The Kennedy Center honoree redefined folk music and showed up wherever her songs and courage were needed

Folk legend Joan Baez, one of the five 2021 Kennedy Center honorees, at her Northern California home in 2018. (Ramona Rosales)

By  Karen Heller

May 12, 2021

Imagine a young woman, free of makeup, a curtain of black hair, barefoot even in the Massachusetts winter, burnishing 200-year-old ballads in a crammed Cambridge coffeehouse, picking like an old hand at her acoustic guitar. At the launch of the 1960s, this was radical, inverting music on its shiny, hair-sprayed head. Joan Baez landed on Time magazine’s cover, lauded as the Queen of Folk. All at the august age of 21.

Her searing soprano with its trademark vibrato exhausted superlatives. It was declared incomparable yet compared to everything: old gold, the clear autumn air. It was deemed a line straight to God — staggering, the voice of an enchantress, a sibyl, a siren.

“The gift,” she calls her voice, which once traveled three octaves. “If I view it that way, then I can appreciate it and talk about it for what it is, not something I created,” says Baez, now 80. “It helps me stay grateful.”

Yet, she had a hand — or, precisely, an index finger — in augmenting her sound. At first, the vibrato had to be coaxed. As a teenager, “I literally sat in front of the mirror and wobbled my Adam’s apple up and down,” she says, demonstrating the Baez vibrato technique via Zoom, from the kitchen of her Northern California home, a portrait she painted of her granddaughter above the fireplace.

Many performers practice public self-abnegation about their talent. Please, I can’t bear to hear my work. Not Baez, one of this year’s five Kennedy Center honorees.

“I love to listen to my albums,” she says. There are 40, one issued almost every year during the first two decades. Baez is partial to her sound on the early ones. “That instrument is just unsurpassable. That little vocal box and all that stuff comes out — it’s just, to me, it’s some kind of its own perfection,” she says. The perfection, by her own estimation, lasted 20 years.

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Baez performs at the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, R.I., in 1963. (Max Desfor/AP)

“She got bigger than folk singers ever get. She didn’t come across with a lot of ego,” says Roger McGuinn, founder of the Byrds, who first heard Baez as a teenager in the Cambridge coffeehouses near Harvard. “She looked like a hippie before there were hippies. And she’s a great guitarist.”

Baez “changed what it meant to be a star, a celebrity, a prominent figure in mainstream popular culture. She was representative of a radical new set of values,” says David Hajdu, author of “Positively 4th Street,” about the Greenwich Village music scene in the early 1960s. “She embodies the image of earthiness and simplicity. She’s not precisely fitting into the White American ideal. People are now squeamish talking about the exotic and the other, but that was part of her allure.”

Baez wrote songs, most famously “Diamonds and Rust” and “Sweet Sir Galahad,” but is best known as an interpreter of traditional ballads (including the Child catalogue) and the work of other singer-songwriters. She excelled at Americana before it had been named.

She has a genius for harmony, reflecting an agility to listen, collaborate and adapt swiftly onstage. “You want to try harmonizing with Bob Dylan?” asks David Crosby. “She’s a good, deep-in-the-groove folk singer. She didn’t try to be a pop star. She was beautiful and dignified and smart and funny and curious and intelligent and courageous. All the good stuff, man. I was madly in love with her.”

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Baez’s commitment to social justice and folk music, the twin rivers that course through her big life, took her wherever trouble thrived: Hanoi, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Chile, Argentina, Alabama. The voice became her passport. Baez sang for Martin Luther King Jr., Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa. When she was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War, King came to visit her in 1968, a few months before he was assassinated. How was being incarcerated? “For me it was heaven,” she says. “I mean, I gained eight pounds.”

Baez is possibly the only artist to have performed at the March on Washington, Woodstock and Live Aid. A sensation at the inaugural 1959 Newport Folk Festival, she blew up before Dylan. Their romance was legendary. Less famously, Baez dated Steve Jobs.

“It is,” she concedes, “a little remarkable.”

Activism was the silver pattern of her only marriage. She and antiwar organizer David Harris married in 1968 and were a constant in the news, “Mr. and Mrs. World Peace.” They were wed five years, 20 months of which Harris spent behind bars for resisting the draft, coinciding with the birth of their son, Gabriel.

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