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Folk singer Joan Baez going strong at 75

Folk singer Joan Baez going strong at 75

Joan Baez has always seemed like a person who is quietly but firmly in control, and at 75 years of a
Folk singer Joan Baez going strong at 75
Joan Baez performs "Gracias a la Vida" during the tribute show "Joan Baez: 75th Birthday Celebration" at the Beacon theater in New York, Jan. 27, 2016.
Photographer: Hiroyuki Ito/The New York Times

Joan Baez has always seemed like a person who is quietly but firmly in control, and at 75 years of age she remains, as New York Times critic Stephen Holder wrote earlier this year, "the mother of us all."

The iconic folk musician and social activist who first performed publicly in 1958 at Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Baez remains a powerful figure and seems fit and as magnetic as ever, having already played 12 concerts this month over the eastern half of the U.S. On Friday she'll perform at The Egg in Albany before her current tour closes in Buffalo on Saturday.

Wanda Fischer, host of WAMC-Northeast Public Radio's "Hudson River Sampler," grew up in Boston and saw one of Baez's first shows at Club 47.

’An Evening with Joan Baez’

WHERE: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday

HOW MUCH: $68-$58 (concert is sold out)

MORE INFO: 473-1845, theegg.org

"She had that crystal clear voice that could stop a train," said Fischer. "I know she's celebrating her 75th birthday, but she seems to be going strong. I heard her sing at Pete Seeger's 90th birthday a few years back and she still sounded great. Her voice might be a tad lower, and her range might be a bit lower, but she still sounds phenomenal."

Moved to Boston

Baez, a Staten Island native who moved to Boston with her parents as a young child, was a hit at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival and recorded her first album, "Joan Baez," in 1960. Singing a collection of traditional folk ballads and blues while strumming her guitar, Baez became the face of folk music in the early 1960s. Her second and third album went "gold," and while she wrote a number of her own songs, she often performed material written by other musicians, including Bob Dylan.

"Joan and Judy Collins were the two women, prior to Joni Mitchell, who were the big folksingers at the time," remembered Fischer. "And Joan was doing a lot more of the traditional stuff. She was the one who opened a lot of eyes to the wider world of folk music, and she was also singing a lot of Dylan music. She was the first real star of folk music."

Baez's music occasionally worked its way onto the American pop charts. Her version of "The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down" reached No. 5 in the U.S., and she also had minor pop hits with her own "Diamonds and Rust" in 1975 and Phil Ochs' "There but for Fortune" in 1965.

View on politics

Baez is still the social activist she always was. In Birmingham, Alabama, for a concert last Saturday night, she gave reporters her view on the presidential race.

"I think there isn't anybody, any intelligent person, who isn't shocked and surprised and appalled," she said, referring to Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. "Why people are willing to listen to a demagogue with all the vile stuff going on around him ... these troglodytes.. that's the most frightening thing to me."

Enduring popularity

Cosby Gibson, a Capital Region folk musician who calls the Adirondacks home, has performed at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Pete Seeger's Beacon Sloop Festivals in Beacon and the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale. She says there are many reasons for Baez's enduring popularity.

"She's a bit before my time, but I admire her and think she's a lovely performer," said Gibson. "I know she was influential, and I think what makes her popular is that her songs have strong messages, particularly in the late 1960s. I also think people are fascinated by her relationship with Bob Dylan. Her influence on my performances would be that through her work she earned respect from audiences for future solo acoustic artists."

Dan Berggren, another Capital Region folk musician, is also a fan.

"I grew up hearing Joan as part of the folk chorus," he said. "I've always admired the strength, beauty and purity of tone in both her singing voice and her political voice."

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]

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