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Five Songs Of Resistance: The Protest Songs Of Joan Baez

In April, the legendary Joan Baez was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, making this year as apt a time as ever to celebrate her decades of music and social justice work.

Since the late 1950s, Baez has released over 30 albums in six languages, often using her music as a platform for activism, advocating for civil rights, human rights, non-violence and more.

“We Shall Overcome” (1963)

Over the years, Baez has become well known for essential take on the traditional song “We Shall Overcome”—a traditional gospel song that grew into a protest song during the Civil Rights Movement, made popular by Pete Seeger and a number of other performers. Baez became well known for her version of the classic after performing it at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In the 1960s, Baez’s interpretations of traditional protest songs would often intensify their meaning with duality of softness and sharpness, adding simultaneous humanity and sadness, weight and depth. And here, that skill is prominently on display.

“What Have They Done To The Rain” (1962)

“I’ll sing you the gentlest protest song I know,” explained Baez at a concert in 1962, captured on the live album, “Joan Baez in Concert, Part 1.” “It doesn’t protest gently, but it sounds gentle.”

The song, originally written as part of a campaign to stop nuclear testing in the atmosphere, was written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962 (the songwriter and activist perhaps best known for her popular song commenting on suburbia and conformity, “Little Boxes”). It also became well-known through a poppier version by English rock band The Searchers and Marianne Faithfull.

But Baez’s version remains the most solemn and piercing: “Just a little boy standing in the rain / the gentle rain that falls for years And the grass is gone, the boy disappears And rain keeps falling like helpless tears,” she sings.

In Baez’s autobiography, “And A Voice to Sing With: A Memoir,” she recounts the time in 1967, where the CIA intervened in her performance of this song and others in Japan. The American Embassy put pressure on her interpreter to dilute any political statements she made around it.

She reprints a New York Times article in her memoir: “Press reports allege that an American, identifying himself as Harold Cooper, a CIA man, had ordered the Japanese interpreter, Ichiro Takasaki, to substitute an innocuous translation in Japanese for Miss Baez’s remarks in English on Vietnam and Nagasaki’s atom bomb survivors…” Takasaki cooperated in fear he might not be able to obtain visas to the United States in the future.

“Birmingham Sunday” (1964)

“Birmingham Sunday” was written in response to the horrific 1963 bombing at the African American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that left four young girls dead. “On Birmingham Sunday the blood ran like wine,” the song opens, eventually naming and singing about each of the four girls: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carol Robertson. “The falcon of death was a creature they knew, And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.” Baez’s version begins acapella, her every word ringing out, stark and devastating.

Richard Fariña originally wrote “Birmingham Sunday.” He was a writer and folksinger who was married to Joan’s younger sister Mimi until his untimely death by motorcycle accident at the age of 29. After dropping out of Cornell University in the late 1950s, he became a staple of the Greenwich Village folk scene and spots, like White Horse Tavern. In 1969, Baez wrote the song “Sweet Sir Galahad” about Fariña; in a live video from around that time, she says it’s the only original song she performs.

“Saigon Bride” (1967)

“Saigon Bride” was one of Baez’s best-known songs against the Vietnam War, retelling the story of a soldier who leaves behind his bride to go to war: “How many dead men will it take To build a dike that will not break? How many children must we kill Before we make the waves stand still?” The song was based on a poem sent to her by Nina Duschek and appeared on Baez’s 1967 album, “Joan.” On the same album, the song “North” was also based on a poem by Duschek.

In the liner notes to a reissued version of “Joan,” Baez explains that she never met Duschek. “She was an obscure lady,” Baez writes. “I don’t even know if she’s still alive. She gave me these two poems, and I just wrote the melodies. I can tell you where I was sitting. It was in the upstairs room of my home in Carmel Valley. And I was very excited because I was actually writing a tune.

“Nasty Man” (2017)

Baez is best known for the protest songs she performed and recorded in the 1960s, but throughout her entire decades-spanning career, she has created politically charged work. And across her more recent albums, like her 2008 album “Day After Tomorrow,” her voice has only grown wiser and twangier.

Her most recent song, released earlier this year, is brilliant. In a candid video filmed in a living room, Baez performs the sing-song ballad, “a little song about a man gone wrong,” she calls it. “After months of its and buts, the papers got the guts, to call the Man of the Year a liar,” she sings, with a sense of humor, finger picking a lighthearted riff.

“If you’re gonna build a wall, the bigliest wall, the beautifulest wall round our borders… here’s what I think. You better talk to a shrink,” she continues. “Cause you’ve got dangerous pathological disorders.”

One can only hope Baez has a whole album of anti-Donald Trump songs to release.

Liz Pelly

Liz Pelly