Two Queens, a Prince and an Earle

A Review of Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn

in Concert-a Play in Two Acts

At the Queen Mary Dockside in Long Beach

By Ross Altman, Ph.D.

Act One

Roger_McGuinn.jpgYou know you're at a helluva folk concert when a Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer is the opening act, but there was Roger McGuinn-lead singer for the Byrds-genially opening for Joan Baez at Harry Bridges Memorial Park in Long Beach, where the magnificent Queen Mary is docked. I thought I was having an out-of-body experience when I heard the first dulcet strains of Bob Dylan's My Back Pages floating through the stratosphere toward me, but I quickly realized it wasn't an unannounced (though the thought had crossed my mind) visitation from Mr. D.

In fact, Roger McGuinn had started his set, and I quickly stopped admiring the ship, hurried across the park lawn and found my seat. My Back Pages was indeed the theme of McGuinn's wonderful set, who took us back to his beginnings as a dedicated folkie, before folk rock entered the picture. He got his start at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where Frank Hamilton gave him a good grounding (illustrated by Roger on three instruments) in folk accompaniment, six string acoustic guitar for finger-picking, blues and the circle of fifths chord structure, five-string long-neck banjo (under Pete Seeger's influence) with which McGuinn did a beautiful, heartfelt version of Old Blue, frailing style, and finally an acoustic twelve-string guitar, with which he performed a powerful reading of Leadbelly's Easter spiritual They Hung Him on the Cross (sometimes known as He Never Said a Mumbling Word).

McGuinn is a flawless instrumentalist, as well as a soulful singer with a perfect ear for just the right accompaniment to bring a song to life. I had never heard him live before, and unfortunately, on PBS where he has appeared in various folk shows over the years, you only get to hear him do his certified hits. There is a great deal more to Roger McGuinn than the few charting songs that found their way onto the radio. He is the real deal-a genuine folk singer with a real flair for quiet showmanship and knowledge of the various folk traditions out of which he forged a unique and beautiful amalgam of folk and rock. I was just enthralled with his entire one-hour performance.

The real heart of his set, and the riveting story that he has to tell as a performer, is in the gradual emergence of his hybrid style that combined the best of both worlds. As he started demonstrating his evolution as a performer I found myself asking (yes, I know this much, Terry Roland!)-where's the Rickenbacker 12? Where's the Rickenbacker 12?

Well, he finally got to it, and suddenly the world shifted on its axis, as I heard that unmistakable sound of a guitar that sounded like an orchestra. He played Hey Mr. Spaceman on it, and in this opulent outdoor setting you felt ready to take off yourself, straight up in the sky, with three smoke stacks of the Queen Mary to further inspire you as you came back down. What a sight, to go with the amazing sound of that instrument.

Roger paid for it dearly, having to sell both his five-string banjo and acoustic 12-string to afford it, after he saw George Harrison playing one for the Beatles and knew right away that was the guitar he had been waiting for.

He had not yet gotten the Rickenbacker 12-string in Los Angeles, though, when a demo record arrived for the Byrds from New York City, with a new song by Bob Dylan about a tambourine man, accompanied only by Bob, his acoustic six-string and harmonica, and perhaps a second guitar (Bruce Langhorne played lead on it on Bringing It All Back Home). David Crosby listened to it and opined right off the bat, "I don't like it; it's too fast (2/4 time) and too long for radio; they'll never go for it."

Roger took the longer view and saw the big picture. Before he even had the Rickenbacker in his hands he started to rearrange the song for it, with as he put it, a touch of Bach and a hint of the Beatles. He slowed it down to 4/4 time, took out the interior verses to make it AM radio friendly, and created an opening instrumental hook now as famous as the opening eight notes to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Then he sold the farm, bought the Rickenbacker and the Byrds recorded the hit version of Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man.

Needless to say, McGuinn got Bob Dylan's attention

Five years later, as Roger regaled the audience with the story near the beginning of his set, Peter Fonda was making Easy Rider, the musical soundtrack for which consisted largely of Byrds' classics (and the Band's The Weight) already recorded and well known. But he wanted one song written expressly for the movie, and he was hoping Bob Dylan would write it. Fonda went back to New York to try and get an audience with Dylan, who he finally tracked down to a bar in lower Manhattan. Peter Fonda got five minutes to make his case, after which Dylan picked up a napkin, pulled out a pen, and scribbled down a four line chorus to a song he called simply,

. He handed the napkin back to Fonda and said, "Give this to McGuinn-he'll know what to do with it."

