IN THE WINTER OF 1949, when Joan and Mimi Baez were little girls, their aunt Tia moved in with them. She came through the chimney and brought music and ice cream in her carpetbag, or it seemed that way to them at the time.
Joan, who was eight, and Mimi, who was four, shared a bedroom on the second floor of the Baez family’s clapboard house in Menlo Park, California, near Stanford University, where their father, Dr. Albert Baez, thirty-seven, worked in a cold war program to teach physics to military engineers in training. Their older sister, Pauline, ten, kept to herself in her own small room, a converted closet, and their mother, thirty-six, for whom Joan was named, tended to the house while listening to classical music on 78-rpm records a salesman picked out for her. The female contingent of the family submitted reluctantly to rooming-house life until the elder Joan’s sister Tia, thirty-nine, joined them, freshly divorced for unimaginably adult reasons never to be discussed.
Sisterhood understitched the Baez household. The first of Joan and Albert’s children had been named for Tia, whose proper name was Pauline Bridge Henderson (Tia meaning “aunt” in Spanish, Albert’s native language), just as the third born had been named for their father’s only sister, Margarita; Mimi was her middle name, which everybody in the family except Albert Baez preferred. Tia was fair and soft, with long, curly chestnut hair and the free-spirited poise of an artist’s model; she somehow always seemed as if she would prefer to be nude and gazed upon. This may have come from experience: Tia had married a painter, traveled through Europe with him, studied dance with Martha Graham, written poetry…she had, that is, lived all her era’s romantic feminine dreams. Sipping sherry in the kitchen of the boarding house, Tia would regale her sister and the girls—sometimes all three, more often only Joan and Mimi, since Pauline tended to play alone—with stories of her travels and readings from her notebooks. To Big Joan, the relief, the novelty, and the vicarious pleasures that Tia provided nearly outweighed the envy she incited. A strong, handsome woman, the former Joan Bridge had married young and with ambivalence; feeling sinful and confused for having loved another woman, she yielded to the overtures of a gentle Mexican academic who said he would accept her as she was. In the decade to follow, she fixed her resources on rearing children. “You could feel the house lighten up when Tia came in,” Mimi would recall. “But Tia was not a worker, and so Mother was real resentful that Tia’s role was to come around and be the clown, get everyone laughing and basically not hold her end up. Mother carried buckets of stuff, and Tia told stories—and we loved her, because she liked to have fun, and she would tell us stories that seemed really naughty, and she went out on dates with men.”
For several years, Tia kept company with a fellow living in the boardinghouse, Rugger, a bit of a roustabout with a child’s sense of abandon that delighted the Baez girls. “He’d take my sister and Joanie and Mimi out together, and they’d have a glorious time,” said Big Joan. “He’d buy them all kinds of candy and ice cream, and he’d take them to double features. He’d ruin them! Their father was furious—‘Why do they have to go to a double feature? Isn’t one movie enough?’ I couldn’t explain it to him. The girls were still girls—they were supposed to have fun. He was beside himself. He was terribly jealous, and so was I.” Evidently picking up glimmers of information from snatches of grown-up talk, Joan and Mimi seemed troubled by the family conflict over Rugger. “The girls were very upset that the adults were at odds,” Tia remembered. “They thought they were doing something wrong because they were happy, or Rugger and I were doing something wrong because we were in love and enjoying it. I was afraid they were getting the impression that men and sisters don’t mix, and I guess they did. But Mimi and Joanie were fine, as long as they got the same kind of ice cream and the scoops were the same size.”
As they grew, Joan and Mimi drew closer, and their older sister turned inward. “When Mimi was very young, Pauline and I hated her,” Joan remembered. “Mimi was the youngest and the prettiest, so Pauline and I conspired against her. That didn’t last long. Pauline was a loner.” When she was eleven, Pauline built a tree house and spent much of her time between school and sleep alone there; when Joan asked if she could play with her, Pauline replied, “Sure, you can be the daddy. Go to work. Bye!” At mealtime Pauline would construct a barricade of cereal boxes around her place setting. “After Pauline built that tree house, she never really came out,” said their mother. “Mimi and Joanie discovered each other. They were very different, like my sister and me in a way, but very tight, like us.” Because young Joan could draw (mainly clever, skillful sketches of her family, her classmates, and herself), she was considered the artistic one. Joan also had a quick, sassy wit and a knack for imitating voices—“Joanie was so funny,” said Mimi, “she made you laugh so hard you almost didn’t mind that it was at your own expense.” A lovely girl with deep liquid brown eyes and an easy, disarming smile, Joan thought of herself as unattractive; surgery to remove a benign tumor had left a tiny scar on her torso that she saw as monstrous. She endured schoolyard taunts because of her Mexican surname and dark skin, and she coveted her little sister’s fairer, delicate beauty. “Mimi was the pretty one,” said Dr. Baez. “She looked like an angel. All three of my girls, they all were beautiful—Pauline, Joan, too—beautiful. But not like Mimi.” She had physical confidence and poise; under Tia’s patronage, Mimi had been studying dance since the age of five. She struggled with books, however, because she was an undiagnosed dyslexic, and her schoolwork suffered. Mimi envied her sister Joan’s way with words and her ease in adult company. “Joan was very jealous of Mimi’s looks. It was very hard for Joan. Joan always thought she was ugly,” said their mother. “I think Mimi was just as jealous of Joan…[because] Joan was so talented. They were both talented, but—I don’t know…I just know they loved each other so much, I thought sometimes they’d kill each other.” The girls held hands constantly; once as they were walking, Mimi squeezed so tightly that her fingernails dug into her sister’s palm, and blood smeared onto the sides of their dresses.
