The Joan Baez Songbook: a Girl’s Guide to Love, Sex, & Betrayal

Recently I found and bought a copy of the old Joan Baez Songbook, circa 1964, at Book Haven in Monterey. That brought back memories. In my early teens, I bought the book to teach myself how to play guitar. While I did learn to play guitar (great songs, easy chords), there was much in the book that I could’ve learned then, but somehow didn’t–and I’m not talking about playing guitar. However, it did give me a preview of adult (and sometimes childhood) life and its travails.

The songbook came out after a long period of dormancy for women who, in the 1960s, were feeling their frustration. No perky Doris Day songs here; the Joan Baez Songbook drew from folk lyrics and laments that lay bare the grief and frustration of men, and especially women, throughout the ages.

The intro by John M. Conley reveals how difficult it was then for women to pull away from a sexualized and romanticized public focus, and to be taken seriously as an artist. In the opening paragraph, he writes, “The paramount fact about Joan Baez is beauty. She has it; she generates it; and she uses it. Lest this seem rhapsodical, be it admitted that she is a human being, with impulses, frailties, and foibles, perhaps even a little young wickedness. But the gospel is beauty.” He goes on like this–focusing on her appearance–for the next three paragraphs, mentioning “the dusk of [her] long hair,” the “deep topaze” of her eyes, her “lithe dancer’s body,” as well as her odd habit of wearing “purposely shapeless” dresses not unlike “gunny sacks” onstage — before finally discussing her musicianship.

Beauty and love rarely succeed in these (mostly traditional) folk songs. If not betrayal in love, then war, death, or opposition by parents pulled lovers apart–or sometimes just plain stubborness. In “The Water is Wide,” the singer laments, “I leaned my back against an oak / Thinking it was a mighty tree / But first it bent and then it broke, / So did my love prove false to me.” I seem to remember that the song, “I Never Will Marry” did at one point influence me to tell a boy that I never wanted to marry (so much for youthful claims!). “I never will marry / I’ll be no man’s wife / I intend to live single / All the days of my life.”

The “Child Ballads” were not very happy either. “Ah, my Geordie will be hanged in a golden chain” (“Geordie”) points to the death by hanging of a young poacher. In another song, young “Matty Groves” beds a nobleman’s wife, and gets stabbed to death by the husband.

Illustration by Eric Von Schmidt

Eric Von Schmidt’s collage illustrations instructed me about the attractions and the dangers of eros; a number of images expressively rendered women nude, or half-nude, or with bosoms nearly bursting from bodices. In all cases, these pictures accompanied songs in which violence, betrayal or loss was the theme. In “The Lily of the West,” Flora is down on her knees, breasts heaving, hysterical as two men go at each other with knives.

In at least two songs, women were dressed as men: in “Jackaroe” a woman accompanies her man as he goes to war (of course, he is killed), and in “Ranger’s Command” by Woody Guthrie, she joins a gunfight against cattle rustlers.

The folksong laments and high drama of the Songbook were a nice respite from all the “Goin’ to a Chapel and I’m Gonna Get Married” songs of the 1950s, and–her amazing voice aside–Joan Baez’s presence in the 1960s was a breath of fresh air for women. A photograph of her on page 9 said it all to me. No cinched waist, no girdle, and likely no makeup. She is facing away from the camera, walking off barefoot through a field wearing one of her “gunny sack” dresses, with her guitar slung over her shoulder. It was a good moment.

Babe, I got to ramble,
You know I got to ramble,
My feet start goin’ down and I got to follow,
They just start goin’ down, and I got to go.

–“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” by Anne Bredon

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2 Comments

2 thoughts on “The Joan Baez Songbook: a Girl’s Guide to Love, Sex, & Betrayal

  1. Martin Turner

    “Joan Baez’s presence in the 1960s was a breath of fresh air for women.”

    And for some men (like this one) as well, I might add. Although I was disappointed when she married David Harris. What about all that fine independence, I thought.

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