Fonda brought the napkin back to LA, carrying it like it was transcribed from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and gave it to Roger, who added the verses and music to finish the title song to the movie. Indeed McGuinn did know what to do with it, and delighted the audience with the only song he co-wrote with Dylan.

That led him into recounting his one true musical invention, the seven string acoustic guitar, which as he put it, combined the best of the six and 12-string sounds-the doubling of the third string on a six-string, with a wound G-string and an unwound string an octave higher. He came up with that to minimize the danger to his guitars when he traveled, which he found a number of airlines treated like bags of produce (or worse) (see Tom Paxton's delightful satire, Thank You, Republic Airlines) With one guitar he could usually sneak it on board with him. The Roger McGuinn 7-String Signature Model guitar is still produced by Martin.

Of course, Leadbelly would ardently have disagreed with Roger; for the King of the 12-String Guitar, the most important part was in the bass strings, which he accentuated by tuning his custom-made Stella down two full steps.

But when you think of Roger McGuinn and the Byrds, which included David Crosby (who eventually left to form CSN and CSNY), Chris Hillman and John York, all of whom are still active performers, you think of that electric Rickenbacker 12-String. McGuinn let it shine on a Chris Hillman song as well, So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star.

He returned to his 7-string Martin for 8 Miles High, with an intro he described as incorporating elements of John Coltrane, Ravi Shankar, and, listen up diehard folkies, Andres Segovia. I'm not sure I am musically sophisticated enough to trace out all three influences, but I did recognize a bit of Ravi Shankar's (or was it by way of George Harrison?) sitar in the lovely accompaniment.

With Roger McGuinn's set drawing to a close, and the sun finally going down over the seaside home of the Queen Mary, he finally stood up and picked up the Rickenbacker for his closing song, adapted by Pete Seeger from Ecclesiastes, to shift over to the standup microphone and lean into the audience a bit more than he had for his laid back front porch style set. It created a nice effect of energizing the audience, as if to unnoticeably split his opening set into two.

We were about to hear Turn, Turn, Turn as if for the first time, about which Pete Seeger has told the best introduction (recounted in my recent review of Pete's new album, Tomorrow's Children) so no need to repeat it here. Suffice it to say that Roger and the Byrds' rearrangement did for Pete's song what their fresh approach did for Dylan-gave them two chart-scoring hit songs.

I don't know how many times Roger McGuinn has performed this modern folk classic over the years, but I imagine it numbers into the many thousands. You'd never know it from his performance, though, which sounded like he had just found this wonderful song he wanted you to hear as much as he wanted to play it. And he remembered to include the great line that Pete added to the biblical text-which really makes the song: "A time for peace-I swear it's not too late."

With a standing ovation, he came back for an encore, I'll Probably Feel a Whole Lot Better When You're Gone. That did not describe the audience's reaction, however-who, like me, definitely felt a whole lot better for having the opportunity to hear Roger McGuinn, who-as Dylan said so well-knew what to do with it. It was the perfect way to start a wonderful evening of song.

Act Two

[The Queen enters, stage right]

joan_baez.jpgTo call Joan Baez the "Voice of a Century" is an understatement; before the dawn of the phonograph record in the 20th Century there would have been no point in God creating a voice that would sound like she had a direct pipeline to Heaven. For Him to have created an instrument of that quality when there was no way to meaningfully preserve it for future generations would have been a waste of valuable time; Joan Baez must therefore be the voice of a millennium. (I am well aware that both Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson have an equal claim to the title "Voice of a Century," but I am talking about folk music-not art song and not opera; so let us defer that conversation to another time.)

Having turned 70 this year, and having made her first record (for Vanguard Records) in 1960 when she was 20, we may now join in celebrating Joan's 50th year in show business. Let us therefore call this concert at the Queen Mary what it was-an anniversary ball fit for a queen-referring both to the ship and to the artist-folk music's still reigning royalty.

What Mozart was to classical music, what Dylan was to songwriting, and what Koufax was to a fastball, Joan Baez was to folk song-the purest vocal expression of this body of music that has been put on record, indeed I would argue why recording was invented.

