This Week in Zoe News

Bob Needham:

Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” about Barack Obama helping a nation heal after the Charleston church shooting, was an emotional highlight.

KG MacGregor:

I recently read that she couldn’t sing “Amazing Grace” anymore, that it was too hard on her voice. So she sang “The President Sang Amazing Grace” instead. *sob*

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This Week in Zoe News

Baez has been doing a lot of phone interviews with local papers, some on the tour route and some not. It’s a weird little cottage industry. The interviews don’t pick up anything new, indeed they are very repetitious. Given the internet I wonder why they still happen.

Anyhoo, we have the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Q: There are some powerful songs on your new album such as “The President Sang Amazing Grace” about Barack Obama at the service for the Charleston church shooting victims.

A: Those are absolutely powerful. The “President” song and “Another World” take the album to a different level. I love that album.

The San Diego Troubadour has a long reflection on Joan’s career:

However, she was inspired enough to record a song in 2015 after President Obama spontaneously sang “Amazing Grace” during a eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who had been murdered in his own church by a racist during a prayer meeting in South Carolina. The song, “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” demonstrates how, once again, Joan Baez’s musical path crossed with history. It was written by Zoe Mulford, a singer-songwriter whose work is built on the vintage music of the Appalachians and the British Isles, much like Joan Baez’s early career. The song appears on Baez’s latest album, Whistle Down the Wind.

While the recording on album effectively resonates the soul of the song with a piano arrangement reminiscent of Ken Burns’ Civil War, there is a poignant performance of Baez singing the song on a Scandinavian talk show during an interview available on YouTube. This is worth seeking out. It shows Baez bringing to life a song of sorrow and hope as she did in 1963. It is vintage Baez. She has not lost her touch.

The song and this performance serves to bookend a career that began with a shy 18 year-old girl quietly stepping into the spotlight and merging a passion for social justice—which was in short supply in 1959—with a love for the unifying power of song.

On her latest album she brings this home by gifting us with Zoe Mulford’s song about a racial tragedy and the inspired response of America’s first African-American president. It portrays a president who seeks to heal and comfort with empathy and compassion in the face of tragedy.

There’s the Chicago Sun Times:

Her stark sentiments about the state of the world are reflected in her latest album, “Whistle Down The Wind,” featuring beatific covers of contemporary artists including the pensive acoustic strummer “I Wish The Wars Were All Over” (Tim Eriksen), the poetic serenade of “Civil War” (Joe Henry) and the clear album highlight, “The President Sang Amazing Grace.” The latter was written by Zoe Mulford in response to Barack Obama’s eulogy for the victims of the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, and is done justice by Baez whose serene soprano crawls right into your tear ducts.

This Week in Zoe News

The trickle of articles as Joan hits major US venues continues.

Paul Levinson:

She said, after one song – a song her sister Mimi sang all the time – that it’s hard to sing and cry at the same time.  At several times in the concert, I felt the same way about applauding and crying.  Especially after she sang Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace”.  (Yes, that’s exactly what the song’s about.)

There’s a mini review and interview by Dan DeLuca for Philly.com:

It includes well-chosen songs by Tom Waits, Josh Ritter, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Anohni, as well as Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” about Barack Obama’s vocalizing at the funeral for nine people gunned down in 2015 at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C.

Because, first of all, I can take advantage of the one thing Trump has done for me, which is to make all of these songs more meaningful. I mean, “The President Sang Amazing Grace” is not an angry song. It’s a beautiful song that drives its point home.

That song is so meaningful and so is “Another World.” Don’t call that a protest song. It’s just a beautiful song.

How did that one come to you?

My assistant found it. “The President” song just dropped out of the sky. I heard it on the radio.

Hey! A mention in the New York Times:

By contrast, set lists from Elton John’s three-year farewell tour, which comes to New York City in October, show a straightforward jukebox of two dozen certified hits. Mr. Simon and Ms. Baez both chose not to retire with wall-to-wall oldies; their farewell shows revisited past glories but also showed them still engaged, still tinkering.

Still, Ms. Baez also looked to songwriters from younger generations to address the present. Her current outlook, she said, is summed up in a song from Antony and the Johnsons, “Another World.” After she sang about an exploited woman’s revenge in “Silver Blade,” a ballad written for her by Josh Ritter, she cited the #MeToo movement. And in the night’s most topical song, Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” she memorialized the 2015 church murders in Charleston, S.C.

I’ll observe that this is some weird and shitty writing. I mean how does “tinkering” capture either Simon’s or Baez’s career or modus operendi? (They have to have been tinkering in order to still be tinkering.) It’s both weird and deflationary.

I mean Joan made huge adjustments to deal with her radically different voice. Musically, that’s not “just tinkering” by any measure.

It’s like the author felt the need to acknowledge that these weren’t just greatest hits tours but felt the need to dismiss them anyway but was too chickenshit to come right out and do so.

Joan at the Kimmel Center:

Baez’s guitar skills were one of the surprises of the night, as she first displayed them on the second song, Phil Ochs’ “There But for Fortune,” and showed them most overtly – alone on acoustic guitar, plucking the strings — on the night’s most political song, a cover of Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace.”

Another goofy review. Joan’s finger picking is not a surprise to anyone with any familiarity with Joan!

The whole review is yer doing a farewell tour wrong because not enough old stuff.

This Week in Zoe News

The Boston Globe has a review from the US leg of the Fare Thee Well tour:

But the highlights of the night included her readings of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and the traditional and rollicking “Darling Corey,” a plaintive version of Antony Hegarty’s “Another World,” which she called “as dark as it is beautiful, and as beautiful as it is dark,” and the evening’s you-can-hear-a pin-drop song, Zoe Mulford’s haunting “The President Sang Amazing Grace.”

