Joan Baez, Grace Slick, Joni Mitchell.
There are a lot of pioneering women in popular music but these three quickly come to mind. To be fair, these three are more than just music. They are activists, artists, writers, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees, and whether they are comfortable with the label or not, role models.
Joan Baez is known for her work in the civil rights movement during the 1960s and her beginnings as a folk musician. In 1960, she appeared at the Newport Folk Festival and in 1963, had a Grammy nominated album. In many respects, it is difficult to separate her music from her activism. She was involved in protests against the Vietnam War in the early 60s and participated in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Her music embraced her beliefs and tapped into the American spirit of confronting wrong and personal sacrifice.
In 1969, while appearing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, remarks she made about draft resistance were deleted from the program, and ultimately the series was cancelled by the network. Baez was somewhat of a lightning rod for controversy, but her music career continued to be very successful with an appearance at Woodstock.
During the next four plus decades, Baez toured, recorded and continued her involvement in human rights, aid projects and protests over a variety of issues. She has been nominated for eight Grammy Awards and has eight Gold Albums.
Joan Baez wasn’t the first female to pick up a guitar and be a folks singer but she helped popularize modern folk music and she put herself at the front of societal causes. She clearly lived the spirit in her songs. She did unpopular things and turned off a large part of the record buying public with her views and outspokenness on issues like civil rights, refugees, Watergate and Vietnam. Baez has a distinctive voice and has used her talents and popularity to raise awareness and social consciousness.
Joan Baez helped give a voice to a generation and showed that anyone, especially women, could have a point of view and be heard. She is retiring from touring as she begins to wrap-up her musical career, with a new album and final tour.
Grace Slick went from The Great Society to The Jefferson Airplane, then to The Jefferson Starship, finally to just Starship. In her 25-year career she had many ups and downs and finally walked away from the music business and didn’t really look back.
Slick began as a member of The Great Society, a band that included her then-husband, and jumped to The Jefferson Airplane, soon to be the biggest thing in America, including an invitation to the White House.
Grace Slick was one of the lead singers and writers for the Airplane. She had fashion model looks and a take-no-prisoners attitude. She had great stage presence and a fearlessness; she could blend in with the males in the band or hold center stage. She had swagger, but much more dialed-down than Janis Joplin. Grace Slick had a silky voice for ballads or could put it in overdrive for full metal rock tunes.
Slick had very anti-establishment views and used her music and fame to promote them, but not to the degree of Joan Baez. Slick was more a hippy than a protester.
Grace Slick also made it okay for girls to be in a band. It didn’t need to be an all girls band either. She made it okay to play with the boys and even lead the band. Look at the rock groups that followed or even the solo performers; Grace Slick kicked the doors in, and the female rockers followed. Would there be the group Heart, or Pat Benatar, Martha Davis/The Motels, Chrissie Hynde/Pretenders, The Runaways, The Bangles, The Go-Go’s, The Pixies, The B-52’s or other successful female bands – without Grace Slick leading the way?
Joni Mitchell probably inspired more kids to pick up guitars than even the Beatles. She helped usher in the period of the singer/songwriter of the early 1970s. She proved that with some good songs, all you needed was a guitar or a piano, and you could make a pop album, not just a folk album. Her expressive voice, unusual guitar tunings and eclectic songs added a new verse to the pop scene. She may have looked like a young hippie chick but she sounded like an orchestra of ideas, images and experiences.
I listen to new performers every month and I hear Joni Mitchell in the songs of many young women who pour their souls into their music. Her early albums are on numerous all-time great album lists. Her early songs had basic arrangements, yet she backs a carload of story and into three minute songs. As her songs became known, other artists grabbed them and recorded them. “Both Sides Now” and “Woodstock” are two big hits for other artists.
Not content with her success, Mitchell threaded jazz chords and more complex arrangements into her pop song structures. She confused some but enchanted other listeners. Radio had a hard time categorizing her, and in time, this worked against her. But no worries. She soldiered on, with new songscapes and artistic frontiers to explore.
She reduced her live performing and began to phase out her recording career. In the first decade of the 2000s she released her final album, expressing disenchantment with the music industry.
A painter, she has described herself as a painter first, a musician second. Some of us struggle to find one artistic outlet, she has several. Her website is organized by decade to show samples of her painting.
In recent years, Joni Mitchell has battled to recover from a serious health issue. She is a very private person with a very public career. She has looked at both sides, finding a way to live life on her own terms. Amazing.