It’s been a year of belated accolades for the princess of modern protest and the earth mother of the folk faithful everywhere. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, given high honors by Amnesty International, lauded by the Grammy Hall of Fame, and inducted into the archives of the Library of Congress, Joan Baez continues to carry her distinctive torch into her eighth decade, long after marching side by side with Martin Luther King, singing the praises of Nelson Mandela, quieting the crowd at Woodstock and duetting with Dylan in the solemn, candle -it environs of Newport and Carnegie Hall. Credit her with never losing credence or disengaging with contemporary conceits, a fact not lost on those who found her reemerging so triumphantly on her classic reboot, Diamonds & Rust and recently celebrating her 75th birthday surrounded by today’s upper echelon of singers and songwriters.
Consequently, Whistle Down the Wind becomes another victory lap of sorts, a collection of songs with hallowed credits that include TomWaits, Josh Ritter, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Eliza Gilkyson, all of whom owe a debt to Baez that’s only now being repaid. Coming a full decade after her Grammy-nominated, Steve Earle-produced effort Day After Tomorrow, it finds her turning production duties over to Joe Henry and settling in for a captivating sojourn well suited to her earnest intents. Mostly gone is the quivering falsetto, replaced instead by a smoothly captivating cadence that makes songs such as the title track, “Civil War” and the timely yet ironic “The President Sang Amazing Grace” ring with her trademark lilt. Like the aforementioned Diamonds & Rust, it finds Baez straddling the worlds of both the classic and the contemporary, each a reflection of her continued relevance and prolonged assurance at a time where her grace and presence are needed more than ever.
With the announcement that Baez is embarking on her final series of live appearances, the end of an era may be in the offing. Fortunately for the faithful, Whistle Down the Wind offers every indication that on record anyway, Baez retains both relevance and resolve.