Feliz Cumple, Joan Baez: A Truly American Story

Today Joan Baez turns 73. One of the original activist performers of the 1960s, Baez is adored by millions, yet we venture to guess that very few people know about her family and personal history.

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Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, 08/28/1963

Here are just some interesting facts about Baez’s life:

Baez was born Joan Chandos Baez on January 9 in Staten Island, New York, to Albert Vinicio Baez and Joan Bridge Baez. Albert was born in Puebla, Mexico and his wife is from Scotland. Albert’s bio was impressive to say the least:

Born in Puebla, Mexico, and reared in Brooklyn, Dr. Baez served as president of Vivamos Mejor (Better Living), an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life through science-based education and community development projects in Mexico.

A distinguished academic with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Drew University, a master’s in math from Syracuse University and a doctorate in physics from Stanford University, he taught physics at Drew, Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Redlands and Stanford, among others.

While a doctoral student at Stanford, he co-invented the X-ray reflection microscope, which is still used for medical purposes and to take X-ray pictures of galaxies.

In 1951, he worked for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), moving with his family to Iraq, where he was director of the UNESCO mission there and a professor of physics at Baghdad University.

The Baez family eventually moved to California in 1951. Young Joan graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1958, and then the family moved to Belmont, Massachusetts, a town that bordered Cambridge and the growing folk music scene. Joan begins to perform locally, winds up at the Newport Folk Festival and then in 1961 meets Bob Dylan.

Baez continues to record and also gets involved in the civil rights moment. Then she makes the cover of TIME in 1962:

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In 1964, Baez took a stand few know about today. As her official web bio states:

Joan protests U.S. involvement in Vietnam by withholding 60% of her income taxes, the amount determined used for military purposes. The Internal Revenue Service responds by placing a lien against her. She continues to withhold portions of her taxes for the next ten years. And after performing for President Johnson in Washington, she urges him to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam. Joan also continues her civil right work by appearing at a benefit concert at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, protesting the state’s Proposition 14 which would allow segregated housing, and she becomes involved with the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley. As the students take over Sproul Hall, Joan instructs them to “Have love as you do this thing and it will succeed.” The police wait until she departs the building before moving in and arresting 800 students.

Baez’s illustrious career has continued to grow as well as her activism. You can read more highlights here, but one thing that really strikes us is that Baez has never forgotten her roots, even rediscovering them later in life. As a 2009 news story states:

Despite Baez not learning the language as a child, Spanish has played an important role in her music from the very beginning of her career. After her star-making appearance at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, she released her self-named Vanguard Records debut, a haunting session of blues and folk ballads, including the Mexican lament, “El Preso Número Nueve” (“Prisoner Number Nine”). Looking back, Baez acknowledges that including a song in Spanish wasn’t a coincidence.

“I learned it off an album I heard at my boyfriend’s house while I was pretending to be in school,” she says, referring to her brief tenure at Boston College. “I knew I could imitate any language, and yes, maybe it’s significant that I chose Spanish. I knew it was in my blood. I wasn’t going to learn a German song.”

When she returned to “Número Nueve” on her 1974 Spanish-language album “Gracias a la Vida (Thanks to Life),” Latin America had taken a dire turn, with military regimes perpetrating widespread human rights abuses. Baez recorded the album as a gesture of solidarity with Chileans persecuted after the 1973 coup.

A song that made a particular impression was “Te Recuerdo Amanda (I Remember Amanda)” by Chilean songwriter Victor Jara, who was tortured and killed in the bloody days after Salvador Allende’s overthrow.

“At that point the music became a part of me,” says Baez, who was outspoken in her opposition to U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. She never let her support for progressive causes compromise her sense of identity, though, an independent streak that a radical Chicano group discovered when it tried to push her on its bandwagon.

“This is typical of my stubbornness,” Baez recalls. “I was working with César Chávez, and these Brown Berets wanted me to say with them, fists in the air, ‘Brown power!’ I raised my fist and said, ‘Not any more than I feel Scots power,’ ” a reference to her Scottish-born mother.

Here is a vintage video of “El Preso Número Nueve.”

Feliz cumpleaños, Joan.

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