Music

Recalling when a precocious Joan Baez rocked the folk world

Joan Baez at Cambridge’s Club 47.

Stephen J. Fenerjian

Joan Baez at Cambridge’s Club 47.

Was she a rock star? Those who were there when the young woman began taking the stage in the old coffeehouses around Boston nearly 60 years ago knew it immediately.

“She was a natural-born performer,” says Jim Rooney. “The minute she walked into a room, she took hold of everyone in it.”

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Does Joan Baez “belong” in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? A folk singer trained in the acoustic tradition of the public domain — those timeless, otherworldly songs that seem not so much written by human beings as harvested from wild growth — her music has never quite rocked, per se.

But to the generation that experienced firsthand the civil rights struggle and the war in Vietnam, Baez was without question one of its leading rock stars. She helped introduce the world to the curious young songwriter who called himself Bob Dylan. At age 21, she appeared on the cover of Time magazine. She performed at the March on Washington in 1963 and at Woodstock in 1969.

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On Friday, Baez will join the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017 in Brooklyn, alongside Pearl Jam, Yes, Electric Light Orchestra, Journey, and the late rapper Tupac Shakur. To Rooney, a longtime folk musician and producer who co-wrote (with the late Eric von Schmidt) the definitive history of the folk revival in Boston, there’s no doubt she belongs.

“I’m a fan of inclusiveness,” Rooney says, on the phone from his home in central Vermont. The folk scene, he says, has always agonized unnecessarily about its place in the wider world of popular music: “When Dylan went electric [at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965], it was such a big deal, but those turn out to be small potatoes in the big picture. [Baez] certainly had a big influence on people.”

Always more of a conventional interpreter of songs than a songwriter herself, Baez had her biggest pop hit with her 1971 cover of the Band’s Civil War lament, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” She has recorded dozens of Dylan songs, traditional folk tunes such as “House of the Rising Sun” and “Matty Groves,” country songs by Gram Parsons and Willie Nelson, and more recently, songs by musicians decades younger than she (Josh Ritter, Ryan Adams).

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“She always gravitated to material that suited her kind of singing,” says Rooney, who has produced albums by John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, and many others. “She really listens to music — I think that’s the main thing.”

Though Baez recently told the San Francisco Chronicle she expects her next album to be her last — “We’ll call it ‘Fare Thee Well’ ” — she seems to be enjoying excellent health at 76.

But singing no longer comes as easily as it once did. Gone is the startling purity of her youthful soprano, which “soared,” as described in Rooney and Von Schmidt’s book, “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” as if “some glorious bird was set free in the room.”

It was Debbie Green, one of the few other female folk singers of the period in Boston, from whom Baez learned her version of “House of the Rising Sun.” Green, who would later marry the singer Eric Andersen, first heard her sing it at a party.

“You can imagine what it was like,” Green told the authors. “My jaw dropped open — astounded, astonished!”

Baez had her first professional gig at the old Club 47 on Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge in 1958. The tiny audience reportedly included her mother and her sister Mimi. Within weeks, the Boston University dropout was drawing crowds at Club 47 and other bygone folk rooms — the Golden Vanity, the Salamander.

Almost overnight, Baez was a sensation, attracting a following of motorcycle-riding Harvard boys. When she made her second appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960, she showed up in a hipster’s hearse, with a biker escort. She was the “Rebel Queen,” wrote Rooney and Von Schmidt.

‘The minute she walked into a room, she took hold of everyone in it.’

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Rooney and his friend Bill Keith, the innovative banjoist who would play with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and bluegrass king Bill Monroe, opened for Baez at Dartmouth College on a snowy January morning in 1961. It was Winter Carnival. She’d only recently released her debut album.

“We thought we were wonderful,” he jokes. “Then she came out and the roof came off. We thought, gee whiz, this is something really big.

“Within a year and a half, she was on the cover of Time. Quite amazing. That voice — you just couldn’t get away from it. It’s absolutely true — it was a gift she had, and she knew it.”

In a recent interview, Baez claimed she never worked from a master plan: “My idea of the future was the following Wednesday,” she said.

Instead, she was always ready to rock and roll.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan
@gmail.com
.

An earlier version included an incorrect date in the photo caption.

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