I Wish the Wars Were All Over is the last song on Joan Baez’s new album Whistle Down the Wind.
It is a lament from a woman to her lover, gone to war in another country, a future unknown, a present bereft.
“My billy has left to fight for a king/and I wish the wars were all over.”
Baez sings it with poignancy, intimacy and empathy for the woman. She puts blood, flesh and heart onto the words. As she has always done. In that moment of joining words and music – a simple acoustic arrangement – she is transported, as is the song, to us. It is what Baez has been doing for more than half a century.
I Wish the Wars Were All Over is the final song on the final studio album recorded by Baez, if her intimations in recent interviews are fulfilled. The song is truly a bookend to a career, which unlike any other, has married art and activism.
The arrow has flown straight, through winds of change and tumult, for 60 years.
Whistle Down the Wind is released on Friday. March 2, and on that date she will begin her final tour, called “Fare Thee Well” (a song from her first album in 1960), taking in Europe and America.
Joan Baez turned 77 in January. Her last studio album before this one – Day After Tomorrow – was released 10 years ago. (A double CD was released in 2016 from a concert celebrating her 75th birthday.)
Baez has been unwavering in her commitment to the integrity of her musical vision and leading a life true to that vision. The arrow has flown straight, through winds of change and tumult, for 60 years. If Whistle Down the Wind is, indeed, her final work it is also one of her finest. The stunning soprano has, of course, succumbed to time. Her pitch has lowered, but her voice is still as strong in passion.
The album was produced by Joe Henry over 10 days, which is fast work to cut a 10-sided diamond. The songs are all covers – from Tom Waits/Kathleen Brennan, Josh Ritter, Joe Henry, Tim Eriksen, Anohni, Zoe Mulford, Eliza Gilkyson and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
In the liner notes to Baez’s first album, released in 1960, Maynard Solomon, co-founder of Vanguard records, wrote: “On the surface, hers seems to be a personal art. But her special quality is that she has succeeded in mirroring so many of the emotional states and so much of the outlook of her generation. And it this which lends depth to her personal vision. It is an indefinable quality, really, for one cannot adequately characterise her contemporaries with easy words like ‘aspiration’, ‘yearning’, ‘non-conformity’, humanism’, ‘rebellion’. They have all of these qualities and more. The heart of Joan’s message is a kind of soft but unyielding affirmation, a sort of folksinging non-violent resistance where the related threads of love and freedom run sweetly, sadly, unforced, without self-pity.”
The voice may be timeworn, but it does not sound weary. It sounds lived in.
And of her soprano voice there was “no break from the lowest to the highest registers, a choir boy’s pure projection linked with an intense vibrato, a clear diction and a surpassing ability to grasp the communicative essence of every song’’.
Now the soprano is only heard briefly, in slivers of breaking ascending wavers. Perhaps this is as it should be. The years wash smooth the rock, reshape it. The voice may be timeworn, but it does not sound weary. It sounds lived in, and who in music has journeyed farther down the highway of music and message and never taken their eyes off the road?
The expanse of Baez’s career is astounding. She began in the late ‘50s when Eisenhower was president and has then seen off JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush snr, Bill Clinton, George Bush jnr and Barack Obama. Now she is in the time of Donald Trump, an empty vessel, she says, whose only quality is narcissism.
Baez’s star began to rise at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. Her second and third albums went gold. She was on the cover of Time in 1962. She introduced the world to a young folksinger from the Mid-West named Bob Dylan. Their stars aligned for a few years – the king and queen of the folk/protest movement, and lovers – until he went electric and everything changed. Dylan has praised her song Diamonds and Rust on their relationship.
Early on in her career, Baez was asked how she would describe herself: Human being, pacifist, folksinger, she replied.
She was not only a witness to some of the tectonic events in American history, she was in the middle. She was pivotal. Art was not isolationist, art was life; it was the struggle, the victory, the defeat. Above all, it was the beauty and power to inspire the movement of souls. In working for change, she was part of a line that included Pete Seeger and Odetta.
Baez walked alongside Martin Luther King jnr, she sang We Shall Overcome at the civil rights march to Washington in 1963 (as did Dylan and Odetta); she went to the recruits to the Vietnam War as they were being sent away and told them they didn’t have to fight. She was arrested, thrown in jail, but returned to fight another day. She always returned. If not for her countrymen and women, but for those elsewhere who were pawns in the game of war. She visited Sarajevo in 1992, and sang We Shall Overcome acapella on the city street.
Baez has carried that song with her nearly all her life. There is the meaningful song, she has said, and there is a meaningful life, too. She is the coalescing of both. There are highs, such as having a hit with The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and there are highs of consequence.
And still she is tapping into the tenor of the times.
David Crosby, while not only admiring Baez’s musical skills, has spoken of her ethical and moral stance in the world. Jackson Browne, speaking at her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, said: “To track Joan Baez’s involvement in human rights and social justice is to chart the evolution of our own moral awakening and of our own growing planetary consciousness.”
Baez responded: “My voice is my greatest gift. I can speak freely about the uniqueness of it precisely because it’s just that. A gift. The second greatest gift was the desire to use it the way I have since I was 16 and became a student and practitioner of nonviolence, both in my personal life and as a way of fighting for social change. It has given my life deep meaning and unending pleasure to use my voice in the battle against injustice.”
And sometimes the voice emerges, unexpectedly, from deep within, not as song but as release. When Baez first visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, with its more than 58,000 names of those dead or missing inscribed on it, she touched it, but she said she wanted to go within, deeper than mere hand on surface. And then she screamed.
And still she is tapping into the tenor of the times. One of the songs on the new album is a cover of Zoe Mulford’s The President Sang Amazing Grace. It is based on the visit by Obama to the funeral service of Clementa Pinckney, a pastor killed with eight others in a Charleston church in South Carolina in 2015. After speaking of the virtues of grace and of the pastor (“He was full of empathy and fellow feeling, able to walk in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.’’) Obama sang Amazing Grace.
Baez told Rolling Stone: “I was just driving and I heard that song and I just pulled over. It’s so expressive of my thoughts and feelings, which are pretty fucking gloomy, but she (Mulford) did it in such a beautiful way that’s as dark as it is beautiful.’’
In 2015, the Library of Congress selected Baez’s debut album Joan Baez for the National Recording Registry. That same year Amnesty International gave her the Ambassador of Conscience Award. On receiving the award, Baez said: “No serious change happens unless people are willing to take a risk.”
That is the beauty of her voice.