The senior Joan Baez, née Bridge, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her family moved to Canada and then to Madison, New Jersey, to follow her father's work as a minister. She met her future husband Albert Baez, later a prominent physicist, at a high school dance. The couple married in 1936 and had three children: Pauline, Joan, and Mimi.
They traveled widely, including to England, France, Switzerland, Spain and Iraq, as Albert Baez worked for UNESCO as director of science education. Joan Sr. also passed on the music of her Scottish childhood to her children, including songs that her daughter Joan would later record. Joan and Albert Baez were Quakers and pacifists, which influenced their children. Joan Sr. and daughter Joan were both active in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War. In 1967, when the younger Joan Baez was arrested for helping to block the doorway into a U. S. Air Force induction center in Oakland, California, Joan Sr. was detained and jailed with her.
Inside Santa Rita: The Prison Memoir of a War Protestor (1994) was an account of her time behind bars.