Joan Baez ‘Three Classic Albums plus’ 2CD (Avid Roots) 5/5

The folk revival of the late 1950s and early-mid 1960s has been much heralded in recent years with biopics on the seminal figures such as Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan viewed as the figurehead, however reluctant he might have been to take on that daunting mantle. One singer who is sometimes overlooked, yet was an active participant alongside Dylan in the folk movement is Joan Baez and this fine retrospective groups together the early, and arguably the very best recordings that Baez cut both as a leader and with others. The recordings she made for Vanguard capture her voice at its zenith and this includes the eponymously titled debut from 1960. A famous interpretation of, ‘House of the rising sun’, probably influenced the Animals to record their now famous version of the folk standard. One of the loveliest songs here is the near six minute reading of, ‘Mary Hamilton’, and other favourites include, ‘Fare thee well’ and ‘John Riley’. Baez’s own Mexican and Scottish roots (a certain US President should take note here of the harmonious rapport between Mexicans and Scots. Singer Lila Downes is another fine example) made her receptive to a wider Spanish language folk tradition that Linda Ronstadt would at a much later stage use as an inspiration, and Baez delivers a beautiful folk tune in, ‘El preso numero nuevo’. Added to the first CD is an earlier 1959 recording of Baez from a various artists release in May 1959. Again the repertoire draws on the folk tradition and includes, ‘Black is the color’, a favourite of Nina Simone no less.

Her second album is divided between the two CDs, but is in keeping with the rest of the music. Baez is joined on two songs by the vocals of the Greenbriar Boys who are worth checking out on their own recordings. Here they provide gorgeous harmonies to, ‘Banks of the Ohio’ and ‘Pal of mine’. The lesser know material works well and includes a French language, ‘Plaisir d’amour’. Clearly, the young Joan Baez was soaking up all manner of musical influences. The remainder of the second CD is devoted to a live solo concert that Joan Baez recorded at various locations in 1962 with ‘Matty groves’ (which Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention would make a seminal reading of in 1969 after bluegrass folkster Doc Watson had recorded it in 1966) and ‘Kumbaya’ highlights and very little overlap with the studio recordings, apart from a new rendition of, ‘Black is the color of my true love’s hair’. Baez makes a further forage into world folk roots with the Portugese language, ‘Ate Amanha’.

As ever with Avid two-CD sets, the timing is incredibly generous with the first CD just lasting just over seventy-eight and a half minutes and the second only barely under the seventy-seven minutes mark. When the music is this good, there are absolutely no excuses for exploring the art of Joan Baez. If Shirley Collins is rightly fêted as the doyenne of English female folk singers (with the likes of Sandy Denny and Anne Briggs only marginally below), then Joan Baez is surely a prime candidate for the foremost American female singer of the postwar generation.

Tim Stenhouse