Folk Singer Joan Baez's Best Songs

'Diamonds and Rust' and 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' Top the List

Joan Baez is one of the most ardent activist-folk singers in the history of the genre and an inspiration to many artists and fans alike. She released her first album in 1960 and rose to prominence in the '60s as a protest singer and songwriter as folk music enjoyed a renaissance. If you're just learning about her work, here's a playlist of essential Baez songs to help you get acquainted with her oeuvre.

"Diamonds and Rust" is arguably one of the finest songs about love and disappointment and all the confusing emotions surrounding such things -- the unattainable expectations, the loss and forgetting, the things time does to two parallel lives. It's a beautiful, if dramatic, song and one of Baez's greatest hits.

 

On the morning of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legendary "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington for civil rights on Aug. 28, 1963, Baez sang "Oh Freedom" for the sea of people in attendance in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It's a traditional spiritual whose refrain is defiant and bold -- a perfect anthem for the struggles of the civil rights movement: "Before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave."

"Amazing Grace" has been sung by just about every folk singer -- and artist in pretty much any other genre, for that matter. But, nobody sings it with quite as much conviction as Baez. Her voice on this song brings as much melancholy and nostalgia as it does daring and determination, calling to mind the complexity of the struggle you face when you seek grace.

Baez has recorded many songs written by Bob Dylan, but of all her renditions of his work, "Blowin' in the Wind" is the most resonant. Her powerful voice, together with his series of poetic and provocative questions in this protest song, make Baez's cover particularly stirring.

"God Is God" is a song Steve Earle wrote for Baez to sing on ​"Day After Tomorrow" --  the album he produced for her and on which he played and sang. It not only raises questions about God and faith but also about humankind's propensity to think itself in a position of such power.

This is another Dylan-penned song that in Baez's hands, comes off differently than when Dylan sings it. Baez has always had a way of bringing a certain level of empathy and grace to her recordings, and this one is no exception -- it reaches well beyond what other versions of this song deliver.

Phil Ochs never achieved the level of success that his songs did on their own. "There But for Fortune" is an excellent example. Baez had quite a bit of success with her cover of this song, which is about empathy itself -- it shares a series of vignettes about people who have fallen on hard times, along with the refrain, "There but for fortune may go you or I."

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" was a song originally written by Robbie Robertson and famously recorded by The Band, as well as by Baez. Baez's version was a Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and is still one of her most recognized and adored cover tunes. Its lyrics tell the story of the end of the Civil War.

"Long Black Veil" is a widely covered country ballad from the 1950s, which has been recorded by Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, the Kingston Trio, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen and numerous others. Baez's version of the song was recorded twice, and she continues to perform this murder ballad in her live shows.

Patty Griffin's "Mary" has been covered by a number of artists, but Baez's version is definitely one of the finest. The lyrics look at the biblical story of Mary through a working-class lens -- the woman who works and grieves and cleans up after her son has been slaughtered. It's a layered and complex song grappling with religion, yes, but also judgment, war, peace and feminism.