Five decades after her breakout performance at the first Newport Folk Festival, Joan Baez is still recording and performing, including a set at the 50th anniversary of that debut this past summer. During those five decades as an artist, she has also remained committed to social activism, from supporting civil rights in the '60s to protesting the Iraq War in recent years. Considering her musical beginnings as a fairly strict traditionalist -- at least as recorded on her early albums -- Baez's musical career has encompassed many facets.
As folk-rock supplanted acoustic sounds in the mid-'60s, Baez went in a slightly different direction than most of her contemporaries, collaborating for a trio of LPs with classical composer Peter Schickele, better known at the time by his comic alter ego P.D.Q. Bach. The last of these albums, Baptism, is easily the oddest of the trio. Backed by music composed and conducted by Schickele, Baez sings or recites poetry selected mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries, but also reaching back as far as the 16th century. Literary heavies such as James Joyce, William Blake and Walt Whitman are included, but the most selections are by more obscure 20th century British writer Henry Treece.
This may sound like an idea that wouldn't hang together very well, but actually stands up as one of the more coherent concept albums I've ever heard. The poetry is sequenced very carefully and it flows together very well, with Baez's recitations somewhat surprisingly still working as music rather than just spoken word. The detailed liner notes give brief biographies of all the writers, along with Baez, Schickele and even Vanguard co-founder Maynard Solomon, credited on the original album for the concept and as compiler, though Baez's website identifies her as picking the poetry.
But be warned -- the vision of the human condition on this album is a dark one. The works gathered are meditations on war and death, the confusion and fear of childhood, the regrets of old age, religion; not even love is spared from darkness on Baptism. Schickele's mostly ominous music sets the mood well, and even when the music lightens up, the words rarely do.
Baptism also shows Schickele experimenting with crossbreeding chamber music to rock on the distorted bass (or keyboard?) sounds used on "Minister of War" and "Evil." He would further that experimentation the following year with a few arrangements on Buffy Sainte Marie's great Illuminations album and as a member of the group The Open Window, which released a lone Vanguard LP.
Baez next few albums were recorded with Nashville studio cats and moved her sound in a much more country rock direction ... but that's another part of her still-continuing story! (Vanguard, 1968)