Whatever your opinions on Joan Baez’s political views and social activism, there is little doubt that she has been one of the important figures in American folk music for the last 50 years and the possessor of one of music’s all-time purest voices.
Her coming out party was the 1959 and 1960 Newport Folk Festivals, the first as Bob Gibson’s unscheduled guest and the second as a solo performer. Just after her second appearance, she traveled to New York City to record her first solo album. She spent four days making the album in the ballroom of the Manhattan Towers Hotel, where many Vanguard label artists recorded due to the room’s live-feel acoustics. Released in October of 1960, it enjoyed little commercial success until two years later — once Baez had become a star — when it began a 140-week run on the Billboard Magazine Pop Album Chart.
Her self-titled debut was a typical folk album of the day. It consisted of 13 traditional folk songs, including “Silver Dagger,” “House Of The Rising Sun,” “Donna Donna,” “Wildwood Flower,” “Rake and Rambling Boy,” and “All My Trials.” The focus lay squarely on her voice as Baez provided the only instrumental accompaniment with acoustic guitar, save for some added acoustic playing by Fred Hellerman of The Weavers on several tracks.
It’s nice to have this historic album back in circulation. It has been reissued a number of times, in fact, and they all suffer from a little distortion on the high notes; this release is no exception. Since this is an ongoing problem, the issue is probably located in the source tape, which may well be the one used to create the original vinyl LP.
Ten bonus tracks included on this newest edition are essential for any Joan Baez fan — or collector of American folk music, for that matter — as they include performances that predate the release of her official debut. In 1959, Boston booking agent and concert promoter Manny Greenhill issued Folksingers ‘Round Harvard Square in a limited quantity on the small Veritas label. The album showcased the growing folk scene in the Boston area. It featured six solo performances by Baez, four each by local folksingers Bill Wood and Ted Alevizos, plus four duets between Baez and the men. All 10 of the Baez tracks are included here.
As far as I know, this particular collection of recordings has never been officially issued on CD. It was briefly reissued ’60s on vinyl in the ’60s, but through legal action Baez forced the set to be withdrawn and has never since consented to its release. Music falls into the public domain 50 years after its original recording, however, which has resulted in these performances once again seeing the light of day.
The sound of these 10 tracks is fine considering they were recorded in a tenement basement over a half century ago. The type of material is similar to her official debut but, interestingly, there are no duplicates. “Banks Of The Ohio,” “O What A Beautiful City,” “Sail Away Ladies,” “Black Is The Colour,” “Lowlands,” and “Virgin Mary (What You Gonna Call Your Pretty Little Baby)” were likely all part of her live act at this early stage of her career.
Bill Wood was a local folk singer and a Harvard undergraduate, while Ted Alevizos was a member of the Harvard faculty. Both have long since disappeared from the music scene, but they could sing, and here they leave their mark in these studio performances with the then-18-year-old Baez.
The Debut Album Plus is an essential early ’60s release. The music may underscore a simpler time but it remains historically significant, particularly in light of the turbulent era in which the U.S. would soon be immersed.