The incandescently vibrating soprano is worn down nearer a burnished alto after a half century of committed music-making and activism. Yet the takeaway from Joan Baez’s latest – following her well-earned 2017 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – is how essential her work remains.
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On “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” written by the Philly-bred artist Zoe Mulford, Baez tells the story of a man going into a Southern church and murdering black parishioners – not Birmingham, 1963, a year after Baez became the face of the modern folk movement on Time magazine’s cover, but Charleston, 2015, when one might’ve thought such hatred had become biologically vestigial. Over piano and mournful bowed bass, she describes a President worthy of the moniker, who sang when “no words could say what must be said/For all the living and the dead .” If it doesn’t send a chill down your spine, see a neurologist.
77, didn’t write songs for this set, instead curating ones that spoke to her –
here, by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, Josh Ritter and
others. The mood’s reflective and autumnal. Ritter’s “Silver
Blade,” a fable for the #MeToo era, nods to Baez’s early signature “Silver
Dagger.” And on “Last Leaf” (see Waits’ 2011 LP Bad as Me),
the singer accurately notes she’s “been here since Eisenhower/And I’ve
outlived even he,” affirming that she will be around “through
eternity … I’ll show up in a song.”