I get in musical ruts on occasion. I get preoccupied with an artist or artists & during these ruts nothing else sounds good. It’s part of my symptomatic musical OCD. Lately it’s been Bob Dylan & Joan Baez. I’ve gone on & on about Dylan ad nauseum on this blog. It’s no secret that I idolize the man’s music, it’s some of the most significant music of the last 50 years. Joan Baez can attest to this as she is often referred to as the “female Bob Dylan”. It is this point that I have chosen to take issue with. I like Joan Baez, I think she’s extremely talented with a great voice.
However, she is not the “female Bob Dylan”. What she may very well be is a Bob Dylan cover artist, but her own work does not stand up as significant in any sense of the word. That’s not to say she wasn’t a good songwriter. “In the Quiet Morning” about Janis Joplin is the best song she ever wrote & it’s her at her best. So this is not an Anti-Joan Baez piece. My point is merely to say that Joan Baez would not have made the in-rows she did make without covering half of Bob Dylan’s catalog & in doing this she not only gained a wider audience, but also pigeonholed herself into near cover artist status.
Many artists covered Dylan in the ’60’s: Hendrix, The Byrds, Richie Havens. The thing is they also had their own hits before going that route. Joan Baez covered Dylan so much & so often that Dylan himself commented on his relationship with Baez in Blonde on Blonde’s, “4th Time Around” when he sang “I never asked for your crutch / Now don’t ask for mine.”. Commenting on how when he was first starting out he did not ask for her help when she was an established folk star & he was emerging as the voice of a generation. Piggy backing onto someone else’s vision is rarely admirable, but always opportunistic.
Perhaps, it was meant as an homage to a once in a lifetime writer, but at what point does one’s own vision come forth & the homage end? I guess that’s the eternal question. Elvis & Sinatra never wrote their own music either, but again they never claimed to be anything other than that what they were, entertainers. Joan Baez entertains, but is not an entertainer. She is an activist, she seeks change with her art, but this belies another problem. How can one be an activist if their whole persona is built upon someone else’s work? It can’t, can it? I mean isn’t the whole point of being an activist to bring about change? Can change be achieved if you’re recycling old ideas? If the goal is to make the world a better place, then bastardizing someone else’s vision & making it your own is not a good start.
This is not a treatise on my dislike of cover songs. As I’ve said I’m a fan of cover songs & for the most part I enjoy Baez’ covers of Dylan’s music. I just feel it has an air of disingenuousness to it. I’ve railed against the use of the “sell-out” label, but if there ever was a case for someone selling out, it is Joan Baez. To go out on stage & claim to be anything but a performance artist is duping those that pay to see you for the sake of staying relevant. Joan Baez is a talented vocalist, but in terms of relevancy to the legacy of folk music she is little more than an afterthought.
UPDATE: As some readers have called me out on it was not Joan Baez that wrote “In the Quiet Morning” it was her sister Mimi Farina. Thanks for the heads up & I apologize for my lack of research.
North Country Blues – Joan Baez
In The Quiet Morning – Joan Baez
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere – Joan Baez
4th Time Around – Bob Dylan