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Arts & Entertainment

Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: Volume II by Joan Baez

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This extremely early effort of an extremely young Joan Baez was one of those haunting influences on my grade school years. Somebody was always putting it on the turntable to the point I internalized the melodies and words, but the effect it had on me went far beyond "enjoyment of music."

Joan Baez, Volume 2, consists of folk songs. There are murder ballads, and songs of betrayal, suspicion and abandonment. Hearing this as a third grader was like getting an early education about adult life, or more precisely, about death and dying. For example, a young woman pleads, "Oh mother, oh mother, go dig my grave." She dies of sorrow because Sweet William, whom she spurned, died of grief.

Things are bleak, and Baez's silver voice has just the chilling touch to deliver it straight, with no irony and no theatrics. (These Irish-Scots ballads are really good at rendering sad stories without sentimentalism on the one hand, nor Grand Guignol-style excess on the other.) As a small town kid, though, it was like getting a premature dose of Jean-Paul Sartre's "existential nausea." Eventually I had to run outside when the music filled our living room.

I hadn't heard this version of "Barbara Allen" for decades. When the record skipped, I used my finger to steady the tone arm and by song's end I found my eyes unexpectedly filled with tears. It's a ghastly sad tale, and the most beautiful example of the singer's voice I have heard.