This project started nearly a year ago with Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, so there’s a pleasing symmetry to finishing off with another giant of politically pointed American music. Joan Baez’s first, self-titled album is a collection of arrangements of traditional songs of various stripes. It’s just her and a guitar, telling stories, simple as you can get. After a year of pushing my musical boundaries – from Korn to K-pop – Joan Baez feels like coming home.
Once again I’m reminded that the folk music I love the most, in which genre I’m going to count this, is interesting to me because it has a mixture of nostalgia and social radicalism that seems counterintuitive. It’s not a paradox, in the end – if I’ve learned one thing this year, it’s that for many centuries, social change was backwards-looking, as if there was some wonderful past and we’d all be okay if only we could get back to how it used to be, before all these new people came and ruined it for everyone.
Joan Baez is a collection of old folk songs – American, English, Scottish, but also there’s a Yiddish one and one in Spanish. Some of them are quite obviously old as balls; some of them are familiar favourites; a few of them are new to me; and all of them are executed extremely simply. It’s just Baez with her soft soprano and a guitar, like there’s nothing very technical going on at all and someone just happened to press record. It’s deceptively simple, of course, but very skilled. And that goes for the politics, too.
Not to go all literary technique on you, but I know this song, and I like it a lot. I like the sound of it, and it’s a good old fashioned story about a girl with overprotective parents who threaten to stab anyone who presumes to be interested in her romantically. In most versions, someone gets stabbed, and it’s quite often their own fault for trying to climb through a window when they’ve explicitly been told not to. Baez’s version might be my new favourite, for all that it’s far less dramatic – it’s a great example of some judicious cutting out of the weird bits of old songs, to leave something that looks far more like a woman making a decision and her parents having her back. You can find nuggets of good in the very old, and there’s no shame in that judicious edit. You can take the old and turn it into something empowering. I like it in the same way I like Carter’s “Company of Wolves”. Only, more quietly.
“Mary Hamilton” is an old epic tragedy about a woman in sixteenth century Scotland who kills her baby. There is politics in nostalgia and there are new things to say in the old, and the starkly simple, and the oft-repeated. If I were ever a musician, I should like to have made something like this.
So that’s what I particularly like about this album. Sometimes it doesn’t quite work – I can’t tell if I have a problem with “House of the Rising Sun” in general, or I just don’t like this version. Keeping it simple isn’t always the best way to go: it’s perfectly possible to keep things too simple for their own good.
But all in all, this is great. This is my music. This is a place to come back to. Simplicity is great, sometimes, and it’s nice to finish the year off with a reminder that even though it’s good to leave it – and often – still, your own comfort zone is nothing to be afraid of.