Joan Baez

Joan Baez 5

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Joan Baez 5 was where the singer's music experienced its first major blossoming. Having exhausted most of the best traditional songs in her repertory on her four prior LPs, Baez had to broaden the range of her music, and she opened up some promising new territory in the process. Baez and Vanguard Records must also have recognized by 1964 that the folk audience was changing and, in fact, was no longer just the "folk" audience -- they were expecting current compositions in a folk vein, especially topical material, and also a certain degree of eclecticism, and Joan Baez 5 runs the gamut from classical to country. The album opens with a rendition of Phil Ochs' "There but for Fortune" that was so alluring that Vanguard released it as a single, and it actually saw some modest chart action; Baez nearly pulled off a Peter, Paul & Mary, masking the song's piercing, topical lyrics (which addressed more hot-button issues in three minutes than most radio stations preferred to acknowledge in a week's worth of editorials) in a falsetto so lovely that they simply eased past most of the censors, right-wingers, and anyone else who might've objected. Her recording of Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe" was the latest in a small but growing list of her excellent covers of his songs, culminating with the release of the two-LP Any Day Now later in the 1960s. Even the Dylan cover pales, however, next to her rendition of Richard Farina's "Birmingham Sunday," a recollection of the school bombing that's still a raw nerve in the state of Alabama, four decades later -- her performance is as beautiful as the song itself is quietly dark and ominous. She still found room for material drawn from traditional English folk songs and settings by Richard Dyer-Bennett and John Jacob Niles, and Baez's version of "Stewball" was perhaps the prettiest of a brace of covers of the song (there was even one by the Hollies) from around this period; her performance of "When You Hear Them Cuckoos Hollerin'," accompanied by Gino Foreman on guitar, was one of the most haunting recordings in her output. Her attempt at Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 -- Aria," accompanied by an ensemble of eight cellos led by Utah Symphony Orchestra conductor Maurice Abravanel (who was also on Vanguard), was a valiant effort that doesn't really come off. Equally unexpected but far more successful is her version of Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone," which was probably the prettiest cover any of the country giant's songs had been treated to up to that time (and if Baez's version was noticed by too many people in Nashville, it only bore out the suspicions in some circles that Cash was part of a commie conspiracy). It was Baez's first brush up against country music, which would prove a rich and vital vein for her in the decades to come. It's sign of just how seriously and important Baez's music was considered at that time that the album contained an essay in tribute to Baez by no less a figure than Langston Hughes -- it's a sign of the difference in our times that it's difficult (indeed, well nigh impossible) to imagine a recording by a white artist in 2002 that would command that kind of attention from a black literary figure, or a record company that would make use of such as essay if it were offered.

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