Artist, activist, catalyst
by Bruce Mason
• To hear the gentle, but energetic, “Hi, this is Joan Baez” over the phone is to be jarred into the moment. “Sorry I’m late. I’m at home in California working on a painting,” she laughs, pausing, beginning our allotted 15 minutes, which stretches joyfully and generously until the conversation is completed, an hour or so later, my questions answered thoughtfully, truthfully, sometimes carefully, often spontaneously and humorously and always wisely. Well aware of Common Ground’s banner “Serving Peace and Justice for 32 Years,” she says she likes that David Suzuki and Eckhart Tolle are regular contributors.
Baez headlines the Vancouver Folk Music Festival (July 18-20) – and performs at a workshop tribute to Pete Seeger – closing the main stage show Saturday evening. “People ask me if music can change the world. And I say, ‘Yes, if musicians are willing to take risks.’ I think music has the power to transform people and in doing so has the power to transform situations, some large and some small.
“My job is to make it interesting; that’s the trick, especially with unfamiliar songs,” she adds. “In France, they know all the words to Diamonds and Rust but have never heard my biggest hit The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. All over Europe and Latin America, they sing along with Here’s to You, but it was met with silence in Brazil. Later, I learned it was used for army recruitment there.”
The song – she wrote the lyrics – is a tribute to two anarchists sentenced to death in the 1920s in the US for their beliefs, rather than because of any evidence that they committed the robbery and murder they were accused of. The case became known as the Sacco-Vanzetti Affair and the song has also been used in film soundtracks and, ironically, in the video games Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and 5: Ground Zeroes.
“I judge a performance by how fidgety the audience is. I no longer have the power all by myself, but my son Gabriel and Dirk Powell – my music machine with a big heart – are onstage with me,” Baez notes. “My voice is much lower these days and I prefer it. I’ve lost some of the high register needed for ballads. I’m much more comfortable, especially with new material and contemporary songs, where I’m in a different zone. There’s also a lot less vibrato. Some people my age shouldn’t still be singing, where the vibrato is very wide, out of control and not very attractive. I try to avoid that. And I can tell you that I’ve never enjoyed performing as much as I am right now!”
Curious about how she has sustained her intense passion, motivation and energy, I asked what many will want to know when they see her photo on the cover: “How does she look so good at age 73?”
“Thank you, that’s kind.” she answers. “My voice is a gift I was born with. So is my desire to share it, which has brought me the most satisfaction. And I guess you can now add: inheriting good bones. This may not be exciting, but I’ve led a disciplined life. I’ve taken care with my diet, exercise and meditation, etc. If you’re committed to singing meaningful songs, you also have to be committed to leading a life that backs that up. People tell me they haven’t got time. But we must make time. We don’t get to choose how we’re going to die, or when. But we can decide how we’re going to live. Now. And action is the antidote to despair.”
Joan Baez actively gives a damn. She cares passionately about the human condition. That’s obvious to anyone who’s listened to any of her 50+ albums or is aware that she marched arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Vaclav Havel and other folks she’s befriended along her remarkable life’s journey. She’s performed at the 1963 March on Washington, Woodstock, Live Aid and Occupy Wall Street. She’s also had tumultuous, but lasting, relationships with the likes of Bob Dylan, Steve Jobs and married and amicably divorced jailed draft resister David Harris.
Recently she was widely quoted: “This world is f**king falling apart and I don’t think it even matters who’s quibbling with who. Global warming is going to get us and that’s going to be it. That’s something I don’t want to say around young people, but what I can say is, ‘Little victories and big defeats’ because if we recognize what it is we’re up against we can still function and be decent and compassionate. Maybe that’s the best that can happen right now.”
However, several weeks ago, she says she changed her mind, slightly. “My ex was speaking at our granddaughter’s class of 10-year-olds. He told them that unless they found new options and ways to live, the world may be uninhabitable by the time they are 40. And guess what. Knowing that didn’t kill them. No one died. And a few decided to fight climate change.”
Her own childhood was as distinctive and legendary as the rest of her life, defined by her illustrious career in front-line activism and her work as a catalyst and an eyewitness to history. Her grandfather was a co-inventor of the x-ray microscope and author of one of the most widely used physics textbooks. Her family converted to Quakerism. “As a child, I was given a ukulele and learned four chords to play rhythm and blues,” she recalls. “My parents worried that music would make me into a drug addict. Later when I drank a glass of wine in front of my father, he was convinced I was headed straight to Hell.” In April of 2013, her mother – a Scot, affectionately known as ‘’Big Joan’ – died, days after her 100th birthday.
