by Debbie Clark
Joan Baez’ 10th album, Any Day Now was released in 1968 and marked her return to the folk genre she had put aside for the two preceding albums. Baptism– which came out earlier that same year – was an album of both sung and spoken poetry, and 1967’s Joan contained folk renditions of pop and rock n’ roll songs by artists like John Lennon and Paul McCartney and Paul Simon.
However, Any Day Now was not only a return to standard folk but was also a departure from the traditional folk songs that had made up the tracks on Baez’ earliest albums. This album is her first to be made up completely of contemporary folk songs – written in this case by Bob Dylan. In his AllMusic review of Any Day Now,Thom Jurek wrote that this album was an “an intensely inspirational and creative peak” for Baez and established her as the best interpreter of Bob Dylan’s music – although that had already been hinted at on earlier albums. He writes, “Her empathy for the material, her keen understanding of Dylan’s sound world, and her own glorious voice brought another dimension to these 16 songs and, if anything, extended their meanings.”
Like her musical protégé Dylan, Baez was known for social activism, and 1968 was full of social upheaval. The Tet offensive began, signaling the beginning of the end of the Vietnam war, and Martin Luther King’s assassination, the Olympic civil rights demonstration by medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and TV’s first interracial kiss all happened within months of each other. Perhaps these events prompted Baez – who had refused to perform in segregated venues, had marched with Dr. King in Grenada, Mississippi, in ‘66 and had been arrested for blocking the entrance to an military induction center in ‘67 – to record and release this album of songs by an artist known for his protest songs even though she had already released an album that year.
The instrumentation and arrangements of the songs on Any Day Now are unobtrusive and spare. Uncomplicated drum rhythms, piano, the occasional violin and even an organ at times back up Baez and her guitar, and the simple strumming patterns allow her to accompany herself and focus on the words she’s singing. In this album, instrumentation and accompaniment take a backseat to Baez’ rich, clear soprano and the wordplay, metaphors and turns of phrase typical of Dylan. And there is a lot of content in the lyrics. Few songs have choruses, instead they have a one- or two-line refrain or simply go straight on to the next verse.
But there are always exceptions. Any Day Now closes with two songs that are similar in message but wildly different in tone. “Walkin’ Down the Line” flips the script on the structure and style of songs: The guitar playing is more complex, the lyrics are simpler, and the tempo is one of the most upbeat on the album – even if the lines “My feet’ll be a-flyin’/To tell about my troubled mind” paint a picture of trying to outrun problems. If “Walkin’ Down the Line” an up-tempo tune celebrating freedom as escapism, “Restless Farewell” is the other side of the coin. The album’s closer returns to the simple, slow ballad that recognizes the consequences of this restless lifestyle and apologizes for any pain caused but expresses no regret.
Dylan has a lot to say, and he is not going to waste time repeating himself. Baez for the most part sings his words faithfully even though she is a woman singing a man’s songs. Sometimes the song is already written from a woman’s perspective, as in “North Country Blues,” and sometimes she flips the genders like in “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Restless Farewell.” But if switching the lyrics would be too complicated or would change the song too much, like in “Sad-Eyed Lady” or “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” she lets them stand and sings them as written.
Both “Sad-Eyed Lady” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” are love songs to Dylan’s first wife, Sara Lowndes. In “Love Minus Zero,”the narrator describes the woman he loves with contradictory and paradoxical phrases such as “she’s true like ice, like fire” and “my love she speaks like silence.”“Sad-Eyed Lady” is a beautiful song with an almost hypnotic lilting rhythm but when you snap out of it and focus on the lyrics, you realize what a strange choice this is for Baez to sing. It’s the longest song on the album at almost 11 and a half minutes, which is almost double the length of the other songs. It’s also a man’s love song to a woman – specifically her former lover’s love song to a woman who is not her.