There was also a late album review:

The reading of Mulford’s song, with Tyler Chester’s piano work dominating, takes on a hymnal quality that’s touchingly understated, avoiding sententiousness.

“Avoiding sententiousness since 2018” is a great tag line.

This Week in Zoe News

Another NPR interview:

I mean for instance, if it hadn’t had ‘Another World’ and ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace,’ it would have been a beautiful album of very pretty songs. But it wouldn’t have the depth that it has. So some songs like the president song drop out of the sky, and are just my good fortune to hear.”

The Boston Globe:

The album’s centerpiece is Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” written in the wake of the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, S.C.

For the first few weeks on tour, Baez couldn’t sing it. “If I see the audience get teary, then I’m in trouble,” she explains. “I’d get started and it was so overwhelming. I’d give up and try again the next day.”

The not-so-subtle message of what’s said and not said in the lyrics — about the dignity of the office of the presidency — is not lost on international audiences, Baez reports.

“It goes over the same in Sarajevo, in Turkey. I always say, ‘Turn to your neighbor if they don’t speak English.’ It gets through very quickly.”

And just in case a few people in attendance aren’t following the thread, she makes “a couple more blatant comments,” she says with one more laugh.

Some cool stuff is happening behind the scenes including, I hope I hope, movement toward a new album.

This Week in Zoe News

A couple of nice, recent notes.

Robert Rodi:

The album’s most moving cut is Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” an almost-journalistic account of the 2015 Charleston church shooting and its aftermath, set to a simple piano arrangement. It’s the only cut on which Baez does not play guitar. “No words could say what must be said / For all the living and the dead,” she sings about Barack Obama’s address at the memorial for the victims, “So on that day and in that place / The President sang ‘Amazing Grace.’” For the final repetition, she alters the lyric: “My President sang ‘Amazing Grace.’” And if that doesn’t get you where you live, you’re no friend of mine.

This site does “top 25” lists and Sept was Joan Baez month. “President” made number 4:

To go along with her Fare Thee Well Tour, Joan Baez also released a new album called Whistle Down the Wind. I always try to include a modern song on all of these countdowns as a way of saying that none of these artists have truly passed their prime, but that the music industry has changed instead.  Journey had “After All These Years”, Cat Stevens had “See What Love Did to Me”, and unfortunately Nina Simone passed before I could throw a post millennium song on the countdown.  This selection however, seems like the best one of the modern choices thus far.  I’ve highlighted a few of Joan Baez’s songs that deal overtly with political situations throughout the 60’s and 70’s, and she is an artist who has spent her life advocating for social justice and reform.  I mentioned previously that a lot of these issues have come full circle, and we are often confronting harsh realities and deep divides even within tight familial units.  I try to not be overtly political in my articles, but with an artist like this you really can’t help it, and I deeply deeply believe that the current administration has pushed down the gas pedal on the issues that drive people with different viewpoints further apart.  So after about a decade of not releasing any studio material, Joan Baez released an album of new music, and on it she released the song I’ve selected here.  “The President Sang Amazing Grace” (another interpretation, not originally her song) is about the shooting that took place in Charleston, and Obama’s reaction.  It opens up with a very church sounding piano, and Baez’s voice sounds weathered and aged, but still immaculate; almost as if she’s acknowledging that she has been singing for all these years and what has really changed? A nation and community that so desperately needed healing, and needed to feel like things were going to be alright, were met by a leader who seemed to know exactly what to say.  He did not try to drive a divide between the shooter and the victims.  He did not advocate for the white supremacist shooter or have to be begged to condemn the shooter.  He placed emphasis on the word “United” at the end of his sermon, with the goal of bringing people together, especially in the wake of tragedy.  When he begins to sing, you can see the faces in the crowd light up, even after such an unspeakable tragedy;  a President, who was bashed for being a “secret Muslim” performing one of the most beautifully Christian eulogies I have ever seen by a sitting President.  I could go on for paragraphs, but I will just include the link to the song, and then the link to the event the song is based off of, and hope that you can feel a semblance of the optimism I feel when seeing/hearing those two back-to-back: it’s an optimism that I haven’t truly felt in a couple years.

Zoe in the Washington Post

While in Charleston for the memorial, Zoe was interviewed by a Washington Post reporter for a piece (and video!) about Baez. Alas, Zoe didn’t make the video, but she did make the article which came out today:

Joan Baez watched the mayor of Charleston, S.C., work himself to the point of tears. “She is going to sing not just a song, she is going to sing … the song,” John Tecklenburg declared from a makeshift stage in a downtown park. “This is a lady who’s not just talked the talk and sang the songs of our life, but she has …” and he kept on rhapsodizing until he got out of breath. “She was there in 1963, and she is here with us today … Joan Baez!”

The song she would perform is called “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” and it recounts how President Barack Obama spoke — and sang — at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, the church’s slain pastor. Zoe Mulford, an obscure folk singer three decades younger than Baez, wrote the piece. But Baez — who has been lifting up others’ songs since she championed the first protest visions of a scruffy waif named Bob Dylan — recorded the version that got people’s attention.

Mulford was in the audience at the rally, slightly dazzled. “I heard Joan’s voice for the first time in music class when I was 8 years old,” she told me. “I was listening to her music when I was in my 20s and picking up a guitar and deciding what I wanted to sound like. She has been one of my heroes.”

These pieces are a bit odd. They Post did a ton of work on it, but it doesn’t really dig out anything new or synthesize much.

Update: And the video went up, which has a snippet of “President”.