Encouraged by one of Albert’s university friends, the Baez family started attending Quaker meetings, and they always brought the girls, all of whom endured the sessions dutifully and absorbed elements of the Quaker ideals that they understood and liked. “It was something we had to do, and it was a chore,” Mimi would remember. “But all three of us seemed to get the basic idea that peace was a good thing. We basically made faces at each other [at the meetings].” Still, one speaker succeeded in capturing Joan’s attention: a small, frail monkish fellow named Ira Sandperl. Moved by his lecture on pacifism, Joan asked him for advice in applying his principles to her life. “I asked him how I could learn to get along with my sister Mimi,” Joan recalled. “She was very beautiful, and we fought all the time. It seemed so endless and unkind. Ira said to pretend that it was the last hour of her life, as, he pointed out, it might well be. So I tried out his plan. Mimi reacted strangely at first, the way anyone does when a blueprint is switched on him without his being consulted. I learned to look at her, and as a result, to see her for the first time. I began to love her.”
All three girls showed interest in music. Pauline had taken some piano lessons and had practiced regularly but froze when it came to playing for her teacher. She and Joan (who had also studied piano briefly) both learned how to play the ukulele from a Stanford colleague of Albert Baez, Paul Kirkpatrick. “He taught Joanie and me the same thing on that ukulele the same day,” remembered Pauline. “I became so concerned in doing my little three chords correctly, I didn’t want anybody to hear me at all until I had it perfect. And Joanie picked up the thing and just started strumming away, and if the chords weren’t quite right, it didn’t matter—she played it for the people right off, you know. And then she just went on playing, because everybody clapped and cheered and said, ‘Oh, isn’t it great!’ And me, I kept practicing my three little chords until they were perfect. I guess they didn’t think I was very good, because they didn’t even hear me. But it was like that. Joan was ‘Ta-da!’—center stage.” During one of these living-room performances, Joan decided to sing, too. “Singing in the house while I played the ukulele—that was the first time I remember people saying, ‘Oh, you have a very nice voice,’” Joan recalled. Mimi scored high on a third-grade music aptitude test and took violin lessons for several years. “I did very well, but I was really more interested in singing,” said Mimi. “But that was more of Joanie’s thing.”
Late in the spring of 1954, when Joan and Mimi were thirteen and nine, Tia and Rugger took them to a concert in the gym of Palo Alto High School. It was an informal program of songs and talk to raise funds for the California Democratic Party, featuring Pete Seeger. Tia considered herself politically aware and liberal, like Big Joan and Albert, and she wanted Joan and Mimi to hear Seeger. “I liked him very much,” Tia said. “I thought if I still had some influence on those girls, they should hear something they weren’t going to hear on the radio.” Indeed, Seeger could not be found on any of the country’s commercial stations, nor on records from the major labels, in concert halls, or in nightclubs; he had been blacklisted in 1952 for his association with Communism. Along with Woody Guthrie and Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and folklorist Alan Lomax, Seeger had been a central figure in the boomlet of folk-style recordings and performances between the Depression years and the beginning of the Second World War. By 1950 Seeger, as a member of the Weavers (along with singer-guitarist Fred Hellerman and singers Lee Hays and Ronnie Gilbert), had helped break folk into the pop mainstream with the quartet’s hit records of “On Top of Old Smokey,” “Wimoweh,” and Leadbelly’s composition “Goodnight, Irene,” among others. The accomplishment carried irony for a socialist such as Seeger—a demonstration of his music’s appeal to the masses through commercial means that brought sizable profits to the record industry, as well as to the Weavers. With the rise of the cold war and the intensification of anti-Communist sentiment in the early 1950s, Seeger found himself liberated from the irony of mass popularity and economic success; he was no longer welcome in most concert halls and nightclubs and returned to performing in community centers, schools, and private clubs for modest sums, usually under the auspices of organizations associated with the left. At Palo Alto High School, the political component of his presentation was one of implication. “It seemed to me that I could make a point if I made it gently,” Seeger explained. “I suppose you could say what I was doing was a cultural guerrilla tactic. I sang songs about people from all walks of life, and I talked about how anyone from any walk of life could sing this kind of song himself. What I was getting at was the idea of flip-flopping the power structure, so every individual had some power, rather than all the power being centered on a few organizations or just one. I said, ‘Sing with me. Sing by yourself. Make your own music. Pick up a guitar, or just sing a cappella. We don’t need professional singers. We don’t need stars. You can sing. Join me now….”
The idea surely ran counter to the prevailing cultural tenets of glamour and professionalism: Down with the aristocracy of the Hit Parade, up with egalitarian amateurism. A message with appeal to the disenfranchised, the disconnected, and the tone deaf alike, Seeger’s call for musical insurgency touched both Joan and Mimi Baez, as it would connect with many other young people who saw him perform during the 1950s. “Joan told me later that it was after that concert that she looked herself in the mirror and said, ‘I can be a singer, too,’” Seeger recalled.
“I don’t remember the actual concert anymore,” Joan would say. “All I know is that was a major moment for me.” (Mimi would not remember any of it.)
“I remember,” said Tia. “Mimi and Joan both announced that they decided they wanted to sing. Mimi was not exactly a big out-there, out-in-front girl like Joan. But she really loved music. Pete’s message was, you know, ‘That’s okay. You don’t have to be a star to sing. Sing for yourself—that’s what matters.’
“Joan came away with something a little bit different…‘Wow, maybe you don’t have to look like a movie queen, and you can still be a star. I can sing. So I can go up there like Pete Seeger, and everybody will like me.’
“And I thought, ‘Now, how different can two girls be and want to do the same thing?’”
POSITIVELY 4TH STREET Copyright © 2001 by David Hajdu.David Hajdu's first book, Lush Life, won the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and is being adapted for a feature film. Hajdu lives in New York City and writes for The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, and The New York Review of Books.