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The Odd Couple: Taylor Swift and Joan Baez Print-ready version

A Curmudgeon Column.

by Geoffrey Himes
Paste Magazine
January 29, 2024

At her August 15, 2015, concert in Santa Clara, California, Taylor Swift brought out two surprise guests: folk singer Joan Baez and actress Julia Roberts, both wearing Taylor Swift T-shirts. The two older women danced vigorously as Swift, wearing a silver-sequin swimsuit, sang "Style" from her then-current 1989 album. It was wonderfully weird to see the 74-year-old folk-music legend boogying to the music of the 26-year-old superstar. There was definitely a connection between them, but what was it exactly?

The two musicians were linked again last October when they each had a documentary movie playing in theaters. In Baltimore, where I live, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour was on the big screen at the Charles Theatre, while Joan Baez: I Am a Noise was on a smaller side screen. The latter picture even offered a quick glimpse of their meeting in 2015. The Swift movie is a straightforward concert film, though an exceptionally good one. The Baez movie is a better-than-average music doc, a career-spanning biography with modern commentary mixed with vintage film clips. The latter picture hints at some of the similarities between these two seemingly different women.

Swift was 18 when she scored her first Top 10 single with "Love Story" in 2008. Baez was 18 when she had her first solo set at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. They were two teenagers, both barely out of high school, strumming their acoustic guitars as they sang, suddenly engulfed by the kind of fame that has drowned more experienced performers. That fame was ratcheted up when they began dating fellow celebrities: Bob Dylan, Mickey Hart and Steve Jobs for Baez; John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal and Harry Styles for Swift.

The music they made was different; Swift was the strawberry-blonde ingenue of pop-country, while Baez was the barefoot queen of the folk revival. But country music and folk music both come out of those old Appalachian ballads, and the acoustic guitar is the link between them. And for ambitious female musicians, singing story songs accompanied by a hollow guitar has been the path of least resistance for decades. Swift never sang the kind of traditional songs that Baez began with nor the explicitly political songs that the older singer evolved into. And that strong link to the musical past has always seemed a missing weapon in Swift's musical arsenal. And while Swift has made her liberal sympathies clear in her off-stage comments, she hasn't been the aggressive on-stage crusader for progressive causes that Baez has been.

Maybe a hunger for such a connection and such a commitment was behind Swift's invitation to Baez that night in Santa Clara. The day after on Twitter, Swift saluted Baez (and Roberts) as "my heroes. What an honor." On Facebook, Baez posted, "She was kind, respectful, joyful, treated us like royalty." Joan Baez: I Am a Noise dredges up old footage of that startled teenager becoming royalty at Newport. She's surrounded by eager young fans, drawn like moths to the lamp, starstruck by the singer's voice, beauty and youth. It's a reminder of how young Baez was when she became famous, how life after 18 would never be normal again. And she paid a price for that.

The movie avoids the stale conventions of the typical music documentary - both the parade of famous talking heads exclaiming how wonderful the subject is and the formulaic arc of rise, fall and resurrection. It turns out that her mother kept a storage locker full of family memorabilia - not only the usual scrapbook pictures and mementos, but also the audio-cassette letters family members would send each other, even audio recordings of their therapy sessions. The filmmakers - Miri Navasky, Maeve O'Boyle and Karen O'Connor - make astute use of these tapes as a sonic counterpoint to the visual footage of the singer's triumphs.

With the help of these three female directors - all veterans of the PBS show Frontline - Baez turns her ruthless truth-telling on herself. She fesses up to perennial self-doubt, which at times flared into mental-health crises. At the same time that the singer was thrilling audiences with her operatic soprano and her uncompromising anti-war and pro-integration advocacy, she was plagued by offstage uncertainty rooted in her family and her relationships with men.

