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‘Joan Baez: The Last Leaf’ Book Excerpt: How the Folk Icon Ended Up on Vanguard

The remarkable life and trailblazing career of Joan Baez is the subject of Elizabeth Thomson's new biography, Joan Baez: The Last Leaf.

The remarkable life and trailblazing career of folk icon and activist Joan Baez is the subject of Elizabeth Thomson’s new biography, Joan Baez: The Last Leaf. Out Nov. 15 on Palazzo Editions in the U.S. and now in the U.K., the book includes a comprehensive discography from Grammy-nominated music historian Arthur Levy. Thomson, a London-based journalist and lifelong Baez acolyte, is a contributor to The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, the editor of Conclusions on the Wall: New Essays on Bob Dylan, the co-editor of The Dylan Companion, and the founder of The Village Trip, a New York-based festival that celebrates the rich musical history of Greenwich Village. In an excerpt of Joan Baez: The Last Leaf below, Thomson tells the story of how Baez – on the cusp of fame – ended up on Vanguard Records.

Albert Grossman, owner of the famed Gate of Horn club in Chicago, was in Boston checking out the scene. He heard Joanie and invited her to the Windy City for a two-week residency, reportedly offering her $200 a week. Money was the least of her concerns— being alone in an unfamiliar city and playing a nightclub frightened her. She went anyway, staying at the city’s YWCA. Bob Gibson, who played twelve-string guitar and banjo, was the MC, introducing new acts. Baez’s arrival in June 1959 was no less thrilling for Gibson than it was for Joanie, who had the added excitement of meeting her idol Odetta (“the first real folksinger in my life”) who dropped by the bar. She was “baffled, flattered and terrified” at the sense of being on the cusp of success, recognizing at the same time that “the cocktail crowd” was not for her. The Chicago Tribune wrote of “a Mexican songstress with sad eyes, long tresses and a steady guitar.”

Gibson thought her “very very exciting” and invited her to join him at the inaugural Newport Folk Festival the following month—George Wein, founder and co-producer, had told him the bill was full but Gibson knew he could get away with bringing her onstage once he’d done a few songs. Odetta and her husband Danny Gordon would accompany Baez to Rhode Island—the moment recalled years later by the two women in “Blues Improv,” performed at the New York concert to mark twenty-five years of Gerde’s Folk City. It rained every day at Newport, but Joanie’s enthusiasm remained undampened and she was thrilled to find herself rubbing shoulders with some of the great names of folk and blues. Among the stars that year were Earl Scruggs, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, The New Lost City Ramblers, The Kingston Trio, John Jacob Niles, and Pete Seeger, as well as Odetta.

There was an audience of some thirteen thousand in Freebody Park when Bob Gibson closed the show on Saturday, July 11. Joanie stood at the side of the stage in her Jesus sandals, “petrified” as she awaited his introduction. They sang two songs, the slow, almost languorous “Virgin Mary Had One Son,” which showcased Baez’s voice to perfection as it soared, almost ethereal, in harmony with Gibson’s. Then came the up-tempo and rhythmic “We Are Crossing Jordan River,” the singers working a sort of call and response, Joanie adding a hint of scat, as the song builds to its climax. It’s not quite note-perfect, but it is thrilling and you can feel the excitement in the audience long before they break into applause and cheers. She told Gibson: “I love the rhythm of these songs so much that I can hardly stand it.”

'Joan Baez: The Last Leaf': Book
Courtesy Photo

Joanie descended the stage to “an exorbitant amount of fuss.” Wein thought her gift “immediately apparent. She was an exceedingly talented vocalist, the Sarah Vaughan of folk-singing,” he wrote in his memoir Myself Among Others. “Instantly she became not only the great discovery, but also the living symbol, of the first Newport Folk Festival.” Among the critics present was Robert Shelton, the New York Times journalist who would chronicle the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene. He lauded her “achingly pure soprano,” a quote which would forever follow her.

As Baez headed home to Boston, the singer reflected on her moment. “I realised in the back of my mind and the center of my heart that in my book of destiny the first page had been turned,” she wrote a quarter-century later. Back at Club 47 the next week, lines snaked “right down the block and around two corners.”

Grossman returned. He was just getting into artist management and he saw folk music as the next big thing, telling Shelton that “the American public is like Sleeping Beauty, waiting to be kissed awake by the prince of folk music,” a metaphor that Baez, whom Gibson thought “puritanical,” might not have appreciated. But a new folk revival was taking root among the college generation and it would shortly sweep the nation, with Boston/Cambridge and New York City the East Coast hubs. Martin guitars, once available cheap in yard sales, were now much sought-after. Grossman would become very successful very quickly but Joanie wasn’t enamored, though she agreed to go with him to New York City to meet John Hammond, president of Columbia Records, who had signed Billie Holiday and created the all-star From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. She was put off by all the “shine and glitter” and the pressure there and then to sign a lengthy contract. She wanted to see Maynard Solomon of Vanguard Records who had already reached out to her.

Vanguard had been founded in 1950 by Maynard and his brother Seymour Solomon, left-wing Jewish intellectuals, with a loan of $10,000 from their father. They were both classical musicians and the first Vanguard release was Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, Bach’s twenty-first cantata. In the mid-fifties, with McCarthyism at its height, they signed Paul Robeson and The Weavers. All of that surely endeared Vanguard to Baez, but there was the additional attraction that Odetta was with the label.

Despite pressure, Baez told Grossman she needed a couple of days to think it over though in reality her mind was made up. She was comfortable with Vanguard, who as it happened had the rights to record the Newport Folk Festival from its inception in 1959. Helped in large part by the success of Joan Baez, who at one point had three albums in the Top 10, the label would become pre-eminent in the field of what’s now called Americana. Her decision made, Joanie returned home to Belmont, singing Tuesdays and Fridays at Club 47 for $25 a night, a princely sum in those days. By day she worked as a housemother in the kindergarten at Perkins School for the Blind, where Amelia Earhart had been a volunteer reader and Helen Keller a student.

Grossman was “mortified,” Siggins remembered, and having dispatched him, Baez began working with Manny Greenhill, a Boston-based impresario and “left-wing mensch” (as Siggins puts it) who came to folk music through his work as a union activist. He had founded Folklore Productions in 1957, presenting concerts by such figures as Josh White, Mahalia Jackson, and Pete Seeger, who he took on when he was blacklisted, both of them recognizing the pressures they would endure. Greenhill also looked after some of the great bluesmen now being discovered by a new generation, and he had a partnership with George Wein to turn the Mahogany Hall bar at Boston’s Copley Square Hotel into a folk café. Joan Baez was his first managerial client, though for most of their ten years together there was no written contract, merely an annual handshake. At the outset, he secured her jobs opening the second half of concerts with established artists, notably Pete Seeger—Very Early Joan captures them together.

Manny’s son Mitch Greenhill recalls that his father “had a sense of public service as well as a progressive political point of view. He once remarked at the number of blind artists he represented—felt he was being helpful. And Joan Baez certainly aligned with his politics, particularly in the struggles for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam . . . Joan was a pacifist, Manny was not. I think they agreed on the goals, a more just society, but not necessarily the means.” Manny Greenhill and the young woman who would become his premier client first met at a rally. “Al Baez was speaking as a scientist concerned about nuclear bombs. When Al introduced Joan to sing a few songs, Manny’s ears perked up. When Al moved on to a teaching gig in a different town, he asked Manny to look after his teenage daughter. Suddenly Folklore Productions had a new mission, artist representation,” recalled Mitch.