What kind of guy produces two daughters that changed the world like Joanie and Mimi Baez did? Daughter number three, Pauline, managed to stay out of the spotlight but she’s got to be a world-changer too.
Albert Baez made his own impact on the world, although perhaps in a more soft-spoken way. There was something thankfully off-kilter about him. First, in spite of his bow tie and Ivy League looks, he was Mexican. At least his parents were – they moved from Puebla to Brooklyn when he was a kid and Albert grew up there. His own Dad had left the Catholic church to become a Methodist minister. When did you last meet a Mexican Methodist minister?
The whole family spent their lives exploding stereotypes. Al went to Stanford, got his Ph.D there and by 1948 had co-invented a microscope that used X-rays to study living cells. In the early fifties, when his pals were going to work for the nuclear weapons establishment, he took his family to Baghdad to build a physics laboratory at the university there. Then he went to work for UNESCO, teaching science all over the world.
By the time they dropped back down on the Peninsula, where Professor Al took a position at Stanford, Joanie was nearly twelve.
I don’t know if it’s that much fun living in a stereotype exploding family when you are twelve. Here’s a description of 12 year old Joan from the obit in the San Francisco Chronicle:
James Cavener, a onetime student and longtime friend, said
Mr. Baez may have inspired Joan Baez’s musical career with
the purchase of a ukulele.
“I remember when Joanie was about 12 and was a very unhappy
girl,” Cavener said. “She was half Mexican and that was a
stigma and she didn’t feel attractive. In her solitude, in
her reclusiveness, she played the ukulele.”
I’m just about Joan’s age and I went to high school on the Peninsula same as she did, and I can confirm it was no place to be a dark skinned beauty from a high caste family. It’s not that prejudice was rampant. Our 1958 student body president was a black guy named Bill Pettis and we were was damned proud of him – or maybe proud of how liberal we were. But he was another anomaly – like Joan. I don’t remember Bill hanging out at any of the rich kids’ parties, although maybe he did.
In 1958, Professor Al took a job at MIT and hauled the family to Boston. He was a music lover, and one night he took his 17 year old daughter down to a Cambridge coffee house called Club 47 to see the new fad – young college folksingers tellin’ about Woody Guthrie, tellin’ about the Carter Family, singing about those young maidens who got murdered by their lovers (who were always named Willie) and only the pretty birdies were left to mourn.
As longtime readers of this blog know, I care a lot about Joanie Baez, and I want to know more about the family that produced her. It’s not just her music, her glorious voice which lifted me from the dark sorrow of my youth over and over and over. Not just her spirit, but her courage. She stood on the lines and got busted just like the other demonstrators. More than once I saw Joan appear out of the night with her acoustic guitar and sing to encourage protesters on the line like me. She wasn’t just an entertainer, know what I mean? She stood for something.
I want to stand for something too.
Maybe she’s a skunk in person, how should I know? But I will give her honor as long as I write this blog. My Saint Joan. No irony intended.
I think Professor Al taught his children well. To quote from his LA Times obit:
Joan Baez admired her father — a Quaker and pacifist — for valuing teaching and turning away from potentially lucrative defense work.”We would never have all the fine and useless things little girls want …. Instead we would have a father with a clear conscience,” she recalled in her memoir. “Decency would be his legacy to us.”
What a great family. What a great Dad. May God bless you, Dr. Baez, and welcome you into his Kingdom with rejoicing.
For more about the Baez Family:
R.I.P. Albert, a personal reminiscence from a science blogger who spent time with him in the nineties.
Noted scientist was father of Joan Baez and Mimi Farina. Obit from Dr. Baez’s hometown paper, the Marin Independent Journal.
And, of course, Joanie’s own website.
Not to mention the Pondering Pig’s various little essays on the dear girl. Available by clicking the appropriate tags.