Her younger sister Mimi Baez Farina, the movie reveals, accused their father of forcibly kissing her. The film remains undecided about the incident, but Baez concludes that something weird was going on, something that led to her own wavering confidence as an adult. And the ending of her legendary romance with Bob Dylan was handled so badly by the latter that Baez's heart was shattered. There's a scene in the famous D.A. Pennebaker documentary, Dont Look Back (but not in the new doc), that shows Dylan in a hotel room, so absorbed in his typing (and himself) that he never looks up when Baez enters, kisses him on the head and leaves. It was the last time the two would meet for a decade. And yet, as with her energetic, stimulating father, Baez admits to mixed feelings about her ex - rejoining him for tours and continuing to sing his songs.

There's a clip in Joan Baez: I Am a Noise, of Baez and Dylan dueting on "It Ain't Me, Babe," her voice shining lustrously, while her partner's is horribly off-key. It's meant to demonstrate how lucky Dylan was to have Baez singing his songs. And yet, Dylan's interpretations of his songs are almost always more rewarding than hers, and that's because there's a difference between having a good voice and being a good singer. One is a genetic marvel; the other is an acquired skill.

Another clip from the documentary shows Dylan singing "Only a Pawn in Their Game," also at Newport. True, his tenor is rough around the edges and cramped in range, but the performance is a masterful example in using punctuated phrasing to build drama in a song. Once you hear that, you start noticing how Baez holds out her notes longer than necessary, allowing them to be admired for their sheer beauty even as the drama is drained. Swift's modest soprano is neither as powerful as Baez's nor as raw as Dylan's. Early in her career, Swift had notorious pitch problems, especially when she was out of the studio and the protection of Pro Tools. But she has developed into an impressive singer over the years, gaining control of her pitch, phrasing and dynamics both in the studio and on the stage. In her new movie, even though some of the vocals seem to suspiciously sustain after she pulls away the mic, her singing is quite impressive.

And her songwriting has evolved as well. And it's not just her lyrics, which have always translated the amorphous feelings of young women in the throes of romance into sharply defined images: a cardigan sweater, a shaking of the arms or a castle made of bricks. Her music, too, has developed more sophistication in its melodic movement and syncopation. Sure, her co-writers such as Liz Rose, Max Martin, Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner have helped, but as the one constant factor in all her songs, Swift deserves her share of the credit. At 169 minutes, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour is long for a movie, even though it's shorter than the actual concert it's based upon. And yet it never seems to drag or lose momentum. That's a tribute not only to the quality and variety of the songs but also the film's visual flair.

Swift is not the world's best dancer, but she cleanly executes a simple version of the choreography that the dancers behind her elaborate into more athletic movement. And the costumes and sets keep changing from one era to another. Especially eye-catching are the cottage-sized purple fans attached to the backs of the dancers in the opening scene, the piano that seems to have been left on the porch too long, and the special effect that creates the illusion that Swift is swimming under the stage floor.

Even as her movie was filling movie theaters on Thursdays through Sundays in October (she didn't allow screenings the other three days), she released the fourth of her planned re-recordings of her first six albums: 1989 (Taylor's Version). As with its predecessors, this release sticks closely to the original arrangements on the recycled songs, and the main artistic value lies in the bonus tracks. There's nothing here as startling as the 10-minute version of "All Too Well" from Red (Taylor's Version), the greatest moment of her recording career - and the highlight of the movie as well. But "Slut" is fascinating in the way it turns the insult hurled at young women who dress with sexual frankness into a badge of honor.

It's not as explicitly political as "There but for Fortune," the Baez signature tune that comes early in her movie. But it suggests how much Swift could benefit from adopting her elder's attachment to a musical and political past that provides strength and depth to the songs. Swift, of course, is a singer/songwriter, not an interpretive singer like Baez - two approaches that are equally admirable while demanding different skills. Perhaps Swift could look to another acoustic-guitar playing soprano who wrote her own songs: Joni Mitchell.

Mitchell is in the news again, because she made a heroic recovery from her devastating 2015 aneurysm with a surprise appearance at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival, her first time there since 1969. Now, a recording of that set has been released as Joni Mitchell at Newport. It documents a historic event, but musically it's underwhelming - full of missed notes, sloppy arrangements, dragging rhythms and overstated melisma. Should anyone who wasn't there that day bother with this album? Only if they already know by heart every other Joni Mitchell album ever released.

