Joan Baez in Concert

Singer-songwriter-activist Joan Baez was born on January 9, 1941 in Staten Island, New York.  In many ways, Baez is the voice of the 1960s.  She started out as an important part of the folk movement in the early part of that decade, recording many popular songs throughout the decade.  And in 1969, she performed at Woodstock.

Baez also became one of the early and most vocal artists working for social justice issues. She continues to be a voice for important causes. For example, she marched next to Martin Luther King, Jr. and went to jail for supporting the draft resistance. And, she sang in the first Amnesty International tour.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Baez is still making music and doing other important work as she nears the end of her professional career.  On April 7, 2017, Jackson Browne inducted her into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. During her induction speech, she noted the current political climate and made the following appeal to the people:

“Where empathy is failing and sharing has been usurped by greed and the lust for power, let us double, triple, and quadruple our own efforts to empathize and to give of our resources and our selves. Let us together repeal and replace brutality, and make compassion a priority. Together let us build a great bridge, a beautiful bridge to once again welcome the tired and the poor, and we will pay for that bridge with our commitment.

“We the people must speak truth to power, and be ready to make sacrifices. We the people are the only one who can create change. I am ready. I hope you are, too. I want my granddaughter to know that I fought against an evil tide, and had the masses by my side.”

“When all of these things are accompanied by music, music of every genre, the fight for a better world, one brave step at a time, becomes not just bearable, but possible, and beautiful.”

For 2018, Baez has planned the “Fare Thee Well Tour 2018.”  And in 2018, she also plans to release her first album since 2008 when she released Day After Tomorrow.  Joe Henry is producing the new album, Whistle Down The Wind.

1965 Live Performance

Celebrate Baez’s birthday by going back to 1965 as you watch her perform a televised concert that year.  June 5, 1965, she performed at the BBC Television Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush, London.  Watching her perform does make the world a little more bearable and beautiful.

What is your favorite Joan Baez song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    4 Little Girls on a “Birmingham Sunday”

    On September 15, 1963, racists exploded a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, injuring several people and killing four little girls aged 11-14: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. The incident is largely seen as a turning point that helped inspire the Civil Rights Movement.

    In Spike Lee’s excellent documentary about the incident, 4 Little Girls (1997), many of the people who knew or were related to the girls give moving stories about the events surrounding the bombing.

    It would be decades before some of those involved in the bombing would be brought to justice.  The movie interviews former Alabama Attorney General William Baxley, who reopened an investigation into the bombing in the early 1970s, resulting in the conviction one of the men involved in the bombing in 1977.

    Baxley had long been interested in pursuing justice in the case even before he was attorney general. In the movie, he explains how he used to listen to Joan Baez’s song “Birmingham Sunday” every day.

    “Birmingham Sunday,” which was written by Richard Fariña, appeared on Baez’s album, Joan Baez/5 (1964).  It was released in the year after the bombing.

    The way the song helped inspire Baxley through the years to help bring some justice to the tragedy helps show the power of song. Spike Lee’s movie 4 Little Girls also shows the power of film.

    Photo of church window at 16th Street Baptist Church, donated by the people of Wales after the bombing, via public domain.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The End of Maryland’s Death Penalty and “Green, Green Grass of Home”

    On Thursday, May 2, 2013, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a bill passed by the state legislature to make Maryland the eighteenth state (along with Washington, D.C.) to abolish capital punishment. In the last decade, six states have recognized that the death penalty is applied unfairly and that it does not make us safer than other punishments. Additionally, the discoveries of innocent people on death rows have illustrated the risks of the punishment, and studies also show that the death penalty is more expensive than a sentence of life in prison.

    For these and other reasons, in recent years Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York also have stopped using capital punishment. Other state legislatures are considering bills to abolish the death penalty.

    “Green, Green Grass of Home” and Its Twist Ending

    Thinking about Maryland’s death penalty, I remembered a hit song from the 1960s called “Green, Green Grass of Home.” Claude “Curly” Putman, Jr. wrote “Green, Green Grass of Home,” which is probably his biggest hit song along with Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” (he also co-wrote the George Jones song “He Stopped Loving Her Today”).

    “Green, Green Grass of Home” belongs in a unique group of songs that have a twist ending. The song begins with the singer talking about a trip home, but in the last verse, we learn that it was all a dream. Although there is no specific reference to the death penalty or executions, the verse makes clear that the singer will die at the hands of the state in the morning.