“I had a very poor self-image growing up in California, close to the border, where Mexicans – which I am, half of me and named Baez – weren’t respected. I think that’s why I began siding with the underdog – because I felt like one myself. But my auntie and her boyfriend took me to hear Pete Seeger play when I was 13. I’m still trying to adjust to the fact he died in January [see Common Ground, March, 2014]. Most music seemed silly after that concert. It was the coming together of social awareness, of courage, of songwriting – that changed everything for ever.
“A few years later, in 1956, I first heard Dr. King speak about non-violence, civil rights and social change. That was ‘it’ for me. He brought tears to my eyes and we became close friends. My life doesn’t include violence. Non-violence is organized love. The longer you practise it and the meditative qualities you will need, the more likely you will do something intelligent in any situation.”
In 1958, at age 17, Joan committed her first act of civil disobedience as a conscientious objector by refusing to leave her Palo Alto High School classroom for an air-raid drill. “I went to jail for 11 days for disturbing the peace; I was trying to disturb the war,” she would say later. “You go into jail as a pacifist and come out a stronger pacifist.”
Six years later, she publicly endorsed resisting taxes, withholding 60% of her income tax and founding the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence (with her mentor Ira Sandperl). Singer David Crosby recalls her fight against the Vietnam draft: “She would stand there and say ‘you don’t have to do this.’ And they would spit at her and call her every name under the sun. And she would keep trying. And every once in a while she would manage to pull a guy out of the line. After going to jail, she’d get out, go home, take a shower, have a meal and go right back and start over. That’s the kind of courage you don’t often see.”
Her accompanist Dirk Powell – arguably the finest traditional multi-instrumentalist on the planet, says, “To make music with her is an amazing opportunity. We’ve been all over the world, walking on stage and looking out at people whose lives have been transformed by this person, their lives changed because she brings something spiritual and powerful. Her music has that power. She can be at home anywhere. She loves that spirit. She loves dancing, she loves music.”
After hundreds of appearances with Baez, he still gets chills when she shares stories, including one about a civil rights march. “During one hotel stop, staff were unable to awaken Dr. King from the exhaustion of his grinding schedule. Someone asked Baez to sing him a song. So she went into his hotel room, leaned down by his ear and sang Swing Low, Sweet Chariot to wake him up. He said, ‘I think I hear the voice of an angel. Sing me another one, Joan.’”
Baez recalls, “The March on Washington was massive. I remember looking out to a sea of people, which grew and grew and grew to as far as you could see. I also recall 25,000 people doing “The Wave” during a concert in Turkey and performing at Woodstock, pregnant with Gabriel. We went back to a reunion concert and both of us were celebrities.”
She also remembers first being aware of her own mortality when she travelled to Vietnam to see firsthand the effects of the war and to deliver mail to US prisoners being held in Hanoi. She hunkered down in a bunker during the US bombardment that lasted 11 days over Christmas in 1972.
“Making mischief” with Vaclav Havel is a fond memory; she wrote a poignant poem at his death in late 2011. When she first met the future Czechoslovakian president, he carried her guitar through the airport, pretending to be her road manager to prevent his arrest by government agents. During her concert, her microphone was shut off, prompting her to sing a cappella to the illegal protest gathering of 4,000. Havel cited her as a great inspiration and influence in that country’s “Velvet Revolution,” which overthrew the Soviet-dominated government. She would also play a key role in bringing Amnesty International to the US.
Barack Obama is the only politician she’s ever endorsed. “I was moved by his speeches; I thought he was like Martin Luther King. I’m happy to have felt that wonderful feeling of community we hadn’t had for 40 years. I think if he had stayed outside of office and led a movement, we could have made a lot of changes. But that didn’t happen. I’m surprised he strayed so far from the dream. He has a photo of Gandhi in his office. I don’t understand the man.
“But the glow was gone when he entered the Oval Office. We expected too much and couldn’t have imagined the rise of the right wing agenda with all its meanness, selfishness and ignorance of poverty. In the early days, there was a focal point – civil rights, the Vietnam War. Today, there are a million issues and causes. There isn’t a concentrated topical atmosphere today that approaches the 60’s.
“Still, young people are doing wonderful things. I’m touched by the music of a new generation although I don’t always understand what the songs mean right away. My job is to find what reflects today, and, of course, choose music that I can sing.’’
