The Water is Wide and I Can't Cross O'er: Navigating Musical Currents with Joan Baez
Joan Baez occupies a unique place within American popular music. She epitomizes the resurgent interest in traditional folk music, but also its conflation with the Civil Rights Movement. Despite the initial success of this merger, Baez is entombed in the moment and struggles to move beyond it when hope for social progress wanes. The persona of the Virgin Mary of folk is always looming. Studying Baez, then, reveals the socio-cultural forces that help to construct this ultimately restrictive persona. More than any other figure from the folk revival, examining Baez provides a better understanding of the limitations of the American folk revival and the broader musical landscape of the fifties and sixties. In order to explore her long career, I identify and analyze three principal moments: one of Baez’s earliest performances in 1958, two songs performed at the March on Washington in 1963, and a later concert from 1978. This is a highly interpretative method, but one which allows me to develop a clear image of Joan Baez as a performer. This paper offers a new understanding not only of the American folk revival, but of the artistic consequences of the tumultuous sixties.