A far more important Mitchell release this year is Archives - Volume 3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975). This five-CD box set contains 95 previously unreleased tracks (plus one rarity) from the pivotal years when she reached her commercial peak (three Top 10 pop albums and four Top 25 pop singles) thanks to her shrewd revamping of her original folkie sound into a tensile pop-rock. Many observers - including Mitchell herself - have shortchanged this phase compared to the folk-rock that preceded it and the folk-jazz that followed. But Mitchell's underrated gift for melody was never stronger than in those years. And she was willing to make her lyrics more concise and her rhythms more pulsing to reinforce those hooks. There's a reason that singles such as "Help Me," "Raised on Robbery" and "You Turn Me On (I'm a Radio)" provide so much sonic pleasure.

That last song is presented in several different versions on the box set: as a solo-acoustic live song, as a marvelous folk-rock number with Neil Young's harmonica, and as a live performance with Tom Scott's jazz-rock band. They all reveal fascinating aspects of the song, but none provides the irresistible focus of the radio hit. That's true of most of the songs here - presented as homemade demos, as studio outtakes, as solo live performances or as live band arrangements. Because the songs are so well written, each iteration divulges a new emotional vein, even if only the released versions could have achieved such boundary-crossing success.

Swift and Mitchell were both singer-songwriters who learned how to top the charts by leaning into dance rhythms and chorus earworms. Mitchell was uncomfortable with that approach and soon left it behind. Swift embraced it and perfected a marriage of pop production and smart songwriting that brought her global domination on the scale of Michael Jackson or the Beatles. Perhaps she should have followed Mitchell's lead into more experimentation. Maybe Mitchell should have followed Swift's path into universality.

Nanci Griffith, who died in 2021, was an acoustic-guitar strumming folk singer in the Baez and Mitchell mode when she recorded her first four albums on small folk labels between 1978 and 1986. She wrote her own songs and sang them in a small, high voice that seemed to be murmuring secrets into the listener's ear. That quartet of recordings, often hard to find, has now been released in a new box set, Working in Corners, accompanied by a 60-page biography by her longtime producer Jim Rooney. Many of the songs on those records - especially "There's a Light in These Woods," "Once in a Very Blue Moon" and "Love at the Five & Dime" - became touchstones in the Texas singer-songwriter scene and would eventually be recorded by the likes of Kathy Mattea, Dolly Parton and Darius Rucker. Their appeal convinced MCA Nashville president Tony Brown that Griffith might have a career in country music.

Her first two MCA albums, 1987's Lone Star State of Mind and 1988's Little Love Affairs, reached the country top-30 with one top-40 single, "I Knew Love." But if Mitchell was uncomfortable with what she called "the star maker machinery behind the popular song," Griffith was even more so. Her voice proved too small and her stories too personal for country radio and she retreated into the world of healthy gigs and anemic radio that would later be named Americana. Ironically, she would find her most ardent audience in Ireland. Also released this fall is More than a Whisper: Celebrating the Music of Nanci Griffith, a better-than-average tribute album. It's a very Nashville-centric project, with most of the participants linked to that city where the Texan Griffith spent her last years. She was much beloved, the tracks by her friends Lyle Lovett, Kathy Mattea, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and John Prine imply a personal connection that most tribute compilations lack.

Because they knew Griffith so well, they echo her own approach with its emphasis on the lyrics and restraint in the framing music. Highlights include Earle's rough-hewn but conversational take on "It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go"; Iris DeMent's parlor-piano version of "Banks of the Pontchartrain"; and Harris's sepia-toned take on 'Love Wore a Halo," a glance back at the generation before hers and Griffith's. These four women - Baez, Swift, Mitchell and Griffith - all started out as teenagers with an acoustic guitar and a conviction that they had a story to tell. They each traveled from that same beginning place in a different direction, and each discovered new territory along the way. Swift still has time to learn something valuable from each of the other three.

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Added to Library on February 1, 2024. (347)

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