During our interview, there was ample evidence of a trait the New York Times observed: “Ms. Baez’ sense of humour has always been her saving grace. Just when she has begun to seem intimidatingly high and mighty, her jokes, delivered with a sweet, goofy smile, bring her back to earth, where she is needed as much as ever.”
When I told her I was going to my 50th high school reunion after the interview, she advised, “Be brave. I saw a button that read ‘It’s OK. I don’t recognize you either.’ There’s lots that people do between reunions that they could wear on their chests.
“If people have to put labels on me, I’d prefer the first to be a human being, the second, a pacifist and the third a folk singer. For much of my life, I was in therapy to handle my intense stage fright, neurosis and all that shouting. I was 48 before I began to get the demons out and my therapy included painting. I am not the person I was then. I didn’t have much fun. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad for everything I did. I haven’t sacrificed anything. Not being able to do the things that I wanted to do, that would have been a sacrifice. Now I should get back to my brushes and paint.
“I needed to get past the myth of being Joan Baez and learn to enjoy my life. I don’t need to talk about politics and be at benefits all the time. Thirty or 40 years of history walks out onstage with me. That in itself is a statement, a living reminder that the struggle goes on. I still haven’t reached where I want to be. My voice will tell me when it’s time to stop. Until then, I will keep on singing. Save me a copy of Common Ground. See you in Vancouver.”
Joan Baez is one of the most highly recognized figures of the 20th and 21st centuries. Such a long list of awards and titles has been bestowed upon her that at www.joanbaez.com, you’ll find the proviso: “If you know of anything we may have left off this list, please let us know!”
She received the Ordre national de la Legion d’honneur (National Order of the Legion of Honour) in 1983 – the medal was presented to her in 2011 – with the status of Chevalier (Knight), the highest decoration in France. In 2010, she was given the Orden de las Artes y las Letras de España (Order of Arts and Letters), the most prestigious award for foreign artists in Spain, in recognition of “transcending music for a generation of Spanish defenders of political freedom and peaceful coexistence.”
Other awards include: Thomas Merton Award, 1976; Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award, 1979; Jefferson Award, 1980; Lennon Peace Tribute Award, 1982; John Steinbeck Award, 1983; Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, 2007. Atlanta and Santa Cruz have held Joan Baez Days and she has received Honorary Doctorate Degrees from Antioch and Rutgers Universities.
Literary recognition includes best-seller status for her early biography Daybreak (1986), followed by And A Voice to Sing With: A Memoir in 2009. Those works, for the record, were her side of the stories. Of her records, her first three went gold and stayed on hit charts for several years, followed by five more gold records and a gold single The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.
“The Grammys are more about entertainment than music,” Baez says. “And the awards and recognition I cherish are the small ones for work I have done directly with people.” However, the Joan Baez Award from Amnesty is a major exception. In 2011, in a tribute at the 50th Anniversary Amnesty International AGM, she was presented with the first one. It recognized her work with the organization, including her key role in bringing Amnesty to the US and beyond, as well as serving on boards, fund-raising and envelope-stuffing. The award honours “Outstanding Inspirational Service in the Global Fight for Human Rights.”
Joan Baez is also an accomplished artist. Three of her most recent paintings were recently exhibited and sold at the Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco. And as a guitar player, she is both accomplished and influential, something acknowledged by Bob Dylan, early on. With no back-up band, she developed techniques and creative picking patterns to fill up the sound, now recognized and imitated as the Joan Baez style, which is consistently evolving.
The original old Martin 0-45 parlour guitar she purchased in 1959 and played at Newport, Washington in 1963 and throughout her career is now on display at the civil rights exhibit at the Smithsonian (American History).
Martin Guitars decided to reissue an exact model in 1998 as a special edition, building only 59, to commemorate the year Baez bought hers. When Martin employees took measurements, they spotted a comment written by someone who had once repaired it: “Too bad you are a communist.” Martin duplicated the note in all 59 models, which immediately sold out.
That, along with cartoonist Al Capp’s 1960’s ‘celeb-activist’ caricature “Joanie Phonie” in his Lil Abner comic strip (which also appeared in Time Magazine) are the most amusing recognitions. “A stupid, vulgar satire of the anti-war movement,” said Baez at the time, demanding a retraction. “I wish I had the sense of humour then that I have now,” she says. “It really makes me laugh today.”
Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. firstname.lastname@example.org