That tree still stands at 12th Street and Berkeley Avenue in Claremont, the house where the Baez family lived from 1960-61.
Joan didn’t live there. She was on the East Coast, launching her career, and then relocated to Carmel.
But her parents, Albert and Joan, nicknamed Big Joan, lived there, as did her sister, Mimi. Another sister, Pauline, was away at college. Joan is said to have visited perhaps three or four times during that year, including for William Claxton’s photo shoot for her second album.
“That is the sycamore tree at the house,” said Charles Zetterberg, a family friend who was a classmate of Mimi’s at Claremont High School that year. “Big Joan told me, ‘That’s the tree.’ ”
On the album’s back cover, a small photo shows Joan, in the same short-sleeved top, playing guitar outdoors, a wall of offset bricks and some plants behind her. That looks like the short wall around the home’s patio a few feet from the tree. Zetterberg confirmed that, too: “That photo was taken in the backyard.”
Baez’s connection to Claremont has been more local lore and rumor than anything else. Claremont isn’t mentioned in Baez’s memoir, “And a Voice to Sing With,” or in David Hajdu’s “Positively 4th Street,” about Joan, Mimi and the ’60s.
With the induction of Baez, 76, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April, the time seemed right to try to settle the matter.
It all hinges on Albert Baez. A prominent physicist who helped develop X-ray microscopes and X-ray telescopes, and a pacifist and Quaker who declined to help with the arms race, instead he focused on education. And he moved often.
While he taught at the University of Redlands in the 1950s, his middle daughter, Joan, who had been born in Long Island, New York, in 1941, attended fifth grade in Redlands; after the family returned from a year in Iraq for UNESCO, she spent seventh through 10th grades in Redlands too.
She wrote in “And a Voice to Sing With” that she learned to sing at Redlands High and performed “Earth Angel” in the talent show.
“In my dreams, our tiny one-story white house in Redlands is the one I return to most often,” Baez wrote.
The family moved to Palo Alto and then Boston. Joan began singing in coffeehouses and was a sensation at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 and ’60. In the summer of 1960, her parents and Mimi moved west yet again, while Joan, 19, stayed behind to record her first album.
Albert had been hired by Harvey Mudd College in Claremont to replace a physics teacher and fellow Quaker, Leonard Dart, who was going on sabbatical.
“Little did we know that he might bring along with him a daughter whose name would become a household word,” retired Mudd professor Graydon Bell wrote in an online reminiscence.
Bell’s piece about the Baez family, from 2001, notes that in listing celebrities with a Claremont Colleges connection, a campus newspaper, the Collage, had recently cited Joan Baez and Mudd, without explanation.
“Since few if any now know how that connection came about, I thought I had better put it into the record for future reference,” Bell wrote. Posterity thanks him.
The family “rented a house on Berkeley and entertained quite frequently,” Bell wrote. “… Because the Baez family were in Claremont for only a short time, the fact that they ever lived here is not well-known.” Joan, he said, “was seen only occasionally in Claremont at that time.”
Joan celebrated Christmas 1960 in Claremont and did some work while here: a concert.
As her debut record, “Joan Baez,” released in November, soared up the charts, Baez performed a solo concert Dec. 21, 1960, at Bridges Hall of Music. (Trivia note: Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee played there one week prior.)
Baez had given her first solo concert only a few weeks before and still was prone to nerves.
“Her dad was a teacher at the college and he had a hand in putting it together. I drove out the evening of the show in a rainstorm to see her perform. She stood about five feet, seven inches tall, looking very skinny in a full-length tank dress with long sleeves. She was (nineteen) years old but looked fourteen … At a little after-party at a house on campus, I searched for her. I remember finding her off in a tiny bedroom, crying — from emotional exhaustion or relief, I suppose.”
Ellen Harper was there too. Her parents, Charles and Dorothy Chase, owned the Folk Music Center — she owns it today — and were friends of the family. She was in eighth grade, two years younger than Mimi. They were all backstage.
“I remember her being so nervous she was throwing up in the ladies’ room,” Harper said of Joan.
During the concert, Mimi joined Joan for a couple of songs, one of them Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty,” Harper recalled.
Bell isn’t the only longtime Claremonter to refer to “concerts” she gave in town, but the 1960 show at “Little Bridges” is the only documented performance until much later.
Harper said her parents and the Baezes gravitated toward each other as folk fans. Joan spent “a week here or there” in Claremont, she recalled, but because Baez had a boyfriend, and her father did not approve of sleep-overs, Joan at least once stayed with friends in Palmer Canyon.
“I only knew that being a fly on the wall, as a kid,” Harper said with a giggle.
Joan came to the Chase home once and became interested in a small guitar owned by Harper’s sister, Sue. Joan offered her $100, took the guitar but never paid.
Later, Sue got a job in New York City with folk manager Manny Greenhill, whose clients included Baez. She lightly mentioned the $100. Greenhill paid her and deducted it from Baez’s next check.
Zetterberg was a banjo player and senior in high school when he met Mimi and the family, whose home was only a couple of blocks from the school.
“It was a great house to be in. There was always music,” Zetterberg said. “Mimi was a nice guitar player already.”
He said he saw Joan there “two, three, four times.” He remembers one instance vividly.
In the frontyard on a warm spring day in 1961, he and classmate Stan Burwell were talking to Mimi and Big Joan. The singer was there too, in shorts and a halter top.
Burwell, trying to be sophisticated, told her as he left, “I hope to see a lot more of you.” Baez, indicating her outfit, joked, “There’s not that much more of me to see.”
“Joan Baez, Vol. 2” was released in September 1961. By then, the family had already left Claremont for Paris, where Albert had accepted a UNESCO teaching position. Bell wrote that Albert expected to be back in a year or two, but he never returned to Claremont.
Joan came back to Claremont at least once. On May 3, 1991, she performed at Bridges Auditorium, the larger Bridges.
According to an account in the Claremont Courier, Baez got three standing ovations.
“The mystery continues as to how much time Ms. Baez spent in Claremont as a teenager,” the unsigned piece reads. Baez said it was good to be back in the area but then, hmph, cited Redlands.
But back to ground zero: the lovely three-bedroom, Spanish-style home on Berkeley, built in 1929, with adobe and block walls, patios and gardens.
The current homeowner, who spoke to me briefly through her front door, said she had been told the Baez family had once lived there but had no further information. I recommend she pick up a vinyl copy of “Joan Baez, Vol. 2” as a keepsake.
As Zetterberg said: “It’s a nice photo. It’s kind of cool the album has a connection to Claremont.”
David Allen writes but does not record Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact email@example.com or 909-483-9339, visit insidesocal.com/davidallen, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.