After playing to coffee houses around Boston in the late 1950s, Joan Baez got her big break when she appeared at the 1959 folk festival at Newport, Rhode Island, where the pretty girl with the angelic voice astounded the crowd. With fellow singer (and erstwhile boyfriend) Bob Dylan, Baez helped to popularise folk music.
Her religious beliefs as a Quaker also made her a committed opponent of war and racial discrimination, and she stood up for her convictions in life as well as in her songs.
Her self-titled debut album in 1960 was a collection of traditional folk songs, including a number of Scottish ballads (Baez’s mother was Scottish while her father was Mexican).
The album eventually charted at #15 in the US in 1962, and at #9 in the UK as late as 1965.
Her second album (Joan Baez Vol 2) was actually her first album to chart in the US and Baez headlined the first Monterey Folk Festival in 1963, also introducing her protégé Dylan. Later that year, her debut chart single (We Shall Overcome) peaked at #90 in the US but became a national anthem for civil rights and anti-war protesters around the country.
In 1964 Baez refused to pay 60% of her income tax in protest at government spending on weapons.
At the same time, she began appearing at civil rights demonstrations and on picket lines protesting racial discrimination.
In October 1967 she was arrested and jailed for 10 days for blocking the entrance to the Armed Forces Induction Center at Oakland, California in protest against US involvement in the Vietnam War.
A year late, Baez and her mother were sentenced to 45 days in prison for taking part in another anti-war demo.
Joan married draft resister David Harris (the leader of Peace and Liberation Commune) in March 1968, but Harris was to spend half of their three-year marriage in jail for draft evasion.
During that time, she released an album entitled David’s Album, comprising a collection of songs dedicated to her imprisoned husband.
Over the next four years, she continued to play at large folk festivals and to release successful records – all with some message of protest. Baez – six months pregnant at the time – took to the stage at Woodstock as the last act of the first day.
During her set, she paid musical tribute to immigrant labour worker Joe Hill and performed her covers of We Shall Overcome and Swing Low Sweet Chariot.
At the end of 1972, she travelled to Hanoi, North Vietnam, to distribute Christmas gifts and letters to US prisoners of war. In 1973, Baez devoted one side of her Where Are You Now, My Son? album to an audio documentary about the US bombing campaign in Vietnam.
Joan Baez remained a tireless campaigner for peace causes throughout the 80s and 90s, always taking an active role rather than paying lip service to the cause.
In 1993 she undertook a short tour of Croatia, playing to refugees from the back of a truck, and stated, “my devotion to social change will go on until I fall into the grave”.
Beginning in 2001, Baez had several successful long-term engagements at San Francisco’s Teatro ZinZanni (a circus dinner theatre on the historic waterfront at Pier 29). She continued to release quality albums and, in 2009, played at the 50th Newport Folk Festival.
Politically, she has remained active and vocal in her opposition to the war in Iraq and the California death penalty, amongst other causes.
In March 2011 she was honoured by Amnesty International with an award for Outstanding Inspirational Service in the Global Fight for Human Rights.
The award has been named the Amnesty International Joan Baez Award.