Joan Baez's Debut Album Still A Wonder

Joan Baez recorded this Vanguard debut in 1960 at age 19. With her impossibly high and pure quavering voice and matching pristine finger picking guitar, she and this album created a sensation that helped shift the "folk-revival" back to authenticity from the commerciality into which it had drifted. Though while she sounded like a barefoot waif recently arrived from the Appalachian mountains, she was born on Staten Island. Her Mexico-born father who grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a minister, was a Stanford PhD credited with co-inventing the X-ray microscope. Her Scottish mother's father was an Anglican priest.

About the recording of this album, Baez told Kurt Loder in a Rolling Stone interview: "It took four nights. We were in some big, smelly ballroom (the Manhattan Towers Ballroom—ed.) at a hotel on Broadway, way up by the river. We couldn't record on Wednesday nights because they played bingo there. I would be down there on this dirty old rug with two microphones, one for the voice and one for the guitar. I just did my set; it was probably all I knew. Just put 'em down. I did "Mary Hamilton" once, that was it. That's the way we made 'em in the old days. As long as a dog didn't run through the room or something, you had it." — Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone, issue no. 393.

The engineer was the great Marc Aubort, interviewed for this site in 2010. The stereo master tape was rumored to have been either lost or unplayable, which led Pure Pleasure to reissue it using a mono tape, though the label used the stereo jacket's artwork. I'm sure that release was reviewed either here or on the old website but I can't find it. Maybe you'll have more luck.

I remember writing in that review about seeing Joan Baez at Town Hall in 1961 as naive 14 year old suburban kid and being confronted for the first time by early hippie/beatnik girls with unshaven legs and hairy armpits stinking of patchouli oil and worse since apparently deodorant was optional. It was an eye and nose opener!

This album was for many youngsters the first encounter with "House of the Rising Sun" and the second for "All My Trials" known to Kingston Trio fans as "All My Sorrows" from its best selling 1959 album The Kingston Trio At Large. Songs like the bleak "Silver Dagger" and "East Virginia" and the love-anthem "Fare Thee Well" carried aloft by Baez's well-rehearsed and delivered performances resonated with a young generation of college and high schoolers eager to break free from their suburban chains. Helping greatly were Vanguard Records co-founder Maynard Solomon's erudite liner notes.

Perhaps the original record's warm atmospherics were an artifact of 1960's era stereo LP mastering but they make for easier listening compared to this reissue's somewhat stark, and occasionally bright "in your face" sonics that I'm sure are what's on the tape. The improvement in transient clarity and eerie transparency make up for the slightly forward balance—probably a microphone artifact. The solution is to lower the volume, which is a good idea anyway. That done, you are on the other side of the microphone in the empty "smelly ballroom", which Aubort no doubt chose to blot out with close miking. Other than on the tracks where Fred Hellerman joins Baez on guitar there's not much in the way of stereophony.

I have two black Vanguard Stereolab "originals". One mastered and processed by RCA, which was small Vanguard's "go-to" mastering and pressing house (my copy was pressed at RCA's Rockaway, NJ pressing plant), and the other a Columbia mastering (1D/1J) that takes the warmth and turns it into muffled and somewhat distant. Neither copy can match the quiet surfaces of this reissue, which I consider to be essential for any "well-rounded" AAA record collection. The album was inducted into the Grammy® Hall of Fame in 2011 and preserved in the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry in 2015. Hearing the 19 year old hit with such ease those impossibly high notes still gets the hair to stand up under my arm pits—I mean on the back of my neck.

Music Direct Buy It Now

Bigrasshopper's picture

Did you also have trouble finding the Pure Pleasure record that you reviewed previously ?
Because if I own that, I wonder if there is a "reason" to consider this, if that was an analog mono, is this from a stereo digital file ? The allusion to a quite AAA pressing is somewhat confusing, but since you never said it was analog, I have to assume it's another one of Gray's digital sources. Not that that is a reason to avoid it, it's just not enough info. for me to consider it.
- Thanks for the memories

Michael Fremer's picture
No confusion about this one.
Bigrasshopper's picture

I like the sound of that, enough to consider this one.

PeterPani's picture

In the internet I could not find an AAA-label for this record. Cut from the analog tapes. But, why do they not simply tell us, what chain they have used between tape and cutter head... The last time I trusted was the Buffalo Springfield Box. Played it twice and gave it away, because listening to it made me nervous - I guess, there was a disharmonic digital step in the mastering chain. By the way - what I always wonder - listening through headphones digital lossless content is mostly okay to me, but listening through speakers mostly no fun at all. Do others have that experience, too? Surely, there are many exceptions on the market - I am sure the new Yoko Ono vinyl is digitally recorded, but that one sounds perfect on speakers, too. It is my pop record of the year 2018. Can easily make you cry that a 85 year old still has such an energy and feeling. No wonder that Lennon fell in love with her.

isaacrivera's picture

... who is an audiophile and analog LP collector assured me it is AAA and sent this link where it clearly says AAA under the "features" tab.

isaacrivera's picture
isaacrivera's picture

This link…

Says "All-analog mastering from the original stereo tapes by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio".

I think we can relax about this one...

PeterPani's picture

Okay, I will buy and give it a listening.

alholio71's picture

...worse than patoucholi oil?

JR465's picture

Hi Michael- Thanks for taking the time to compare the reissue to the original! By your description, warm vs stark, the RCA pressed original is more the sound Im looking for.

Really enjoy the comparison reviews, keep them coming.