Joan Baez sings and plays with such understated beauty and elegance that any song she interprets sparkles with glimmers of her just-right vocal phrasing and her cascading guitar work. Her newest album, Whistle Down the Wind, comes a decade after her 2008 Grammy-nominated Day After Tomorrow. Baez’s commitment to social justice and her enduring devotion to the power of love to change our hearts imbues this album with a translucent grace. On Whistle Down the Wind, produced by Joe Henry, Baez has selected songs from Tom Waits, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Henry, and Eliza Gilkyson, among others, that, after hearing her versions, we can now hear only Joan Baez singing.
A world-class group of musicians joins Baez on Whistle Down the Wind: Jay Bellerose on drums; Tyler Chester on piano and organ; David Piltch on upright and electric bass; John Smith on acoustic guitar; Mark Goldenberg on gut-string guitar; Greg Leisz on six- and twelve-string acoustic guitars, electric guitar, mandocello, mandolin, and Weissenborn; Patrick Warren on piano and organ and additional keys. Gabriel Harris plays percussion on “Another World,” and Janeen Rae Heller plays saw on the title track.
The album opens with Tom Waits’ and Kathleen Brennan’s pensive “Whistle Down the Wind,” a song that is haunting in its evocation of our often-frustrated searches for place or for home. The song opens sparely with simple guitar chords and drums over which Baez sings mournfully of “place where they never sleep” and a “broken windmill/where there’s no wind at all.” Heller’s saw on the bridge creates an ethereal atmosphere and underscores the aching gloominess of the song. It’s a perfect album opener, for it sets a tone for the rest of the album, promising that the rest of the songs will achieve this beauty.
Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace” is one of the most poignant songs on the album, reflecting a moment of love and hospitality turned upside down before a community is restored through forgiveness, hope, and song. The song focuses on the killing of nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015. The opening verse captures the ordinariness of the moments prior to the shootings: “A young man came to a house of prayer/They did not ask him what brought him there/He was no friend, he was not kin/but they opened the door and let him in.” The scene turns violent, but the redemptive moment comes when the president speaks at the funerals and sings “Amazing Grace.” A simple piano score adds a clarity and bracing force to the lyrics; all through the song notes from the hymn “Amazing Grace” echo and flow under the melody, until the final words where the tune elides into a somber four bars of the hymn. It’s a moment of clarity for these times in which we live where a leader reaches out to offer a healing voice of hope to a grieving community.
Baez’s version of Gilkyson’s “The Great Correction” captures perfectly the “let’s-sing-this-in-our-loudest-voices” nature of the song. There’s a jauntiness in her version, but it’s in the service of bringing together voices that are “gonna shout 'til the walls come tumblin’ down.” Baez captures the visionary character of the song, and its opening words continue to be sobering: “Down on the corner of ruin and grace/I’m growin’ weary of the human race/Hold my lamp up in everyone’s face/Lookin’ for an honest man.”
Whistle Down the Wind may be Joan Baez’s best album, for it showcases her way with a song: her emotional engagement with the lyrics, her passionate delivery of the story in the song, her somber or soaring musical setting of the lyrics. There are moments of purity, clarity, and grace on Baez’s album delivered powerfully and poignantly through her vision and her voice.