• History

Library of Congress Selects Joan Baez Album for Preservation

3 minute read

Every year, the Library of Congress selects 25 recordings — songs, spoken-word pieces, speeches — that will join the National Recording Registry, an archive of hundreds of sounds that will be specially preserved as crucial parts of America’s history.

This year’s batch, announced early Wednesday morning, features Joan Baez’s eponymous 1960 album, and the selection note from the Library of Congress explains that the groundbreaking artist released it shortly before TIME crowned her the Queen of the Folk Singers. The magazine did not actually use those exact words until later in the decade, but the general idea of her dominance was strongly conveyed in a November 1962 cover story about the folk movement.

The magazine had been tracking her career since 1960, when she was identified as an up-and-comer, and by mid-1962, by which time she had “sold more records than any other girl folk singer in history,” that prediction had clearly been vindicated. For the November story about the movement, a painting of Baez adorned the cover, and John McPhee — then a contributing editor at TIME — was selected to write.

McPhee’s take on folk wasn’t quite a wholehearted embrace (“Anything called a hootenanny ought to be shot on sight, but the whole country is having one,” was his first sentence) but, even so, it was clear that Baez was doing something special:

The people who sit in the urban coffeehouses sipping mocha Java at 60¢ a cup are mainly of college age. They take folk singing very seriously. No matter how bad a performing singer may be, the least amount of cross talk will provoke an angry shhhh.

These cultists often display unconcealed, and somewhat exaggerated, contempt for entertaining groups like the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters. Folk singing is a religion, in the purists’ lexicon, and the big corporate trios are its money-changing De Milles. The high pantheon is made up of all the shiftless geniuses who have shouted the songs of their forebears into tape recorders provided by the Library of Congress. These country “authentics” are the all but unapproachable gods. The tangible sibyl closer to hand, is Joan Baez.

Her voice is as clear as air in the autumn, a vibrant, strong, untrained and thrilling soprano. She wears no makeup and her long black hair hangs like a drapery, parted around her long almond face. In performance she comes on, walks straight to the microphone, and begins to sing. No patter. No show business. She usually wears a sweater and skirt or a simple dress. Occasionally she affects something semi-Oriental that seems to have been hand-sewn out of burlap. The purity of her voice suggests purity of approach. She is only 21 and palpably nubile. But there is little sex in that clear flow of sound. It is haunted and plaintive, a mother’s voice, and it has in it distant reminders of black women wailing in the night, of detached madrigal singers performing calmly at court, and of saddened gypsies trying to charm death into leaving their Spanish caves.

A side note for those nostalgic for a 60-cent cup of joe: that’s $4.64 with inflation. If you’re going to be sad about your Starbucks, complain about the lack of live and legendary music, not the prices.

Read the full cover story, here in the TIME Vault: Sibyl With Guitar

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com