Celebrating Joan Baez: A Journey through the Library’s Digital Collections

Happy Springtime! Here in Digital Strategy, we are hard at work setting the pieces in place to announce upcoming opportunities for fellowships, residents, and full time temporary positions to lead in the digital exploration that Of the People will support. These opportunities will invite people to dig through the Library’s digital collections to find the seeds of new stories, and to tell share materials that celebrate the experiences of minority communities. As we build up the program components, we wanted to take the opportunity of Women’s History Month to highlight one story of a well-known American woman, and to trace some of her story through the Library’s Digital Collections. When the full Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) is up and running, we hope to see many more stories told, of famous people like Joan Baez, and of less well-known individuals and communities who also helped to shape the American story.

The month of March includes 31 days dedicated to the celebration of women’s history and its place in the American history narrative. Women continue to make strides and rack up “firsts” that warrant their place in history and the Library’s digital collections. From Katherine Graham’s 1972 rise to leadership as the first woman CEO of a fortune 500 company to Kamala Harris’s 2021 swearing in as the first woman to serve as U.S. Vice President, the list of women treading new territory continues to grow.

Joan Baez with album added to National Recording Registry

Joan Baez, debut album (1960; added to the NRR 2014)

Joan Baez is another name to add to that list. Baez is a social activist and the reigning queen of folk music. Joan Baez performed at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959, when she was an unbilled and unknown artist, but she didn’t remain unknown for long. She debuted the first of her many albums in 1960 and is credited with sparking the revival of folk music. Her rendition of “We Shall Overcome” at the 1963 March on Washington is one—among many—of the iconic moments of the historic march. Baez has received many honors for her music over the years. In 2014, her debut album was added to the Library’s National Recording Registry; she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017; and, in 2019, the Latin Recording Academy presented her with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Baez was born in the U.S. and is of Mexican and Scottish descent. Her childhood image of herself was that of being “an ugly Mexican,” but her self-image and aspirations would all change after she attended a concert by renowned folk singer Pete Seeger. It was this concert that inspired her to become a singer. Baez didn’t just become a folk singer, she became one of the pillars of the music genre. After the Seeger concert, Baez went from playing the ukulele for school mates to being her own guitar accompaniment for music sets at coffee houses and folk music festivals.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan singing, contact sheet

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez singing together at Newport Folk Festival, Newport, Rhode Island

The history of folk music runs deep throughout the United States. Ethnographers, John A. Lomax Sr., Ruby Lomax, and Alan Lomax spent decades recording and documenting folk music and other indigenous music from diverse locations throughout the U.S. and abroad. Just as Joan Baez sings a song of the South in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” so also do singers recorded in the Lomax collection’s 1939 Southern States Recording Trip. Many of the same societal issues that Baez shines a light on are discussed in interviews of average citizens in the digitized collection, “After the Day of Infamy: “Man-on-the-Street” Interviews Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor.” Alan Lomax directed Library of Congress (Archive of American Folk Song) fieldworkers to interview people after the bombing of Pearl Harbor for their opinions on race, war, labor disputes, politics and other issues of that day. CCDI participants, be they fellows, artists, scholars or institutions, will likely find interest in many of these same topics covered in collections found in this blog post. One goal for fellows, grantees, or residents funded through this program might be bringing together items from the various collections to present one exhibit, one presentation or even one production that represents the under told stories of minority Americans like Joan Baez and so many others.

Joan Baez concert poster

Joan Baez in concert, September 10 …

It seems that the music and social causes of Joan Baez have always been intertwined. As an activist, Baez has been a force in the civil rights and anti-war arenas, lending her talent to civil rights organizations and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The Library’s digital collections include images and recordings that are a window into Joan Baez’s journey from unknown folk singer to internationally recognized performer and activist. Future participants in the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative will find digitized images and recordings of Baez across collections such as the Joe Smith collection, where Joan Baez is interviewed about her career, life, and the 1960s folk music scene. Photographs of Baez performing with Bob Dylan at the Newport Folklife Festival are found in the Look Magazine collection in the Prints and Photographs Division. And for a deeper dive into the Newport Folk Festival, there’s a discussion by journalist and author Rick Massimo, “I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival.” Of the People projects could soar as high as the soprano voice of Joan Baez with her and music as the subject matter.

The extraordinary talent and activism of Joan Baez is reason to celebrate her during Women’s History Month and beyond. Although she completed her final tour as a performer in 2019, Joan Baez continues to create art and support civic and social causes through painting. Her story, music and activism continues like a song with many movements. I’m happy to say that some part of her melody and movement will always be at the Library of Congress.

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