Let us therefore be honest: that incandescent voice is not the voice of a 70 year-old woman, who is now the custodian and torch-bearer of her own youthful magic, and who admirably succeeds in every way in recapturing enough of that magic to remind her audience of why they show up in gratitude whenever she makes a rare concert appearance. I count over 30 of her classic LPs in my collection, and they are the very heart of what endeared me to folk music in the first place-for, as Keats would have said, its beauty and its truth. I go to hear her sing for the same reason pilgrims go to Mecca-out of a sheer sense of privilege to be able to bear witness and pay my respect.

So let us now praise this famous woman.

Thoreau said that one should never go anywhere for which one is required to buy new clothes, and Joan must have remembered this from Walden; for a queen she could not have been dressed more simply-blue denim jeans and a white pullover top with a brown turtleneck underneath to keep her throat from chilling up in the outdoor venue.

She appeared with no "fanfare for the common man" which often accompanies her youthful confrere Dylan's well-announced arrivals on stage-no drum roll, no announcement, no entourage from her band-suddenly, out of the silence, all by herself she just walks over to the microphone, makes a slight bow to acknowledge the swelling applause from a sold-out house before her, picks up her Martin 00-42 guitar and starts softly to strum the opening chords of a recent song by her brilliant record producer, songwriter Steve Earle, called God Is God.

If you thought God is Dead, pace Neitzche, or God is Nature, pace Wordsworth, or God is Love, pace Paul Tillich, or God is Not Great, pace Christopher Hitchens, or even God is Not, pace Richard Dawkins, Steve Earle through his extraordinarily beautiful and soulful interpreter Joan Baez has news for you: God is God. He is not you, He is not us, and you have not been chosen to be His emissary on Earth; God is simply God, and you had better get used to it, and get on with it.

I hope I have been fair to the underlying premise of Earle's song, who has written a number of wonderful songs, but at the age of 63 I am not easily mesmerized by a new claim to religious truth. Unlike Earle, whose song starts out, "I believe in prophecy/Some folks see things not everyone can see/And once in awhile they pass the secret along to you and me," sorry-I believe there is a great deal of malarkey in this world spread by too many people who make precisely such fantastic claims to inside knowledge of the supernatural.

Some of them knocked down the World Trade Center, and others of them claimed that the destruction of the World Trade Center was retribution for homosexuality and abortion. Both Osama Bin Laden and Jerry Falwell believed in prophecy too. The only song about God that has ever made any sense to me is one that Baez recorded 47 years ago at the Newport Folk Festival with the "original vagabond" who wrote it-With God On Our Side, an undisguised antiwar song that absent its Cold War references sounds like it could have been written yesterday, the one that ends with, "If God is on our side, He'll stop the next war."

But I digress; I came here not to argue with Steve Earle-but to praise Joan Baez.

Baez_Songbook.jpgShe quickly set the audience at ease by recounting a question from a woman who approached her before a recent show, "Are you just going to sing the new songs tonight," to which Joan replied (soto voce), "No lady, I'm not that stupid." And no one felt shortchanged in that department; five of the sixteen songs in her set came from The Joan Baez Songbook from 1964: House of the Rising Sun (which she sang a capella though accompanied by her great band, musical director John Doyle, percussionist Gabriel Harris-her son-and fiddler Todd Phillips); Long Black Veil (by Marijon Wilkins and Danny Dill, in "C"); Railroad Bill (5th fret, in "F" finger-picked in "C" chords); Stewball (the exquisite version she recorded set to music by John Herald of The Greenbrier Boys; 3rd fret, in Bb, finger-picked and strummed in "G" chords, modulated to "A" chords for final two verses); and the sad tale of Flora, The Lily of the West (2nd fret, in "F#m).

Speaking of sad tales, Joan estimated that in the great majority of songs she has recorded and sings, somebody dies during the song. When she came to The Lily of the West she reflected that "This is a twofer; two people are dead by the end of it." She found some humor in this thought, prefacing it with the words, "For an old pacifist, I sure seem attracted to songs about death."

Her beautiful rendition of Handsome Molly qualifies, she assured us, in that although no one dies, "there is great misery all around." As one begins to notice even from these brief asides, Baez surrounds the tragedy of many of her traditional ballads and modern songs in that vein with a wicked sense of humor in her introductions and passing remarks, even in her occasional interpolation of something new in lieu of the expected ending, such that her great unbridled lament (and album title song) about her long ago unrequited love for Bob Dylan-Diamonds and Rust-(in "Em") no longer ends with "If you're offering diamonds and rust, I've already paid," but with the delightful harrumph of "I'll take the diamonds." (At UCLA's Royce Hall two years ago, she took the opportunity to substitute, "I'll take the Grammy," which she had just won.)