    Then I awake and look around me,
    At the four gray walls that surround me,
    And I realize that I was only dreaming,
    For there’s a guard and a sad old padre,
    Arm in arm we’ll walk at daybreak,
    And at last I’ll touch                                                                                                                                        
    the green green grass of home.

    Putnam performs a clever sleight of hand in the song. He gets us to see the singer as a human being, one with feelings we can relate to, because everyone has been homesick. Only then does he let us know that the singer is on death row. Had the song begun by telling us the singer was condemned, we would have seen him in a different light and judged him as something other than human. But like Steve Earle’s “Over Yonder,” the song “Green, Green Grass of Home” lets us see the humanity even in the worst of us, which is pretty cool.

    Porter Wagoner Version

    Many have performed and recorded “Green, Green Grass of Home,” including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, The Grateful Dead, and Gram Parsons. It was first recorded by Johnny Darrell.

    But Porter Wagoner was the first one to have a hit with “Green, Green Grass of Home” in 1965. Check out this performance and note the subtle special effects where the prison bar shadows appear at the end.

    Tom Jones Version

    The next year in 1966, Tom Jones had a hit with the song.  His version went to number 1 on the U.K. charts.

    This TV rendition of the song goes for a less subtle approach than the Porter Wagoner shadows.  Here, Tom Jones sings from a jail cell. The setting of the song, though, kind of spoils the surprise ending.

    Jerry Lee Lewis Version

    Tom Jones was inspired to record “Green, Green Grass of Home” after hearing it on Jerry Lee Lewis’s 1965 album Country Songs for City Folk. While it is easy to remember Lewis’s place in rock and roll history, sometimes his excellent country work is overlooked.

    Here is Lewis’s version.

    Joan Baez Version

    Joan Baez gives a unique version by being one of the rare woman’s voices to tackle the song.  It is appropriate because there currently are approximately sixty women on death rows around the country.

    Baez does a nice job in this performance from The Smothers Brothers Show.

    Finally, in 2006, Lewis and Jones performed “Green, Green Grass of Home” together. While the lyrics of the song constitute a soliloquy that does not lend itself to being a duet, it was still cool to see the great Tom Jones singing with the legend who inspired him to record one of his biggest hits. [October 2014 Update: Unfortunately, the video of the duet is no longer available on YouTube.]

    Capital Punishment After “Green, Green Grass of Home”

    One may only speculate about the impact of the song on society or society’s impact on the song. But in 1965-1966 when the song was a big hit for Porter Wagoner in the U.S. and for Tom Jones in the U.K., the death penalty was at low levels of popularity in those countries.

    Great Britain would abolish the death penalty on a trial basis in 1965 and abolish it permanently in 1969. In the U.S., executions ground to a halt in the late 1960s as courts considered court challenges to the U.S. death penalty.

    Within a decade, after states passed new laws, the U.S. death penalty machine began chugging along in the late 1970s, even as other countries continued to abolish capital punishment. But more recently, since the turn of the century, several states have joined the other states and countries that have decided the death penalty is unnecessary, uncivilized, and wasteful of resources.

    Maryland has now joined those civilized states and countries. The end of the death penalty, unlike “Green, Green Grass of Home,” is not a dream.

    What is your favorite version of “Green, Green Grass of Home”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    When Bob Dylan’s Ship Comes In

    Dylan When the Ship Comes In

    When the Ship Comes In (live) – Bob Dylan (press play)

    During the summer of 1963, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were driving on a trip to perform together. During the trip, an incident occurred that would inspire one of Dylan’s great songs.

    A Hotel Stop

    On the road, Dylan and Baez were in ragged clothes when they stopped at a hotel for the night. At this point in their careers, Joan Baez was the more famous of the two nationally outside the folk community, although Dylan had recorded two albums and had his songs covered by several artists.

    The motel clerk recognized Baez and gave her a room, even though she was not wearing any shoes. But the clerk refused a room to Dylan because of his scraggly appearance. Baez was angry and stepped in on Dylan’s behalf, persuading the clerk to give a room to her unkempt companion.

    It must have been difficult for Dylan to face the rejection and then have to be saved by Baez, especially because he was just starting — or hoping to start — a relationship with her.

    When the Ship Comes In

    For someone with Dylan’s talents, though, the best revenge was his music. That night, in his hotel room, in his anger and humiliation, Bob Dylan sat down and began writing the following words:

    A song will lift
    As the mainsail shifts,
    And the boat drifts on to the shoreline;
    And the sun will respect
    Every face on the deck,
    The hour that the ship comes in.

