It was 1968, Argentina, I was fifteen, newly in love with the most handsome boy on the planet, and somewhere we heard Joan Baez sing The House of the Rising Sun accompanied by her guitar playing. I had been studying the instrument since I was ten, but had never heard a sound like this before. He gave me one of her LPs for Christmas...
...and so I 'discovered' folk music, and what to play on my guitar that instantly created a warm atmosphere in a gathering of friends, and yes, made me feel less shy and more popular. The songs she sang told sad stories of lost love, murder for love unrequited and gentle protest, and her voice had a ringing quality from low to falsetto which combined wonderfully with the sound of the cords of a Spanish guitar. Soon after that he gave me this one -
- and I would sit and listen to both records over and over until they became what they are now: beloved and scratched.
The relationship ended when he went to study abroad, and I put the records away because I couldn't bear even to see them. But I still loved the songs, and eventually I started playing them on the guitar again.
I followed what the media told us about her life, the protest marches, the marriage to a conscientious objector - it was the time of the war in Viet Nam - their son and the causes she spoke out about. Throughout all this time she continued to tour like the true professional she is, her gentle charm and humour coming across as loud and clear as her lovely vibrato voice. Thinking about her gave me a sort of melancholy and nostalgia for the past and my innocent youth, and that was essentially where she stayed - in the past. Until this week.
I learned last November that she was on tour and that she would be in Bristol in March, and on impulse I decided I had to see her in concert for the first time, however much it cost. £80 later I had secured two tickets up in the gods, for that was all that was left, even back then, and last week I finally went with a friend.
She's 70, ultra slim and smart, quiet at first; I feared that the Bristol audience was the problem. I'm told we're not the most appreciative of audiences and it's rare for standing ovations to be given. Both she and we relaxed after a few songs, and thereafter she played non-stop for two hours without an interval.
She had an entourage of three - Dirk Powell who played many different instruments and had written one of the songs she sang, and Gabriel Harris on percussion. Then there was a young girl of 23 - we were told it had been her birthday the day before - who was both very short and well rounded, with her hair in a ponytail which swung and bounced every time she came on stage to swap guitars for Joan, unplug the one she had been using, plug in the new one and stamp on some pedal on the ground... and this was every single song, for Joan seemed to alternate her guitars constantly. It became comical to watch this procedure with the 'little' girl marching onstage carrying a guitar that was virtually taller than she was. Joan seemed very fond of her.
Her voice has lost some of its vibrato, strength and high notes, but she has modified her interpretation of the songs to allow for this, and the ringing tone was still there. Remembering as I do the many "concerts" I gave in the sitting rooms of friends and relations over the years till I came to England in 1973, as time wore on I found it harder and harder to repeat the same old songs over and over again. I knew the ones I would be asked to play, and I was heartily sick of them after a few years. I have therefore always felt a sense of wonder how professional singers can go on stage night after night and make it sound fresh every time. They can't be thinking of the money in the bank all the time, surely? Joan seemed to thrive on the attention, and gave four encores, ending with the one she had sung and I had known since the very beginning, written by ex-boyfriend Bob Dylan: Blowing in the Wind.
She got her standing ovation and we clapped till our hands were sore.
While writing this post I have learned (with shame, because I should have known) that her percussionist Gabriel Harris is her son. Nice touch.
As I left the theatre and headed towards the car park with my friend - who had never heard her before and tells me she's now a total convert - it was strange to reflect that I felt that I was the one who had aged inside while she had somehow stayed the same. Overwhelmingly though, I had been warmed by being part of a crowd of several hundred people spontaneously singing together to songs they remembered and loved.
Long may she continue to sing.
Photo Finish -
From Lonicera's non-digital archive
Rugby, and Fuerteventura, Canary islands