Joan Baez on music, peace and what it’s like to be an icon
Robert Z. Hawkins Amphitheater, Bartley Ranch Regional Park6000 Bartley Ranch Rd.
Reno, NV 89509
In 1959, a girl with long brown hair, bare feet and a guitar walked on stage as an unbilled act at the Newport Folk Festival and began her career. She was Joan Baez. In the years to follow, she helped introduce the world to Bob Dylan by inviting the then unknown singer-songwriter on stage with her; she marched in Alabama with Martin Luther King Jr.; and she stood beside Nelson Mandela on his 90th birthday. For many in the 1960s, her mesmerizing soprano was the voice of a generation, or at least of the folk and peace movements.
Baez, 69, continues to sing and play music, and she’ll perform at Robert Z. Hawkins Amphitheatre at Bartley Ranch on July 6.
Just don’t ask her about Dylan.
You’ve written some beautiful songs, but you’re mostly known for your interpretations of other people’s songs. What makes a good song?
I’ve decided after lo these many years that I don’t know the answer to your question. They either ring a bell, or they don’t. It has to do with do the words make sense, does the tune make sense. And now it has to do with whether I can sing it or not. I used to be able to sing anything. Over time, gravity does it’s work.
You were a soprano, and now you’re singing more in the lower register. How do you deal with those changes?
Hard work. How old are you?
Oh, so you probably don’t have to deal with these things for some time. But for a singer, you just—I had to learn this because I had no idea—but vocal chords are muscles. You just have to learn to keep them flexible and work with them, like a tennis player, who also probably didn’t realize how much work it would be. It just means exercising and training and all that boring stuff.
I really like your latest album, Day After Tomorrow, especially the title track by Tom Waits. But for most people, you’re associated with a particular time period. What about those songs has aged well, and what about them hasn’t?
You’re probably talking about two periods. The early period was the ballads, that was literally starting 50 years ago. Some of those songs are in the ageless department because the nature of those folk songs, they were written 150 years ago. They’re not known by kids nowadays. Some of them went through various changes, through rock and came out in various forms.
Then there’s the “Diamonds & Rust” periods, which is probably the earliest connection you would have—the Dylan years, The Band and The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. That era is, interestingly, where a lot of people go back to relate to. I’ve been spending time with people on the East Coast and their kids—16-year-old kids, 18 years, 22, 24, 42. And they all have this phenomena of going back to that time period because it was so rich with songwriting and changes on the musical map, and I was so lucky to be in that time period with my music. It’s really not so much me but the luck of being born into that perfect storm, as far as my music being concerned.
Yeah, but you’re who became Joan Baez. The image a lot of people have of a girl and a guitar singing in a café, that’s you. And your first few albums were instant successes. What do you attribute all that to?
I don’t know. We’ve always wondered a bit about that. It was some kind of rebellion about what we used to call bubble-gum music. It was a total turnaround against the music—the superficiality of the music that was popular then. Back then, it was the “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window”—so total fluff. Now it’s fluff, but it’s so elaborate; the Grammys is a billion dollar industry, a lot of it nonmusic but well-embraced by the masses. And it was pre-politics, those ballads. I was already political. But something in people wanted this purity. In some ways I was very puritanical—about music and about my politics. They were very serious to me. They still are, but I can joke now. I was afraid to joke then because of how much nonviolence meant to me. I guess I wasn’t afraid to point out in the world what I thought was meaningful. And whatever it was in me, people longed to hear that and identified with that, and it became true on a very grand scale. And I wasn’t afraid to say what I meant or afraid what the consequences were. That always made an impression on people, and it still does. It shouldn’t. But it always encouraged people to stand up for what they believed it. It’s still rare that people are willing to take a risk of any importance.
That partly answers my next question, which is what drives your activism?
I don’t know where it came from, but the Swedish ambassador [Harald Edelstam] once—he’s dead now—but he did some risky things in his career. He was a statesman and a gentleman, but he risked his life a number of times and in a number of ways. I asked him why he did that, and he just said he couldn’t tolerate injustice. It rang a bell with me. It was very simple: He just couldn’t tolerate it. When in a situation where he could do something, he just did it. I’ve been in a country where I’ve been arrested, but it wasn’t a situation where I knew I’d be tortured or thought I’d be killed. The stakes haven’t been that high for me like they could be in some countries. In that situation, no one could judge how they’d behave. I haven’t been tested that far. I don’t think anyone knows what he would do. But I feel the same way as that gentleman. I can’t tolerate injustice.
