This Week In Zoe News #7.3: Week 1—Odds and Ends

Some reviews came through after yesterday’s posts and there was some chart news I missed!


17 Seconds

Perhaps the most poignant song on the record is her cover of Zoe Mulford’s ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace.’ The song references the horrific event in 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, when a man opened fire on a prayer meeting at a church meeting, killing nine. With Trump in the White House, and American gun laws proving stubborn to change, it resonates deeply, after yet more school shootings. This connects so well with what Baez has done throughout her entire career – she has used her voice to campaign for the oppressed, marching with Martin Luther King for the Civil Rights movement, campaigning against the Vietnam War, and supporting the Dixie Chicks when they faced a hideous backlash against their stance during the second world war.

David Honigmann for The Financial Times

The 45th President is never referred to directly, but a couple of the songs are pointedly chosen. A version of Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace” refers back to the eulogy at the funeral of Clementa Pinckney, murdered along with eight other churchgoers in Charleston in 2015, during which President Obama broke into the old anti-slavery hymn. Baez narrates the story of the murders and the funeral in steely low gospel tones, stretching out the vowels and underlining with her trademark vibrato. “We argued where to lay the blame/On one man’s hate or a nation’s shame.”

There’s another mention in the Guardian (with a link to “President”) by Jude Rogers:

Finally, another 60s icon returns: Joan Baez with Whistle Down the Wind, sounding huskier, angrier, as she sings about civil rights and uncivil deaths. With its teeth exposed, folk really roars.

The Pitchfork review by Stephen M. Deusner should technically be in next week’s round up, but I couldn’t hold it back. They build the whole review around “President” (the first three paragraphs…three out of five!!) and even compare with Zoe’s version! It delves deeper too:

In June 2015, just days after a white gunman shot and killed nine African-American worshipers in Charleston, South Carolina, President Obama delivered a eulogy for the slain Rev. Clementa Pinckney that included an a cappella performance of “Amazing Grace.” It was a remarkable moment for many reasons, not least because it acknowledged that certain horrors and hopes were beyond his powers as a public speaker. That moment demanded a song. Two years later, the folk singer Zoe Mulford wrote her own song about that day and called it “The President Sang Amazing Grace.” It’s a matter-of-fact lyric, as though reluctant to do anything but record history: “The President came to speak some words/And the cameras rolled and the nation heard.”

It is, in other words, exactly the kind of song Joan Baez might have sung 50 years ago. And so, when Baez covers “The President Sang Amazing Grace” on her first album since 2008, Whistle Down the Wind, it feels right. In its subject matter as well as in its funereal pace, it recalls Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday,” written after another act of white supremacist terror, the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Baez included that song on her 1964 album 5, and the extent to which her voice has changed over the last half-century only underscores the extent to which the times have not. Her voice now sounds graver, more deeply grooved by age, with a slight tremble as she recounts the violence in Charleston and its aftermath. Her version is less pretty than Mulford’s, less settled, less communal. When Obama sang “Amazing Grace,” he was joined by a grieving congregation. When Baez sings about that moment, she sounds lonely, her optimism measured at best.

Having lived through decades of protest-song history, Baez knows how to gauge the state of the world and how to pitch her music to reflect it. She chooses songs that convey a sense of ambivalence about our country’s fate, as though she must now work to muster something resembling hope. That struggle is what makes this album so compelling and ultimately so rewarding. Working with producer Joe Henry, who has helmed similar late-career albums by Solomon Burke, Mose Allison, and Allen Toussaint, Baez crafts a lo-fi acoustic palette that makes room for the occasional flubbed note and sounds all the more immediate and intimate for it. She sings Anohni’s “Another World” to an insistent thump against the strings of her guitar, which could be a racing heart or a ticking clock. As with the 2008 original, it’s the details that put the song across and make it more than just a farewell: “I’m gonna miss the sea, I’m gonna miss the snow.” Rarely has Baez ventured so far beyond the folk and roots world to find material, but the song suits her remarkably well as both an ecological warning and as a personal consideration of mortality.

This got a fair number of immediate retweets.


Official Charts has an Americana chart with Whistle debuting at number 2!

And according to VVN Music there’s Yet Another Chart and Whistle is doing very well:

Joan Baez is at her best spot on the British Albums chart in 43 years as Whistle Down the Wind starts at 47. Her last trip that high came in 1975 when Diamonds and Rust went to 28. Three of Baez’ first four albums went top ten in England between 1960 and 1965.

Ah! It’s the Official Charts all albums. Apparently, Whistle entered at 47 (though now is at 31). So we have a chance of beating Diamonds and Rust!