Album of the Week, July 10: Diamonds and Rust by Joan Baez

BaezD&RJoan Baez was born on Staten Island in 1941. Her parents were both immigrants — her father from Mexico and her mother from Scotland — and she grew up steeped in their culture and music. The family converted to Quakerism when she was a child, something that shaped her lifelong pacifism and interest in social justice. She also developed an early interest in music, sparked in part by the reactions to her clear, beautiful voice. After attending a Pete Seeger concert at age 13, she found a way to merge her passions and began pursuing a career in music. She performed at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival and landed a contract with Vanguard records. After achieving some success, she met an up-and-coming folk singer named Bob Dylan. They began a complicated life-long friendship and a short on-and-off romance. Her time with Dylan deepened her interest in protest folk and her passion for blending music and political action. She refused to perform at segregated venues, donated her services to protest events, and performed at Woodstock. By 1974, she was a force to be reckoned with in music circles, known equally for her powerful voice and strong opinions. Reconnecting with Dylan, taking stock of her career, and turning her political lens to more intimate issues, she entered the studio with producer David Kershenbaum and a crack band, including jazz greats Larry Carlton and Tom Scott, and recorded her most powerful — and best-selling — album.

Title Diamonds & Rust
Act Joan Baez
Label A & M Release Date April 1975
Producer David Kershenbaum
U.S. Chart  #11 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Diamonds and Rust [#35]
  2. Fountain of Sorrow
  3. Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer
  4. Children and All That Jazz
  5. Simple Twist of Fate
  6. Blue Sky [#57]
  7. Hello In There
  8. Jesse
  9. Winds of the Old Days
  10. Dida
  11. I Dream of Jeannie / Danny Boy

Best known for recording traditional music and other people’s writings, she provided four of her own songs on this disc, contributing to its intimate feel. The first of these launches the album in fine form. The title track wa inspired by a phone conversation with Dylan, and captures the intensity of their relationship nicely. The opening is flawless: “Well I’ll be damned, here comes your ghost again.” Epic in scope and rich in poetry, it’s a magnificent song, perhaps her finest moment on record. The emotion packed into the track gives it a universal appeal, resonating beyond the very personal narrative. (In fact, British metal band Judas Priest have made a serviceable adaptation a standard feature of their live shows for decades.)

Baez turns next to two different takes on fading relationships, each by another significant songwriter. Jackson Browne’s Fountain of Sorrow was a new song at the time, but its iconic power was already clear. Wistful and quiet where the title track is incisive and determined, it makes a strong counterpoint. Baez’ delivery is a little faster and brighter than Browne’s, making it her own and weaving it into the feel of the album. Stevie Wonder’s Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer, written with Syreeta Wright, is a brief, aching acknowledgment of the way love can slip away. This trio of songs provides three different lenses on loss and memory, providing a great start to the disc.

Baez wrote Children and All That Jazz; it’s a charming whirlwind of a song that reflects the enthusiasm and energy of its subjects. One of the lightest tracks on the disc, it provides a nice pause before things get more serious again.

Simple Twist of Fate is an amazing moment. Bob Dylan had barely released his original version — from Blood On the Tracks — when Baez started recording her album. It’s one of the finest love songs in the Dylan catalog, a quiet meditation on loss that fits perfectly with the themes of Diamonds & Rust. Baez understands Dylan’s style and is sympathetic to it while making the track her own. She also turns in a spot-on Dylan impersonation late in her reading, a nice nod to the writer and their complex relationship.

Next up is a trio of well-chosen covers. Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickey Betts wrote Blue Sky for his girlfriend, then decided to remove any pronouns to make the song more universal. That decision makes his fine composition perfect for Baez, who interprets it as a tribute to the natural world that transfers to the object of open affection. John Prine’s pensive Hello In There is a heartbreaking look at aging and loss, with just the right note of social protest. Baez offers a straightforward reading, letting the honest pain of the song shine through. Jesse was written by Janis Ian, an intimate portrait of loneliness that Baez invests with her own ache. These three tracks show a master interpreter at the height of her powers.

Winds of the Old Days is another song about Dylan, this time focusing on the complicated path of his musical career. It’s smart and poignant, a nice counterpoint to the more visceral title track. On Dida, Baez revisits one of her own songs, a wordless tribute to the power of music from her previous album. Singing with Joni Mitchell, she invests it with a wonderful upbeat energy missing from the original. In many ways, this wraps up the album proper, offering a tribute to the art that weaves through the intimate tracks. Baez adds a sweet coda, a medley of two standards that she dedicates to her grandmother.

Mining rich, emotional soil, Baez crafts her finest moment. A quiet, moving set of original songs and well-chosen covers, Diamonds & Rust finds the folk diva offering another side of her amazing talent. A pinnacle in an amazing catalog, it’s one of the finest albums of the 70s and a perfect example of the blend of folk, pop, and jazz that made for the best of the singer-songwriter era.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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