Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Passion of Saint Joan: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part I

In his book Positively 4th Street, David Hajdu tells the story of when Joan Baez was hosting a dinner party for her friends, and spent the afternoon cooking a big pot of stew for them. Bob Dylan, her boyfriend at the time, came over early, and methodically ate all the meat out of the stew pot before anyone else arrived.

At this point, the career of Joan Baez is viewed almost entirely through the lens of her relationship with Bob Dylan. At first she was his champion, bringing him up onstage during her concerts, becoming his lover, paving the way for him to become one of the leading protest singers of the moment. Soon, however, he would overshadow her, although they continued to be connected - she released a double album of Dylan covers, Any Day Now, in December 1968, after he was already married and relocated to Woodstock.

It is a bit unfair to view her this way, because Baez was a big star prior to her association with Dylan, Her first album, Joan Baez, went gold before Dylan ever left Minnesota. 

On the other hand, would Baez be as well-known today absent her relationship with Zimmy? She only ever had two songs in the Top Forty – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a cover of a song done by a band closely associated with Dylan, and “Diamonds and Rust,” a chronicle of her romance with Dylan.  Her resurgence in the 1970s was helped along by her appearances on the Rolling Thunder Revue, where she sang some astonishing duets with Dylan, as eventually released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue(She didn’t get as much of a boost from appearing in Renaldo and Clara.) Her scarce hits don’t get played too much on oldies radio stations these days. Without the Dylan connection, she probably wouldn’t be much better remembered than Judy Collins, or maybe Phil Ochs.

That’s the thing about hitching your wagon to Dylan: He’ll help make people remember you, but along the way, he’ll eat all the meat out of your stew.

The Case For Baez was arguably the leading light of the folk revival of the early 1960s; her first three albums all went gold, and she was hailed as the Queen of Folk. She maintained her stature throughout the decade to the point that she performed at Woodstock, then even had some hits in the 1970s. Folk isn’t rock & roll, but it had a huge influence on the rock music of that decade and beyond, and Baez personally influenced some of its most important artists. She had an extraordinarily pretty voice. Those Sixties records may not have been pop hits, but “There but for Fortune” and “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” (among many others) are wonderful songs.

The Case Against Folk isn’t rock & roll. She never really crossed over into pop, much less rock & roll; as I said, she only had two Top Forty hits, and one of those peaked at Number 35.  It’s also easy to overstate her position spearheading the folk movement; the Kingston Trio took “Tom Dooley” to Number One in November 1958, while Baez was still in high school.

The Cool Factor In the early 1980s, Baez dated Steve Jobs, who was 14 years younger than her. She had enough juice to be on the cover of Rolling Stone as late as 1983; I bought that issue as a wee tot, read the interview, and still don’t quite understand what she had done to deserve that honor.

The Verdict I keep thinking of Baez in relationship to Loretta Lynn. Country music isn’t rock & roll either, but Lynn influenced generations of rock stars, from Linda Ronstadt to Jack White. She wrote much more of her own material than Baez did, and some of those were stone classics like “Fist City” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” She was at least as big a star in country as Baez was in folk, and country is a bigger deal than folk. What is the argument for inducting Baez and not Loretta Lynn? Can you make the case without saying "Bob Dylan"?

Meaning no disrespect to an important, accomplished artist and a highly admirable person, I vote no on Joan Baez.

Tom Nawrocki is a former editor at 'Rolling Stone' and the author of the novel 'What I Don't Know About Love.' You can read a sample chapter here


  1. Slightly surprised that your ballot would not include a vote for Baez. I gotta be honest, she wouldn't get my vote this year, either.

  2. How can you vote against St. Joan? There are other people in the hall who have had less influence on rock & roll than she has and at least one who outwardly professed a hatred of the music. I'm talking about Nat King Cole (whom I love) but Baez is far closer to rock than he and is more influential. Cole was great at what he did but neither his trio nor his later pop ballads had a lasting impression. If it wasn't for his famous Christmas song no one would remember him today. Christmas is Cole's reminder that he lived just as Dylan is Joan's. If he's in so should she.

  3. If the dividing line is "more rock than Nat King Cole," then most/all of the nominees on this year would make it in. Which is all well and good, but Tom only gets 5 votes.

  4. First of all, Nat King Cole is awesome, and "Nature Boy" is probably one of my Top Ten all-time favorite songs. But more importantly, the measuring stick for me is not whether Joan Baez is more worthy than Nat King Cole, or Lloyd Price, or Deep Purple, or anyone else who's not on the ballot this year. The question is whether she's one of the five best nominees from this year's slate.

  5. I agree with your evaluation, Tom.

    Joan Baez does have that long-running streak of social righteousness (or whatever you'd call it) going for her.
    Maybe that appeals to voters above and beyond her track record as a performer.

  6. I ultimately decided that Baez' political activism - which I find wholly admirable - was not especially relevant to her candidacy for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. When the time comes to decide on Coldplay, I won't consider their position on fair trade. Of course, reasonable people can differ on this.