In short, she was not only gifted with a sublime voice, but a refreshing predisposition not to take herself too seriously, and a growing detachment from the trappings of her own fame, and even the political sympathies of her vastly liberal audience. One of the best of her tales of modern concert life, as she maintains a demanding worldwide touring schedule, was of a recent show that found her on stage at the end with Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and John Prine. As they spent the intermission trying to determine what they would sing at the close, Joan perfectly mimicked all four of them trying to remember the words to songs she assumed they knew like the back of their hand, but could now only grunt where brilliant words used to be. They finally decided on John Prine's great plea to not let old people slip away unnoticed and forgotten, Hello In There, while recognizing that they were starting to resemble the very old folks for whom they wanted to say, in Arthur Miller's masterful phrase, "Attention must be paid." The raucous humor of her unexpected encounter with three other legends of country and modern folk music led to her heartrending version of the Prine song she had recorded many years ago.

But that was after one more great punch line she got from Merle Haggard; she couldn't avoid the inherent humor in her appearing on stage with a songwriter she had long regarded as the voice of the hard right, pro-war, flag waving opposition to her nonviolent, pacifist, antiwar activism. Perhaps he felt the same way-but their profound respect for their mutual artistry over-shadowed those long ago presuppositions. She finally asked him, "But don't you still support ‘the War'?" "Didn't you support George Bush?" "Oh no, replied Haggard, "I was glad to see Bush go and am no hawk anymore, if I ever was." Baez wasn't ready to let him off the hook, however; "But didn't you support Ronald Reagan?" A sly smile spread over her face as she recaptured this grizzled old country singer's well-placed sense of loyalty in his reply, "Ronald Reagan pardoned me!"

And with that she proudly told her sophisticated, blue state supporters, she and Merle and Kris and John all joined forces for a rousing encore of Okie From Muskogie. As Hamlet once observed, "There are more things between Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

But Joan also had some trustworthy songs and comments to make about the current political situation, starting with the new timeliness of Woody Guthrie's (to Martin Hoffman's music) song Deportee, about a group of farm-workers who were killed in a plane crash in Los Gatos, California, which Joan dedicated to "the documented and undocumented people here," and to "the intelligent people in Arizona."

She didn't avoid the war(s), but she was circumspect about it, choosing a song she recently recorded by Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett, Scarlet Tide, which she described as "an antiwar song in disguise." In the review I wrote about Joan's UCLA concert two years ago I mentioned that I thought she was pulling her punches when it came to Obama. I still feel that way, but then I wasn't invited to the White House this year to perform for their celebration of music from the Civil Rights Movement, as Baez (along with Dylan) was. I suppose when you've been invited to someone's home, even the president of the United States, it is not surprising to feel a certain reluctance to criticize him in public.

Unfortunately, that is a folk singer's job, to be a voice of conscience. I suspect her feelings about America's current wars are closer to the optimistic peace song by Steve Earle with which she ended the pre-encore part of the concert-Jerusalem, "I believe that one day all the children of Abraham will lay down their swords together in Jerusalem."

In choosing Jerusalem to end with, she came full circle, back to the second song of the evening, her early title song from a masterful collection of peace songs, Blessed Are.

Joan Baez is certainly one of them, and has been for the last half century, standing up for human rights without regard for political affiliation around the world. And blessed are we to have her still out there, with her guitar, a great band, and a new batch of songs to sing by new writers she has a knack for discovering, along with her classics.

She ended the show with two of them, her hit song (written by the Band's Robbie Robertson), The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and Gracias a la Vida (Thanks to Life) by Violetta Para, one of the guiding lights of Nuevo Canción in Chile (in Am).

In closing, I want to add that Joan Baez came full circle in another sense at this concert-this was not her first sight of The Queen Mary. A friend of mine saw her before the show strolling through it and looking at every detail like an old friend. It was; that was the ship she sailed to America on in 1951, when she was eleven years old. That magnificent old ship looks none the worse for wear, nor does Joan Baez; and like that old Gospel Ship, another great early hymn she sang with elegant simplicity, she wasn't kidding when she said, "I'm gonna shout and sing, until the rafters ring, when I'm sailing through the air."

Keep on sailing Joan, and keep on singing; thank you for singing It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, and thank you for signing your songbook, the highlight of the evening for me.

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com His Ph.D. is in Modern Lit.