Joan Baez, in Exquisite Reflection, Finds a New Voice

Whistle Down the Wind demonstrates that the songs we cover sometimes say more about our present state than the songs we write ourselves.

Joan Baez’s medium is emotional interpretation. On her new album of covers, Whistle Down the Wind, her poeticism is evident in the songs she selects. If a writer benefits from a rich and expansive vocabulary, an artist who paints with emotions and experience can only benefit from a palette that encompasses the widest range of hues, as exemplified by the catalog of songs she beautifully interprets on this record. In the songs she chose to record for her first album in 10 years—the album which is the focus of what she claims will be her final tour—I hear classic Joan Baez: folk singer and activist in equal parts, with distinct themes of transition, reflection, and acceptance. As an artist who sometimes plays other people’s songs, I often think the songs we choose to cover sometimes say more about our present state than the songs we write. When I connect with a song so deeply that I feel the need to make it my own, it’s because the song speaks to me wherever I am, in that exact moment. The songs I write are based on my own experience, but the experience might be from years ago, or draw on a recurring pattern in my life. They can be influenced by any number of external pressures, like an upcoming album release, or polluted with my own internal judgment and dialogue. When I connect with a song written by someone else, it is often because that song perfectly encapsulates whatever I am feeling at that exact moment. As I listen to each song on this album, I wonder if the same is true for Baez.

In many ways, the album is exactly what I would expect from the artist I understand Joan Baez to be. The style alternates between folk songs and political anthems. “Be of Good Heart” and “Silver Blade,” written by Josh Ritter, are reminiscent of her earliest traditional folk songs, and the song “Silver Dagger,” from Baez’s first album, was likely on Ritter’s mind when he wrote “Silver Blade” for her. The progression of the story is interesting—whereas the knife is held by the young girl’s mother in 1960’s “Silver Dagger,” the blade in this present-day song belongs to the singer herself, responsible for her own love and her own fate.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to have a 50-year career, especially the one of an artist as iconic as Joan Baez. Whether marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, being arrested in Oakland for encouraging young men to resist the draft during the Vietnam War, or taking shelter in Hanoi during a carpet bombing, Baez has actively and outspokenly protested and participated in the issues, beyond the scope of any other mainstream artist in history, so it is not surprising that she chose to interpret Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace.” Written about President Obama’s response to the Charleston church shooting, the song is a moving and distressingly relevant tribute, especially given the inevitable comparison between our former and current leaders’ reactions to the ongoing plague of mass shootings in our country.

While most of the songs are straightforward in meaning, “Civil War” by the album’s producer Joe Henry feels more personal than political, though it’s not entirely clear what the song is about. The song combines poetic lines like, “Christmas mornings and New Year’s Days / They flood with dreams and drift away / They cling to logs and cupboard doors / Riding out this Civil War,” with a beautiful melody, and Baez’s delivery, creating a perfect demonstration of her magical ability to inject the emotion she feels directly into the heart of the listener; in this case turning a song that is somewhat vague in its meaning into a mournfully nostalgic and powerful moment.

“Another World” by Anohni is one of the more intriguing choices among Baez’s covers. The original version of “Another World” is mournful, haunting, and sparse. Baez replaces the painfully emotional piano with a more straightforward guitar-based accompaniment, with a result that feels less tragic and more accepting. It sounds as if Baez is singing to us with the confident, knowing smile of someone who is unafraid of whatever comes next.

Another standout is the title track, a take on Tom Waits’s “Whistle Down the Wind.” Its waltz tempo and Celtic-influenced verse melody recall the folk songs of Baez’s early career, like “Farewell, Angelina” and “Henry Martin,” but its weightier and more personal subject matter is befitting of this stage of her life. I feel the emotion in her delivery of lines like, “I can’t stay here and I’m scared to leave,” and while it might be my own projection, lines like this certainly seem to speak to the transitional nature of this time in her life and career. While her performance carries intense emotional weight and power, it also feels comfortably detached, as if she is living every word—every line; experiencing the memories and emotions without clinging to them.

Baez admittedly identifies with the darkness of life—she recently commented that Tom Waits is “as exquisitely gloomy as I am,” and she does not shy away from it in the songs she chose to share, but her voice now conveys a mellow acceptance, without the immediacy of her earlier tone.

This is partly a function of vocal range and texture, which has obviously changed throughout the years. The instantly identifiable, bell-like soprano of her youth has become lower, warmer, raspier, and more fragile in the higher range, and somehow even more intimate in its current embodiment. Unlike some voices that seem worn by way of abuse, the changes in Baez’s voice feel like the result of earned knowledge.

Throughout the album, the instrumentation is minimal, mostly acoustic, and there are no harmonies, keeping all focus on the vocals, exactly where it should be for an artist like Joan Baez. Whistle Down the Wind is a beautiful portrait of an iconic artist at this stage in her life, in advance of her last tour. It also recalls how Baez speaks openly about the challenge age presents on the physical nature of singing; in a recent LA Times interview, she mentioned a conversation with her vocal coach, whom she asked how she will know when it’s time to stop singing. “He said, your voice will tell you. It’s just gotten more and more difficult to do what I need to do to keep the voice even respectable.” Still, I certainly hope she continues to record, because the truth and vulnerability in her soulful voice and interpretation will never grow old to me.

Terra Naomi is an indie-folk-rock singer and songwriter from New York and Los Angeles, known for winning the inaugural YouTube Award for Best Music Video. “Machine Age,” the first single from her new album (coming September 2018), was recently hailed as “the first truly great song to come at the expense of the world’s collective sanity.” (Jubilant). Follow her on Twitter here,  Facebook here, Instagram here, and listen to “Machine Age” and the follow-up single, “Nothing to Hide,” on on Spotify.