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Joan Baez: 1941—: Singer, Songwriter, Activist

Famous Songstress Gave Way To Impassioned Activist

Baez's self-titled debut album was released just as she left the East Coast—and her blossoming career there—to follow her parents to California. She was amazed as it rose to number three on the top 100 best-selling albums in the country. She ping-ponged back and forth from the East to West Coast to play sold-out concerts, and developed her reputation as an artist of strong moral conscience who was not interested in making commercial music. When Coca-Cola offered her $50,000 to appear in an ad, she declined on the principle that she did not even drink Coke. Her existence as a rebellious, anti-establishment young woman whose career was thriving almost totally out of context of the commercial music industry elevated her to the level of counterculture heroine. Her albums of the 1960s were highly influential. During this period, she was also battling the nervousness, anxiety, and self-described "demons" that had plagued her since her youth, visiting her psychiatrist up to four times a week.

Soon after its release, Baez's second album, Joan Baez, vol. 2, was doing better than her first. She toured often, and met a folk singer named Bob Dylan in 1961. She fell in love with him and the two performed together over the next few years, until the relationship dissolved. Baez has credited Dylan for moving her "out of the ethereal but archaic ballads of yore and into the contemporary music scene of the 1960s," she wrote in her autobiography. Though she has been known to bristle when Dylan comes up in interviews, the two reunited onstage in 1975 for Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and she appeared in his 1978 feature film, Reynaldo and Clara. By 1963 Baez was drawing crowds of up to ten and twenty thousand, and had added songs of the civil-rights movement to her repertoire, including "Amazing Grace," "Swing Low," "Oh, Freedom," and "We Shall Overcome." She headlined her first Newport Folk Festival in 1963. Her final all-acoustic record, Joan Baez 5, was released the next year. It produced the Grammy-nominated single "There But for Fortune." Her first three Vanguard recordings were certified gold in 1966. She published Daybreak, a memoir, in 1968.

As she became more successful, Baez began to realize that she could use her stardom to further her political beliefs. As she became increasingly politically active, Baez's career as a popular folk singer took a backseat to her activism. In 1964 she began a ten-year battle with the I.R.S., refusing to pay 60 percent of her taxes, the amount determined to be used for military purposes. After performing for President Lyndon Johnson, she urged him to withdraw troops from Vietnam. She was threatened during civil-rights protests with Martin Luther King, Jr., but her presence often drew the news media, which prevented any actual violence. She was jailed twice for her support of the anti-draft movement. In 1965 Baez founded the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence near her home in Carmel, California. Scholars, speakers, and activists visited the institute, and students came to learn about world affairs and the pacifist movement. During the mid-to-late 1960s, Baez embarked on her first tours of Europe and Japan. She was denied permission to perform at Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall for her anti-war activities in 1967, only to respond by playing instead a free concert at the foot of the Washington Monument to a crowd of 30,000. Her albums would later be banned from sale at Army PXs for the same reason. Baez met peace activist David Harris during another brief stint in jail for supporting the anti-draft movement. He was incarcerated for his activism, as well. The two married in 1968—it was called "The Marriage of the Century" by Time magazine—and had one child, Gabriel, but divorced in 1972.

Baez took the stage at Woodstock in the middle of the night, becoming part of history. Vanguard released a retrospective double-album in 1970 called The First Ten Years, and she headed back into the studio in 1971 to record Blessed Are…, the first album to feature a number of Baez's own songs. Though her popularity had gotten to a point where she "could sing whatever the hell I pleased, put it out with a homegrown picture on the cover, and have it make it to the charts," she wrote in And a Voice to Sing With, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," a single released in 1971 was her first big hit, earning gold-record status for sales. Parts of her highly political album Where Are You Now, My Son?, released in 1973, were recorded in North Vietnam. Baez herself edited 15 tapes, wrote one entire side of the album, played the piano, and sequenced recordings of bomb raids with her music. Where Are You Now, My Son? was the singer's final recording for the Vanguard label, and she switched to the larger A&M label, which she felt could better accommodate her needs. In 1974, in reaction to the coup in Chile and the assassination of Socialist president Salvador Allende, Baez released an album recorded in Spanish. Gracias a la Vida (Here's to Life), was intended as a message of hope for the people suffering under Pinochet. She began her affiliation with the human-rights organization Amnesty International in 1972.

As Americans tried to put Vietnam behind them and try to feel good about life once again, there was less and less room for a socially conscious folk singer like Baez in mainstream culture. Baez committed herself further to protests against human-rights violations. She founded Humanitas International, a human-rights group, in 1979, and convinced President Jimmy Carter to respond to the plight of Cambodian refugees. She headed Humanitas until the organization ceased operation in 1992. She was met with bomb threats on a 1981 fact-finding tour of Latin America, where she was forbidden to perform publicly. She later met with U.S. government officials in Washington, D.C. to discuss the state of human rights in South America. In addition to countless solo performances around the world on behalf of the human-rights movement, she toured to support Amnesty International. She also was involved in the 2000 Honor the Earth Tour organized by the Indigo Girls. Baez has earned numerous awards and honorary doctorates for her efforts and influence in the struggle for global human rights.

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: Miguel Angel Asturias: 1899-1974: Writer to Don Berrysmith Biography - Grew up in the Pacific NorthwestJoan Baez: 1941—: Singer, Songwriter, Activist Biography - Met Martin Luther King, Jr., Famous Songstress Gave Way To Impassioned Activist, Made Music For Music's Sake