    His new song, “When the Ship Comes In,” was a song of revolution that came out of a personal slight that evening. And Dylan was not in a forgiving mood.  He sang about the forthcoming change where chains will bust and fall to “be buried at the bottom of the ocean,” elevating his slight into something Biblical:

    Then they’ll raise their hands,
    Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands;
    But we’ll shout from the bow “your days are numbered,”
    And like Pharaoh’s tribe,
    They’ll be drowned in the tide;
    And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.

    The March on Washington

    Not many weeks after the motel incident, Dylan and Baez performed “When the Ship Comes In” at the March on Washington in August of 1963. So the song born out of pique at a hotel clerk took stage alongside Martin Luther King Jr. when he gave his “I Have a Dream” Speech.

    Thus, Dylan’s song framed MLK’s speech with the warning, “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”


    Revolutions are often borne out of personal slights. But personal slights are often symbols of the system, so there is nothing wrong with such a genesis. One instigation for the American Revolution was a tax on tea, but the tax was symbolic of something deeper. The Occupy Wall Street movement was fueled partly by people fed up with a system that has slighted them individually. Similarly, one can look at recent protests around the world to see movements that started small and grew into something unfathomable.

    The year after Dylan wrote “When the Ship Comes In,” the song appeared on Dylan’s The Times They Are A-‘Changin’ (1964) album, his first album of all original songs. Some of the themes of “When the Ship Comes In” are echoed in the title song of the album: “There’s a battle outside ragin’./It’ll soon shake your windows/And rattle your walls.” Maybe the battle does not rage in the U.S. like it did in the 1960s, but it still continues here and around the world.

    And that’s the story behind the song.

    Bonus Source Information: In Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home, Baez tells the story about the hotel and the “devastating” song, not Dylan. So he may have a different perspective on the night. In Keys to the Rain, Oliver Trager, who calls the Live Aid version above “botched,” notes that Dylan once explained that “When the Ship Comes In” was less about sitting down and writing a song than being a type of song “[t]hey’re just in you so they’ve got to come out.” A better live version of the song was recorded at Carnegie Hall on October 26, 1963, two months after the March on Washington performance. It is included on the soundtrack to the Martin Scorsese documentary on No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (The Bootleg Series Vol. 7).

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    Getting High on My Mortality: Sinéad Lohan

    I have so many songs tucked away on my iPod, sometimes while I listen to the songs shuffle in the background as I do my work, I hear a song mixed among the old friends that I don’t remember or one I did not connect to earlier and I have a new discovery. Today, I found a song by an artist who chooses to no longer make music. Today’s new discovery is Sinéad Lohan’s “Whatever It Takes.”

    The song came up on my iPod as part of a collection of acoustic songs from various artists. But here is the video for the original version, which is from Lohan’s No Mermaid (1998) album. I love the odd little dancing marionnette that you see around the 1:08 mark.

    Lohan is from Cork, Ireland, and in the 1990s was a rising star on both sides of the ocean. After her 1995 debut album, Who Do You Think I Am?, did well in Ireland, she made her second album, No Mermaid — which contains “Whatever It Takes” — in New Orleans. The title track of No Mermaid was used in the film Message in A Bottle, and Joan Baez covered it. Another creative person put Lohan’s No Mermaid song to scenes from The Little Mermaid even though the song was not used in that film:

    Lohan also created an excellent cover of Bob Dylan’s “To Ramona.”

    At one point, Lohan planned a third album in the new century, but after she had her second child in 2001, she decided to devote herself full time to motherhood. She no longer even has a website devoted to her music. Although it is a loss to the music world that Lohan no longer records, we cannot complain that Lohan chose family over creating more music, as we know from another Lohan and another Sinead how fame can un-ground a person. Perhaps the reason the song “Whatever It Takes” resonates so much is its honesty, where Lohan is perhaps telling us what type of life she would like and that she will do what she needs to be fulfilled without worrying about legacy or fans.

    Whatever it takes you to believe it,
    That’s all right with me;
    Take this morning in my kitchen,
    Or whatever that helps you to believe;
    You will find me down by the river,
    Getting high on my mortality;
    I’ll be holding hands with nameless beauty,
    Or whoever wants to stand next to me.

    Wikipedia reports that Lohan in 2004 began working on a new album that has yet to be released. Whether or not the we get to hear the CD, I hope Sinéad Lohan is somewhere singing for her children, high on mortality holding hands with nameless beauty. Thanks for the music.

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