Joan Baez - Whistle Down the Wind

by Mark Moody Rating:9 Release Date:2018-03-02
Joan Baez - Whistle Down the Wind
Joan Baez - Whistle Down the Wind

In full disclosure, I am by no means a Joan Baez aficionado and have only a passing familiarity with her output outside of her work with Bob Dylan.  Her latest release, Whistle Down the Wind, piqued my interest for multiple reasons though.  It’s been ten years since her last studio album produced by Steve Earle.  Her current album is produced by Joe Henry who has had some dazzling success with more seasoned artists - see Solomon Burke and Allen Touissaint.  She has impeccable taste in who she selects to interpret, including Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Patty Griffin, Steve Earle, and Eliza Gilkyson (and those all just from her prior album).  Finally, I’ve always had a soft spot for gently sung songs by artists in the twilight of their years.  Maybe they are simply closer to the angels and getting an assist, but it primarily seems so pure of heart and at peace with oneself.  For reference in the folk realm, Janette and Joe Carter’s singing with Johnny Cash on ‘Anchored in Love’ on June Carter’s posthumously released Wildwood Flower always slays me - as does most of the album.  Other examples like Marideth Sisco’s tracks on the Winter’s Bone soundtrack and E.C. and Orna Ball’s later work all showcase world weary vocals but with a clear lifetime’s experience to bolster them.  Not to say this is Baez’s swan song, but at 77 and given the lyrical content of some of the songs here she has come a long way on her journey.  Frankly her voice is markedly stronger than any referenced above, but biologically they are in the same place.  She has also announced her touring days are coming to a close in a nod to settling in.  As an aside, I paid a lot of money and traveled to take my wife to George Strait’s “farewell” tour and the bastard is still galavanting around all over the place, but I digress and presume Baez is genuine in her future plans.  Baez has been anything but sedentary as a septuagenarian, being inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame and having her first solo show of paintings just last year. 

Returning to many top notch artists for material (Waits, Gilkyson, and Josh Ritter are tapped again as well as tracks by Mary Chapin Carpenter, producer Henry and Anohni among others), Baez demonstrates her ongoing relevance, awareness, and eye for a good song.  In essence, the ten songs on display fall primarily into three categories:  those dealing with coming to one’s end; topical songs as she is so well known for; and a few folk ballads.  

Opening with Waits’ title track, which could have well been a closer, Baez tips her hand early that her own mortality will be dealt with openly.  These songs are undoubtedly the strongest here including both of Waits’ songs as well as Anohni’s and obliquely Chapin Carpenter’s as well.  Earning its keep as title track, ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ should bring a lump to the throat of just about anyone unless they are as frozen as the ground in the song.  It details the life of a loner who barely gets beyond the cross streets of “Mercy and Grand” but has the heart of a restless soul.  “I’ve yelled and I’ve cursed, If I stay here I’ll rust” Baez implores, making the song her own as she has been quick to stand up for her beliefs and never sit still.  Slyly, Baez takes Waits’ other song here, ‘Last Leaf’, and takes it from a defiant Waits/Keith Richards duet of survival to one of gentle resignation.  Waits’ version has the swagger of certainty that the last leaf on the tree would never fall, while Baez seems resigned that having made it this far was more circumstantial than anything, showcasing her brilliance in the art of interpretation.  

On Anohni’s ‘Another World’ (paralleling Loudon Wainwright’s sung too young ‘Out of This World’), Baez susses out a strong melody that was barely there on the original.  Whereas Anohni’s (released as Antony and the Johnsons) intent seemed more of an escape from environmental annihilation, Baez sees the alternate universe as a chance to start over - “I still have too many dreams”.  It’s heartbreaking but hopeful.  On Chapin Carpenter’s ‘The Things We are Made Of’, Baez shows an ability to make a memory that doesn’t belong to her totally her own down to the detail of the cadence of a walk that isn't hers.  From the stark recall of a car’s headlights being outshone by the brilliance of the moon to the fading shadow of a lover in an open door the imagery is served to you fully.  And as subtle as it seems the repetition of “Oh my darling, Oh my love” on this track serves as the solid center of the album and pointedly so, precisely when Baez hits the high note at the end.

The weakest spots on the album are the return to the style of English folk ballads.  It is understandable that Ritter’s ‘Silver Blade’ serves as both sequel and reminder of Baez’s opening track of her debut, ‘Silver Dagger’, but it is no more interesting as a result.  Nor does the closing ‘I Wish the Wars Were All Over’ really ring a chord other than to go back to Baez’s earlier days.  It’s notable that these tracks don’t speak to Baez’s personal or political frame of mind and therefore don’t carry the emotional impact of the rest of the album.

As to the topical or perhaps universal, this is of course an area that Baez has flourished in over the decades.  The most obvious song is Zoe Mulford’s ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’ that again Baez takes to some other level.  The song recounts the recent Charleston church massacre in the gun culture South with the unsuspecting allowing sin to enter their domain (the song evokes Woody Guthrie’s story songs like ‘1913 Massacre’ so strongly).  In order to firmly document the story, the song highlights Barack Obama’s eulogy for the slain. 

Clinton had his sax, George W. had his iPod, Obama had his voice, and Trump knows a line or two of the national anthem.  Gilkyson’s ‘The Great Correction’ provides a more lively respite belying the betrayal of the American Dream.  And Henry’s own ‘Civil War’ (from his brilliant decade old Civilians album), as vague as it may be, provides sage currency.  Baez’s take on the first verse alone is prescient - making obvious that the term ‘civil’ is legalistically specific to the individual vs. the broader whole.  The answer, for me at least, as to what “hats are for?” is for departing, away from where you are ordinarily stationed - partitioning what was once a whole.

It’s apparent that in spite of Baez’s age that interpretation of these songs is not a passive thing.  Baez is not giving a grandmotherly hug to these songs, but rather a grapple, take-down, and total reassembly to fit her vision.  It doesn’t take a history in her fifty plus years in the art to figure this out - if you know any of these songs in their previous incarnations, these versions should slap you in the face and make you listen.  Kudos to Henry for providing empathetic guitar, drums, and accordion to surround Baez’s still strong voice, but otherwise staying out of her way.  There is no reason she couldn’t continue to produce albums of this quality every year or two for the next decade and we would all be the better for it.  In reference to the cited line from the title song, if you don’t follow the forward progress here rust where you are.  Baez would never let that happen to herself.        

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