Legendary folksinger’s touching tentative farewell
Joan Baez has been somewhat coy about her future in music. As it stands, the legendary folk singer will be retiring from the road at the end of this year. She has stopped short, though, of saying this retirement will be absolute and left the door open (just a crack) for more studio work.
Still, if Whistle Down the Wind is the last her fans hear from her, they have little reason to mourn; the album, her first in ten years and recorded in a brisk ten days, is a strong distillation of every facet of her artistry and, even if it does so uncertainly, functions as a touching farewell.
As on past albums, Baez is more curator than creator here, choosing songs from venerated peers old and young to interpret in her inimitable way and thus remaining a torch-bearer for the undiluted folk tradition. Her ear for songs that suit her artistic persona remains acute and she wears each like an old jacket.
An inveterate challenger of authority, seeker of truth and advocate for peace, Baez’s political-leaning tracks on Whistle Down the Wind jibe effortlessly and forcefully with her lifelong ethea. Redemption is found via an inevitable, cleansing destruction in Eliza Gilkyson’s “The Great Correction” while Joe Henry’s mournful “Civil War” asserts that “Every truth carries blame / And every light reveals some shame / Progress rides with thieves and whores / The stowaways of civil war.” The most arresting extrospective moment and one of the album’s several emotional cores is Baez’s reading of Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” recounting the 2015 Charleston church shooting and its aftermath – as stark and moving a contemporary folk song as you are likely to find.
Baez’s stately voice has expectedly weathered over the course of her sixty-year career (and she has remarked on her frustration with it), but its changes are hardly detrimental and often, in fact, imbue her vocals with a wholly new gravitas. On the elegiac, Anohni-authored “Another World,” we can hear every sign of wear in her lower register as she ruefully recalls the things she will miss upon leaving this world over prickly, restrained acoustic strums and scattered percussion amounting to another of the album’s poignant highlights, this one facing inward rather than outward.
It is not the only occasion on which Baez waxes reflective on Whistle Down the Wind, and though she often chooses songs in which the personal and political rub shoulders, those that emphasize the former quality resonate longer here, perhaps due to the album’s context in her career. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “The Things We Are Made Of” documents the rewards and the regrets of a life of rootless wandering, its narrator realized beautifully and believably by the traveled and road-weary Baez. On Tom Waits’ “Last Leaf,” she sings with beaten pride, “I’m the last leaf on the tree / The autumn took the left but it won’t take me,” and later boasts, “I’ll be here through eternity / If you want to know how long / If they cut down this tree / I’ll show up in a song.”
Songs like that naturally point to “farewell,” but they also suggest that farewell doesn’t really matter. Folk is a music of transmission and lineage and Joan Baez has, with steady integrity and grace, done more to preserve and advance the tradition than just about anyone still around, here, as ever, ushering new words and voices into its timeless folds. She is indeed one of the last leaves on the tree, but Whistle Down the Wind is a lovely new bud on hers, sturdy and evergreen.