Joan Baez Biography

Joan Baez at the 1969 Woodstock Festival
Fotos International/Getty Images

Baez was known for her soprano voice, her haunting songs, and her long black hair early in her career — until she cut it in 1968.

Joan Baez Biography

Joan Baez was born on January 9, 1941, in Staten Island, New York. Her father Albert Baez was a physicist born in Mexico, while her mother was of Scottish and English descent. She grew up in New York and California, and when her father took a faculty position in Massachusetts, she attended Boston University and began to sing in coffeehouses and small clubs in Boston and Cambridge, and later in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. Bob Gibson invited her to attend the 1959 Newport Folk Festival where she was a hit; she appeared again at Newport in 1960.

Vanguard Records, known for promoting folk music, signed Baez and in 1960 her first album, Joan Baez, came out. She moved to California in 1961. Her second album, Volume 2, proved to be her first commercial success. Her first three albums focused on traditional folk ballads. Her fourth album, In Concert, Part 2, began to move into more contemporary folk music and protest songs. She included on that album “We Shall Overcome” which, as an evolution of an old gospel song, was becoming a civil rights anthem.

Baez in the 1960s

Baez met Bob Dylan in April of 1961 in Greenwich Village. She performed with him periodically and spent a lot of time with him from 1963 to 1965. Her covers of such Dylan songs as “Don’t Think Twice” helped bring him his own recognition.

Subjected to racial slurs and discrimination in her own childhood because of her Mexican heritage and features, Joan Baez became involved with a variety of social causes early in her career, including civil rights and nonviolence. She was sometimes jailed for her protests. In 1965, she founded the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, based in California. As a Quaker, she refused to pay a part of her income tax that she believed would go to pay for military spending. She refused to play in any segregated venues, which meant that when she toured the South, she only played at Black colleges.

Joan Baez recorded more mainstream popular songs in the later 1960s, including from Leonard Cohen (“Suzanne”), Simon and Garfunkel and Lennon and McCartney of the Beatles (“Imagine”). She recorded six of her albums in Nashville starting in 1968. All the songs on her 1969 Any Day Now, a two-record set, were composed by Bob Dylan. Her version of “Joe Hill” on One Day at a Time helped bring that tune to wider public attention. She also covered songs by country songwriters including Willie Nelson and Hoyt Axton.

In 1967, the Daughters of the American Revolution denied Joan Baez permission to perform at Constitution Hall, resonating with their famous denial of the same privilege to Marian Anderson. Baez’ concert was also moved to the mall, as Marian Anderson’s had been: Baez performed at the Washington Monument and drew 30,000. Al Capp parodied her in his “Li’l Abner” comic strip as “Joanie Phonie” that same year. "Li'l Abner" is the ultimate inspiration behind the Sadie Hawkins character, an empowered female who asks men out instead of waiting for them to ask her.

Baez in the 1970s

Joan Baez married David Harris, a Vietnam draft protestor, in 1968, and he was in jail for most of the years of their marriage. They divorced in 1973, after having one child, Gabriel Earl. In 1970, she participated in the documentary “Carry It On,” including film of 13 songs in concert, about her life through that time.

She drew much criticism for a tour of North Vietnam in 1972.

In the 1970s, she began composing her own music. Her “To Bobby” was written honoring her long relationship with Bob Dylan. She also recorded her sister Mimi Farina’s work. In 1972, she signed with A&M Records. From 1975 to 1976, Joan Baez toured with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review, resulting in a documentary of the tour. She moved to Portrait Records for two more albums.

The 1980s-2010s

In 1979, Baez helped form Humanitas International. She toured in the 1980s for human rights and pace, supporting the Solidarity movement in Poland. She toured in 1985 for Amnesty International and was part of the Live Aid concert.

She published her autobiography in 1987 as And a Voice to Sing With, and moved to a new label, Gold Castle. The 1987 album Recently included a pacifist hymn and another gospel classic made famous by Marian Anderson, “Let Us Break Bread Together,” and two songs about South Africa’s freedom struggle.

She closed down Humanitas International in 1992 to focus on her music, then recorded Play Me Backwards (1992) and Ring Them Bells (1995), for Virgin and Guardian Records, respectively. Play Me Backwards included songs by Janis Ian and Mary Chapin Carpenter. In 1993 Baez performed in Sarajevo, then in the midst of a war.

She continued recording into the early 2000s, and PBS highlighted her work with an American Masters segment in 2009.

Joan Baez had always been quite politically active, but she had largely stayed out of partisan politics, endorsing her first candidate for public office in 2008 when she supported Barack Obama.

In 2011 Baez performed in New York City for the Occupy Wall Street activists.


  • 1960: Joan Baez Vol. 1 (remastered 2001)
  • 1961: Joan Baez Vol. 2 (remastered 2001)
  • 1964: Joan Baez 5 - 2002 version with bonus tracks
  • 1965: Farewell, Angelina
  • 1967: Joan
  • 1969: Any Day Now: Songs of Bob Dylan
  • 1969: David's Album
  • 1970: The First Ten Years
  • 1971: Carry It On
  • 1972: Blessed Are...
  • 1972: Come From the Shadows
  • 1974: Gracias a la Vida (Here's to Life)
  • 1975: Diamonds and Rust
  • 1976: The Lovesong Album
  • 1977: Best of Joan Baez
  • 1979: Honest Lullaby
  • 1979: The Joan Baez Country Music Album
  • 1982: Very Early Joan Baez
  • 1984: Ballad Book Vol. 1
  • 1984: Ballad Book Vol. 2
  • 1987: Recently
  • 1990: Blowin' Away
  • 1991: Brothers in Arms
  • 1992: No Woman No Cry
  • 1992: Play Me Backwards
  • 1993: From Every Stage
  • 1993: Rare, Live and Classic (box)
  • 1995: Ring Them Bells (winter holiday and Christmas)
  • 1996: Greatest Hits (remastered)
  • 1996: Speaking of Dreams
  • 1997: Gone From Danger
  • 1998: Baez Sings Dylan
  • 1999: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection
  • 1960: Joan Baez Vol. 1 (remastered 2001)
  • 1961: Joan Baez Vol. 2 (remastered 2001)
  • 1964: Joan Baez 5 - 2002 version with bonus tracks
  • 2003: Dark Chords on a Big Guitar
  • 2005: Bowery Songs
  • 2007: Ring Them Bells (reissue with bonus tracks)
  • 2008: Day After Tomorrow
  • 2011: Queen of Folk Music

Joan Baez Quotes

  • "The concert becomes a context of its own, and that's what's beautiful about being able to stand up there—that I can say what I want, put the songs where I want them and, hopefully, give people an evening of beautiful music as well." (1979)
  • "Action is the antidote to despair."


  • Baez, Joan. "And a Voice to Sing With." 1987.
  • Baez, Joan. "The Joan Baez Songbook: P/V/G Folio." 1992.
  • Hajdu, David. "Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina." 2011.
  • Swanekamp, Joan. "Diamonds and Rust: A Bibliography and Discography on Joan Baez." 1979.
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Joan Baez Biography." ThoughtCo, Sep. 26, 2021, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, September 26). Joan Baez Biography. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Joan Baez Biography." ThoughtCo. (accessed October 25, 2021).