Beyond her stature as a performer and recording artist, Joan Baez is significant for her status as one of the first musicians of her era to use her talent as a vehicle for political activism. A prominent voice during the 60s Folk revival, Baez was one of the scene's most distinctive vocal interpreters, and her commitment to social justice has led her to lend her voice to a variety of antiwar, human rights, and environmental causes. She was also instrumental in popularizing the work of Bob Dylan, as well as several other soon-to-be-famous songwriters.
The daughter of a Mexican-born physicist/mathematician, Baez grew up in a Quaker family whose ideals influenced her lifelong commitment to pacifism and activism. Born in New York City, she spent much of her childhood in California, but her father's work for UNESCO led the family to move frequently, living in various parts of the U.S. as well as Canada, England, France, Switzerland, Spain, Canada, and the Middle East.
Baez took an active interest in music after seeing a Pete Seeger concert at 13, and began performing on the Boston and Cambridge Folk scenes after her father took a faculty position at M.I.T. After prominent Folkie Bob Gibson invited Baez to sing with him at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, Baez won a deal with Vanguard Records, which released her self-titled 1960 debut LP, and 13 subsequent records.
Through the early 60s, Baez was one of the most familiar faces of the Folk scene. In addition to her albums, concerts, and festival appearances, she became a familiar presence at marches, protests, and political events, including the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Baez also became an early champion of Bob Dylan's songwriting, as her albums and live sets began to shift from traditional material to socially-conscious contemporary songs by the likes of Dylan and Phil Ochs. As folkies like Dylan and Ochs began to experiment with more elaborate instrumental arrangements on record, Baez also expanded her studio sound. In 1968, Baez married antiwar activist David Harris, who was imprisoned for draft evasion, and Harris' fondness for Country music was reflected in much of Baez's late-60s and early-70s work.
Baez achieved some unexpected mainstream success in the 70s, hitting the Pop Top Ten in 1971 with a Folk Rock cover of the Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." She also emerged as a late-blooming songwriter, scoring another Top Ten hit with the self-penned "Diamonds and Rust" (reportedly inspired by her relationship with Dylan).
Although her record sales diminished in the 80s and 90s, Baez has continued to record, perform and work on behalf of a variety of causes, while collaborating with the likes of Steve Earle, Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Indigo Girls, Dar Williams, John Mellencamp, and Bruce Springsteen.