Before we run out of time, I have to ask you about Bob Dylan.
You don’t have to.
Well, what I was going to ask is, people still associate the two of you, you still sing his songs, people ask you about him. How sick are you of talking about Bob Dylan?
I’d answer that by suggesting you could use that time asking a better question.
OK. I have watched the movie. (Editor’s note: When the Boston Globe’s Steve Morse asked her in 2008 about Bob Dylan, she told him to watch Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, in which she talks about her professional and romantic relationship with Dylan. “It’s really all in there,” she told Morse.)
I will say you’ve mentioned that no one has surpassed Dylan in his songwriting. Who do you think are some great songwriters today?
I just got an award from the Children’s Health Fund, who I’ve been associated with for many years. … They have wonderful buses that go into inner city neighborhoods … and Paul Simon was associated with them, too, and we ended up singing together. When he sang a few songs of his own, I thought, “The stuff that guy has written is unbelievable.” And more recently is Steve Earle, realizing what he’s written. I’ve never had that ability to write that universal song that everybody knows and will sing forever. So off the top of my head, those two.
Steve Earle produced your last album, Day After Tomorrow. How did that collaboration come about?
Very naturally. Someone suggested it. I’d known him, done some concerts with him, and when somebody suggested it, it was a no-brainer, very easy. He chose the musicians, and I chose the songs for the most part, and he wrote a couple for me I was delighted to find out. It was quick, dirty and fun.
Do you think music still has the same ability to influence social movements as it did in the ’60s?
Yeah, I wouldn’t want to be part of social change if there weren’t music in it. I made a documentary once called Music Alone Is Not Enough. It’s mythological that it’s enough. But like any other form of art, it crosses the boundaries between cultures and sides. It’s vital. It makes it plausible and livable. Unfortunately, the demonstrations in the streets and shouting are useless. We haven’t created enough songs to keep them going. They’re just really hard to write.
It does seem difficult to write a good protest song. A lot of them, I think, frankly come off cheesy. Why is it so hard to get protest songs right?
They’re very hard songs to write. They can be—what did you call it?—cheesy. People think it would be the simplest thing in the world, and it’s one of the most difficult in the world. There’s some in Spanish, lovely ones. We should sing some in Arizona; that’s a big mess.
There are two things that have been preoccupying my mind. One is Arizona, and one is Gaza, the flotilla. Palestine was occupying my mind a lot before the flotilla happened. And then it happened, the tit-for-tat, Israel’s retaliation, beyond that, it’s turned out to be a serious mistake on Israel’s part. But that one boat Mairead Corrigan Maguire was on—a Nobel Peace Prize winner from Ireland—her quote that they need more actions like the flotilla but have them so they were specifically nonviolent. And then when they were retaliated against—when they throw the word “nonviolent” around, it has to have some serious meaning—so when they’re retaliated against, it has to be dead clear that that’s what it’s about. When the Israelis came down on them and shot and killed those people, there just can’t be any leeway anywhere except to know that they were there bringing goods and that they were doing nothing except peaceful, nonviolent actions. Rachel Corrie was really a group of trained nonviolent activists, and that was the only boat I know that was trained in that. I’ve been thinking about going there, not on ship, I’m no good on ships. But there are small villages in Palestine where they do nonviolent actions all the time, but the press isn’t interested in places where people aren’t getting shot. So I was thinking of going, where they plant trees and do various forms of civil disobedience, so I was thinking of going there and being involved on that on a small scale. Anything to create a scenario that’s offering a little path of nonviolence in this dilapidated world of ours I think is useful.
And are you going to Arizona?
I just cancelled two concerts there, and I was trying to think of something useful to do besides avoiding it, and I couldn’t think of anything intelligent.
You’re kicking off your summer tour in Reno, a sold-out show. What are your associations with the place?
I think the last time I went to Reno, my mother went gliding. They put you in a little harness thing, and you go up in the air. My mother went when she was 91. What’s it called? Paragliding, I think. She was the oldest person they ever took up there. She wanted to go again when they brought her back down.
When was this?
About eight years ago.
Before I let you go, a colleague of mine wanted me to tell you that he was an anti-war soldier during the Vietnam War, and he really appreciated your support then.
Well, give him my best.