Five years earlier, the already-famous Baez met the then-unknown Dylan and fell for both him and his music. She was the one to introduce Dylan to the world by including him in her concerts, but within a couple of years he had eclipsed her in stardom and their relationship ended rather badly. So why this song? If she truly picked the songs for “Any Day Now” at random – as reported on the ever-reliable Wikipedia page for the album – the decision makes a little more sense. Whatever her reasons, it’s a puzzle as to why Baez would sing Dylan’s love song to his wife of the time only three years after he abruptly and unkindly ended their relationship.
The song “One Too Many Mornings” is more evocative of Baez’ relationship with Dylan – though it is in no way a direct parallel. It is a song about a failed relationship with an ambiguous ending. The line “you were right from your side but I was right from mine” indicates a shared blame or responsibility for the end of the relationship, which was not the case at the end of Baez and Dylan’s. It is melancholy and lonely but Baez never makes it bitter. She isn’t bitter either in “Boots of Spanish Leather,” a song about a love that fades away when the distance between lovers becomes too great for their love to span. She gives no indication that she’sthinking of the parallels between the distance separating the lovers in the song and the distance between herself and Dylan. The only waver in her voice is her signature vibrato.
“Boots” is one of the many songs on Any Day Now that has a narrative. “Drifter’s Escape” and “North Country Blues” tell a definite story about rural life, and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” alludes to a groom’s – or in Baez’ case, a bride’s – last moments as a free person. And though this particular song isn’t talking about being imprisoned, two other songs on the recording are. The beachy and chill vibes of “The Walls of Redwing” are juxtaposed with dark lyrics describing life in a prison. However, Dylan is actually describing a Minnesota boy’s reform school, which makes the last few lines – “Oh, some of us’ll end up/In St. Cloud Prison/And some of us’ll wind up/To be lawyers and things” – more depressing than inspiring. The prison imagery continues in “I Shall Be Released,” which also provided the line Baez took for the title of this album. This time it is a prison, and the song both touches on themes of redemption and comments on the death penalty in the lines “I see my light come shining/From the west unto the east/Any day now, any day now/I shall be released.” The song also addresses wrongful imprisonment in the lines “Standing next to me in this lonely crowd/Is a man who swears he’s not to blame/All day long I hear him shout so loud/Crying out that he was framed.”
These two songs could also be making a statement on people and children being imprisoned by conformity or the establishment, because this is social activist Joan Baez singing protest songwriter Bob Dylan’s music and you know they’re not going to keep quiet about social issues. And these two songs aren’t the only songs on this album that provide social commentary. The message is clear from the title in “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” a song about the struggle of having to leave your home but not fitting into your new home, and “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” and “Dear Landlord” both touch on materialism and the commodification of the soul.
Baez must have felt that the words in “Tears of Rage” was the most important out of all the other songs on the album, because she performs it a cappella, forcing you to listen to the message of the song. The Band – the first group to record this song – has on their website a page of analysis and interpretation of the song’s lyrics: America as the child who is rebelling, America is the parent being rebelled against, the song as an allegory for the Vietnam war. And there is a lot of content in the lyrics. But to analyze the lyrics is to analyze Dylan, not Baez, and these notes have devoted so many words to Dylan’s words already. Now is the time to focus on Baez, and she shines in “Tears of Rage.” The song showcases her vocal range and unmistakable yet not unpleasant vibrato that is all the more impressive when you learn all of that is self-taught. The song has the most complex and least repetitive melody on the album, which sets it apart, but it is Baez who draws you into the song and make these four minutes some of the most engaging moments of the whole album.
In a short biography of Baez for the Grove Dictionary of American Music, Mark C. Samples writes that “Although she is acknowledged as a songwriter, her musical legacy inevitably lies in her consummate interpretations of others’ songs.” In the case of “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word,” she interpreted the song so well that it became her song – Dylan hadn’t yet and still hasn’t ever recorded it or performed it. So in the end, it doesn’t matter that Joan Baez didn’t write the lyrics or melodies on Any Day Now, her sparse instrumentation and beautiful voice made the songs hers.