Thursday, April 1, 2010

For a Song: Barbara Allen

Joan Baez: Barbara Allen


I must be out of my mind. Last week was jazz singers week, and it was a labor of love for me. But it was a labor, a lot of work. So this week is folk music week. As before, there is this post, to be followed by an all folk Spotlight Special for the weekend post. And things will wrap up with a folk music album review. So, to get things rolling…

I was introduced to jazz singing by an artist I already knew for other music. Folk music was different. My parents emphasized classical music above all else, but there was still folk music around. We received radio signals from New York City, and one of the classical stations there had a folk show on Saturday nights, called Woody’s Children. Also, my parents had 78s by Paul Robeson. Now Robeson was not a folk singer, but much of his material was traditional, especially spirituals. Finally, I attended marches against the Vietnam War from age eight on, and so I got to hear Peter Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and many others I don’t even remember anymore. But all exerted a subtle influence on my musical taste, and all of this is a big part of why Oliver di Place sounds the way it does. Nevertheless, when I began to put together my own album collection, folk music did not have a place at first.

It was a friend in high school who made it OK for me to embrace folk music. He played cello, acoustic guitar, mountain dulcimer, and banjo. He could pick up pretty much anything with strings and make it sound good. At the height of the disco era, he was an oddball. But my friends and I in high school loved science fiction and Monty Python, and to fit in with us you had to be different. One of the first albums he played for me was by Joan Baez, and I had to have a copy of my own. It wasn’t easy to find in those days; there was no Amazon or even a Tower Records. Instead, I found it in good condition at a flea market. Treasure!

As I discovered the music of Joan Baez, I was immediately taken with the song Barbara Allen, and it is clearly still a favorite. The final image of the rose and briar intertwined introduced me to a kind of poetry I had never encountered before. I still find this to be one of the most hauntingly romantic lyrics I know.


maine character said...

I got this album back in '87 after reading about her in a Dylan biography, and really appreciated it. But it wasn't till just this year, when watching her American Masters show, that I got a much greater idea of who she is and what a great spirit lies behind that voice.

You can watch it on Netflix, where she talks about the dark lyrics that drew her to folk, and I'd also recommend Dylan's early poem about her, which appeared as liner notes to "Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2":

Ralph said...

Maine Character, thank you for that Dylan piece. It's been years since I saw it and the intervening time has added enough wisdom for me to understand it now...

I'm glad Joan Baez has kept adding to her audience over the years--by now she's something like the Tony Bennett of folk, a venerable presence lauded for her survival and continued relevance in spite of the almost total loss of the vocal quality that brought her to the world's attention in the first place. But you can't imagine the impact Baez had on legions of people who were young in the 60s, sick to death of the canned sounds of the Sinatras and the Martins and whatever else passed for popular music at the time. (We did like rock because at least it seemed authentic and it was "our" music.) And then came folk, and Joan Baez. Her early voice was breathtaking in its beauty, and she was so understated in its use and presentation that whatever person inhabited her body became lost in the music that voice was presenting. She had an uncanny ability to "become" whomever she was singing about in those old songs, and in so becoming, making those ancient people and their stories of daily trials, joys and disappointments, seem as current and as real as today's newspapers. As time passed Baez tired of the controlled madonna image she had cultivated and she branched out. She gave Bob Dylan to the world and "translated" him for those of us who at the time couldn't take the rough edges. In the process she lost that mystical presence. She was and is still a wonder to hear, but those earliest years of hers had to be experienced to be believed. We are so fortunate to have those old Vanguard recordings. Thanks, Darius, for this opportunity to reminisce.