the singing stands up to classical standards, but I really liked the Villa-Lobos piece, one of the Bachianas Brasil...[can't remember the spelling] on one of her earlier albums. That was a completely new kind of music to me.

Pentimento said...

I've seen the footage of her at Woodstock, and there again, she just seems to have come from another world and not quite to belong to the world she's in.

As I recall her Villla-Lobos was not bad. Not like a classical singer like the great Victoria de los Angeles would sing it, but pretty good nonetheless. Judy Collins and Barbra Streisand also performed some classical pieces on albums from around that time.