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Human being, pacifist, folk singer: Joan Baez turns 75

Jürgen Brendel / dbJanuary 8, 2016

Singer, songwriter and civil rights activist: Joan Baez remains one of the strongest voices of pacifism. The "Queen of Folk Music" turns 75 on January 9.

Joan Baez
Image: picture alliance/dpa/M. Trezzini

"If people have to put labels on me, I'd prefer the first label to be human being, the second label to be pacifist, and the third to be folk singer," Joan Baez once said. A strong statement for an artist who owes her international fame to her music.

It all began with a performance at the 1959 Newport Festival. Just a year later, in October 1960, her first album was launched.

Born Joan Chandos Baez in Staten Island, New York to a Scottish teacher and a Mexican physicist, brown-skinned and black-haired like her father, she was often called "nigger" when growing up. Early on, racial discrimination, civil rights and protest were a defining part of her life. In 1956, she heard a speech by a young Baptist preacher by the name of Martin Luther King. That year, she started strumming chords on her first guitar.

International fame

A US tour in 1961 cemented Baez's reputation as a folk singer. On that tour, she met Bob Dylan, who at the time was a completely unknown young folk singer. The two worked together, and were lovers for some time.

Joan Baez und Bob Dylan
Image: gemeinfrei

In 1962, her live album made it into the Top 10 of the US charts. At the 1963 Newport Festival, Baez was one of the top acts.

Bob Dylan was on stage with her then - she introduced him to a wider public and interpreted some of his songs. At the Civil Rights March that year, Baez sang "We Shall Overcome" for the first time, which would become her trademark song.

Over the years, Dylan's fame surpassed her own, and their relationship failed. But Baez was a celebrated star at the Woodstock Festival in 1969.

Using fame as a platform

During every step of her musical career, Baez used her popularity to push her social agenda. Over the years, she produced fewer albums than many of her colleagues, choosing to be active in humanitarian missions instead. During the Vietnam War, she performed in an air-raid shelter in Hanoi.

In 1985, she opened the legendary Live Aid Concert and in 1988, she performed in a series of concerts with Germany's Konstatin Wecker and Argentina's Mercedes Sosa, the "Three Voices."

For Baez, music and political convictions and activism went hand in hand. Today's young generation listens to protest songs by Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys and rapper J. Cole. This musical protest revival can clearly be attributed to the historic significance of the likes of Joan Baez.

Her greatest hits include "We Shall Overcome," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "There but for Fortune" and "Swing Low." Baez' latest album, "Diamantes," was released in 2015.

Amnesty International has created a "Joan Baez Award for Outstanding Inspirational Service in the Global Fight for Human Rights" for its 50th anniversary - and she was given the inaugural accolade in 2011, and she also received Amnesty International's "Ambassador of Conscience Award" in 2015.