To those who recall Joan Baez's entrance upon the Cambridge scene late in 1958, her first solo record offers proof that she is moving way out. Just where she will go is not clear, since she is still rather unknown outside of coffee houses, the Gate of Horn, and the Newport Folk Festival. But to those who must listen to folk music, Joan Baez is a welcome combination of robustness of voice, delicacy of expression, and tasteful guitar accompaniment.
Most of the popular folksingers today seem to think of themselves as the missing link between the hills, or the cotton fields, or Child, or wherever those songs come from, and the great Northern hordes clutching ticket stubs. If Miss Baez is no missing link, at least she is a quiet liason. Neither overly ethnic, nor over-arranged, she sings in a clear, narrative manner and her control of her extraordinarily rich voice achieves a highly dramatic effect.
An example of her versatility at communicating a variety of attitudes is her performance of two of the most beautiful songs in all of folk music, Fare Thee Well, with the melody of Dave Gude, a folksinger from Martha's Vineyard, and The House of the Rising Sun, which immediately follows it. Fare Thee Well is a moving declaration of a lover's farewell and vow to faithfulness, and Miss Baez's innocence and simplicity of delivery seem to embody that feminine virtue. Equally convincing, however, is the latter song, a ballad of a fallen woman, sung to a Negro tune widely known as Black Girl.
The record includes two ballads from the Francis James Child collection, Mary Hamilton and Henry Martin, and Miss Baez performs the former, a Scottish border ballad, with especial sensitivity. She does a Mexican song, El Preso Numero Nueve (The Ninth Prisoner) with all the verve and fire it was meant to have. Also included are two English broadsides, one of which, John Riley, deals with the classic theme of the lover returning home incognito to test his love's faithfulness.
My two favorite songs on the album are All My Trials, one of Miss Baez's first songs, and Donna Donna, a rather new one. Musicologists say that All My Trials originated years ago in the South, but it was rediscovered in the Bahamas. Miss Baez sings the lullaby with amazing warmth and tenderness. Fred Hellerman (of the Weavers) backs up her guitar, as he does on five other songs.
In Donna Donna, Miss Baez uses a flowing translation of a lyric song composed by Sholom Secunda for the Yiddish musical theatre. Although it has long been a favorite of Jewish folksingers, and was recorded recently by Theodore Bikel and Martha Schlamme, Miss Baez gives it a delicate, and very personal touch.
Joan Baez will not be a great big seller. English ballads are pretty esoteric stuff to most buyers. But the record is of undeniable quality, and has some stunning moments. It proves what many have been mumbling into their coffee for some time: that Joan Baez can be, if she wants, the very best in her field.