This album, from the legendary Joan Baez, is her first in a decade. She’s 77 now, for what it’s worth, but this album confirms that her legend status is well-earned. She didn’t write any of the songs here – but it shouldn’t be dismissed as simply being a covers record. She’s gone to songwriters and songs who mean something to her. Through her interpretation she decisively takes ownership.
Two of those songwriters are Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. The album’s title track, and indeed, opening track, originally appeared on Waits’ 1992 album Bone Machine. Baez doesn’t have Waits’ gruffness – but that shouldn’t be seen as the songs being watered down. Her voice may have moved from soprano to alto over the years, though it’s less of the shift that occurred to Joni Mitchell or Marianne Faithful. She takes a line like ‘been here since Eisenhower/and I’ve outlived even he’ and makes it apply to her; next year will mark sixty years since she turned professional with a performance at the Newport Folk Festival. That comes from a second Waits and Brennan song, the survivors anthem ‘Last Leaf,’ originally on Waits’ Bad As Me.
Perhaps the most poignant song on the record is her cover of Zoe Mulford’s ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace.’ The song references the horrific event in 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, when a man opened fire on a prayer meeting at a church meeting, killing nine. With Trump in the White House, and American gun laws proving stubborn to change, it resonates deeply, after yet more school shootings. This connects so well with what Baez has done throughout her entire career – she has used her voice to campaign for the oppressed, marching with Martin Luther King for the Civil Rights movement, campaigning against the Vietnam War, and supporting the Dixie Chicks when they faced a hideous backlash against their stance during the second world war.
This is not an album that lambasts listeners, nor is it resigned resignation. Despite it all, Baez still seems to have hope. With songs written by artists as seemingly diverse as Anohni (‘Another World’) and Mary Chapin Carpenter (‘The Things That We Are Made Of), Baez still weaves together the different strands and influences to make her own way.
Baez has said that this is her final album and tour. If so, it’s a shame – but she will retire on a high, with grace and integrity, and remaining important. Respect is due.
Whistle Down The Wind is out now on Proper.