With a guitar in one hand with another in a raised fist, Joan Baez came whirring into the early 1960s folk scene like a wildfire. For nearly 60 years after, she’s become known for whisking her crystalline voice into action, ferrying songs that highlight the plight of the underprivileged to theaters and main stages around the world. Even in times when even Baez herself proclaimed she was focusing more on her music than her activism, songs like “China” still set a spotlight on political indignation towards standard human rights.
Now, in what is supposedly her final album and nearly a decade after her last, Baez returns to the studio as the full embodiment of all of those years of performing beautiful, purposeful music. What began with one artistic, forward-thinking interpreter of songs and her guitar is ending in much the same way. With a stripped-back, sentiment-focused approach to the 10 tracks prevalent on Whistle Down the Wind, Baez centers her delivery on reminding us that there is still hope for our divisive world yet.
There are no slinky musical devices utilized or a singular need or desire for a particular sugary hook or riff to be heard of. By and by, this is Baez in her purest state, delivering to us a set of folk songs that dare us to listen more intently than many of the saccharine tracks dusting our contemporary landscape would ever suggest for us to embrace. At nearly 80, her gorgeous vocals are still ever the ferry that they were when she was just a young girl with a voice intent on liberating the oppressed. It may be more weathered than it used to—her range isn’t as dynamic as it used to be, sure—but she is every bit as potent a storyteller as she ever has been.
For a roundabout career farewell, Whistle Down the Wind, insofar, is a beautiful accompaniment to one last tour for the singer-songwriter. This isn’t because it’s a farewell, though, but because it doesn’t feel so much like a farewell at all. Baez is as insistent on establishing a point and sailing it forward as she ever has been, and it’s clear from the titular opening track that she’s not slowing down even as she approaches retirement. “I’ve grown up here,” she may croon with multiple meanings in mind, but she does so with a restlessness indicative of the bittersweet, wistful plainness through which she approaches her rose-colored glasses.
Yet, she never quite takes a rambler far enough to be seen as irreverent. Baez isn’t coming full-circle here more than she’s inherently sharing the natural extension of her consciousness from across the path she’s carried herself for 58 years as an artist. It’s been a path with more than its fair share of bumps, career-wise or otherwise, and she’s telling us about life how it is for all that it’s worth. The good and the bad here are just as worth it as one another, because it’s all life, and it all contributes to the idea that a greater hope resides just over that next hill to climb.
Baez spends a fair bit of the album reflecting on life and waxing the “hopeful end” cerebrum well enough. Although, she still shines the brightest on those songs where she champions the underdog or speaks from the heart of all people. For long-time fans of Baez and those who are just getting into folk music and learning about her, this is the most encompassing warm embrace that she could ever offer in this reflective, but sleepless farewell.
Luckily then, these songs are also a-plenty on Whistle Down the Wind and oftentimes go hand-in-hand in her overall life reflections. Most prevalently, perhaps, is her take on Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace”. Sitting patiently at the center of the album as its sixth track, Baez evokes the same heartful power that she has since the start singing these sorts of songs.
It’s a reminder of what, at the center of it all, someone like Baez is all about—she won’t take no for an answer, but she won’t quite take a plain yes either. The world isn’t just a monochrome mechanism, and she approaches it like the infinitely-sided die that it is. What we need is a call to action, to learn and love from one another intimately. In doing so, we can move forward with the hopeful steps that we need to in order to collapse the very institutional inequities we’ve devised. While the songs presented here are largely the creations of other songwriters, Baez’s interpretations are so profound that we can often pull something from them that wasn’t learned before.