Ringing Them Bells.

AuthorLueders, Bill

Joan Baez: The Last Leaf By Elizabeth Thomson Palazzo Editions, 224 pages Publication date: October 1, 2020

Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life By Gustavus Stadler Beacon Press, 232 pages Publication date: October 6, 2020

In the early 1970s, Joan Baez moved to the Bay Area, buying a modest home on the San Francisco Peninsula. One of her neighbors was Ginetta Sagan, a Jewish-Italian woman who was imprisoned and tortured during World War II for her role in the Italian resistance. Sagan, who was setting up a West Coast chapter of Amnesty International, dropped by Baez's place to ask for her help.

As Elizabeth Thomson describes in her new book, Joan Baez: The Last Leaf, Baez readily agreed: "Sagan's guest room was their office, Baez answering the phone, stuffing envelopes and, crucially, fundraising, sometimes with small dinners at her home. Soon she was on the organizations advisory board."

Wait a minute: Joan Baez, at the time and for decades since one of the worlds best-known and most revered folk singers, stuffed envelopes and answered phones?

One of the virtues of Thomsons book--as well as a new biography about Woody Guthrie by Gustavus Stadler--is that they make such disclosures seem slightly less astonishing. Both books humanize their subjects within the larger context of their activism. Baez and Guthrie were not mainly seeking money or critical acclaim, but to change the world.

Baez, lauded for what was indelibly dubbed her "achingly pure soprano," has produced dozens of albums and appeared on stages all over the globe. Thomson, a London-based music journalist who has followed Baez's career for decades, provides the backstory to her life's work.

Thomson casts Baez as the fortunate child of immigrant parents--her father was a mathematical physicist of Mexican heritage, her mother a native of Scotland who lived to be 100--motivated by a desire to help others.

"Hers is a life that demonstrates the transformative power of music," Thomson writes, saying Baez "used her gift to bring solace and hope to people who had little of either."

Baez, Thomson writes, "committed her first act of civil disobedience" at age seventeen, refusing to take part in an airraid drill at her high school in Palo Alto, California. That same year, 1958, she performed at an event featuring Martin Luther King Jr., beginning a relationship that would include singing "We Shall Overcome" to 250,000 people at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.

Baez, who...

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