Sallie Bingham on Joan Baez

These wonderful comments on Patti Smith bring me back to my memory, a few years earlier, of hearing Joan Baez sing in a dark smokey nightclub in Cambridge. She was unknown, hardly even a name–just another boy-girl (but they were so unusual then) with dark hair and dark clothes, perched on a tall stool, playing a guitar and singing. I felt that she was strange in a way I hadn’t encountered, so unlike my college friends–girls who still wore girdles and stockings, even to class–that I didn’t know how to define or even describe her: maybe waif? But she was not forlorn, merely melancholy, and not the kind of melancholy that seemed to be calling for some boy to save her. Bone melancholy, blood melancholy. That I would recognize, later, as our common bond….
The songs she sang–I only heard a few before my group of friends had enough and left–held hints of the Appalachian folk songs I’d heard as a child growing up in Kentucky, but I didn’t recognize them until a while later I listened to her first record on my little portable phonograph in my room behind the kitchen in the off-campus house. Then, I knew what she was singing, and that and the melacholy I recognized fused, and I began to memorize her songs, the ones I didn’t already know: “False Sir John a’wooing came of lady young and fair…” “The cuckoo, she’s a pretty bird, she sings as she flies…”I never tried to learn to play an instrument, but with close friends, or when I was alone, I would sing her songs which had become ours….
Many years later when I was writing a play about the folksinger John Jacob Niles, I found her songs again, sometimes changed, but with the same thread of melancholy running through them.
I never saw Joan perform again but she remains for me the mysterious, only partly understood symbol of the gate that was opening for all of us.

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