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Joan Baez: 1941—: Singer, Songwriter, Activist Biography

Met Martin Luther King, Jr., Famous Songstress Gave Way To Impassioned Activist, Made Music For Music's Sake

Joan Baez: 1941—: Singer, songwriter, activist.

She began her career as a talented singer-songwriter, but Joan Baez became an icon of the 1960s civil-rights movement, and the "Queen of Folk Music." Young, sincere, and talented, she was featured on the cover of Time magazine, launching her as a significant folk singer. Baez became one of the leading voices of social consciousness and the civil and human rights struggle of the 1960s and 1970s. Her singing the anthemic "We Shall Overcome" at concerts and protests virtually defined the era. Throughout her career, her commercial success has been greatly eclipsed by her political activism, though she released some of her most commercial music, "The Night They Drove Dixie Down" and Diamonds and Rust, in the early 1970s.

Baez, the second of three daughters of Albert, a Mexican-American physicist, and Joan (Bridge) Baez, a Scottish drama teacher, was born on January 9, 1941, in Staten Island, New York, and raised in various parts of California and New York. She was a talented artist from an early age, drawing her family members and images of their travels, as well as popular Disney characters. Her father, a pacifist, struggled with his conscience as he tried to reconcile his work for defense—for which he was well paid—with the implications of it. He eventually took a job with UNESCO, to teach and build a physics lab at the University of Baghdad. Recalling the violent and impoverished city of Baghdad, Baez speculated that this may be where her passion for social justice was born.

Back in high school in Northern California, Baez was a sensitive and politically aware misfit in a school dominated by football players and cheerleaders. She also stood out for her skin color, a warm brown in a sea of white faces—even her sisters had fair complexions. Though she sang in her school choir, it was rejection from the girls' glee club that moved Baez to improve her singing voice. While also studying the ukulele—country and R&B tunes were her favorites—it took her one summer of singing in the shower to achieve the "mature" voice she was after.

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