The Arrival of a Subtle Folk Voice
Near the end of "East Virginia," one of fifteen traditional songs Joan Baez interprets on her debut album, there's an unexpected display of musicianship. Baez has been singing in full, almost loud, voice when suddenly she drops into pianissimo and modulates her guitar accompaniment accordingly. She handles most of the transfixing final verses this way, not in a stage whisper exactly, but a muted, death-pondering voice.
Such dynamic contrasts, common in classical music, happen much less frequently in folk. Baez uses the hush to heighten the already dramatic narrative. Her framing of the tale—another in the long line of bitter odes about unrequited love—becomes as riveting as the story itself.
That attention to detail turns up throughout this influential debut. At the dawn of the 1960s, the singers associated with the "folk revival" were thinking big thoughts and concerning themselves with rattling the populace awake. They weren't always thinking about fine points like dynamics. That's one reason Baez was so important: Leaving the hectoring to others, she brought texture and contrast and subtlety to the coffeehouse.
Recorded in the summer of 1960, when she was nineteen, Joan Baez presents the singer's calm, crystalline soprano on a program of tragic ballads and lullabies. A dedicated student of American music, Baez developed highly personal treatments of traditional songs—her arrangement of "I Know You Rider" is said to have inspired the Grateful Dead to explore the tune. And those who know the Stanley Brothers' "Man of Constant Sorrow" from O Brother, Where Art Thou? will be enchanted by Baez's rendering. "Girl of Constant Sorrow"—which was left off the original album and appears as a bonus track on the 2001 reissue—gives that eternal melody a slightly different, but no less woeful, spin.
Released: 1960, Vanguard (Reissued 2001)
Key Tracks: "East Virginia," "House of the Rising Sun," "Mary Hamilton," "John Riley," "I Know You Rider"
Catalog Choice: Blessed Are . . .
Next Stop: Richie Havens: Mixed Bag
After That: Buffy Sainte-Marie: It's My Way!
Book Page: 39