July 9 - July 15, 2009
A living voice
Folk music and activist legend Joan Baez discusses her legacy
by Elliott Johnston
The mere mention of Joan Baez’s name emits sound and connation: that heavenly, soaring vibrato; the heroic female voice of the 1960s folk revival; the tireless, life-long champion of non-violent social protest.
“I am a part of history that people can identify immediately,” she says, matter-of-factly, after 50 years of singing onstage.
Last year, to mark the anniversary of her half-century career, which she began as a teenager at Club 47 in Boston, Baez released Day After Tomorrow, produced by roots troubadour Steve Earle. The album, which features covers of songs by Tom Waits (title track), Elvis Costello, Patty Griffin and Earle, is a continuation of Baez’s knack for unveiling diamonds in other artist’s work. Her voice may sound more weathered than it did when, as a young woman, she elevated tunes by contemporaries like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs to new heights, but on the stripped down, rustic record, Baez may unearth deeper, more profound emotion than when her voice was seamlessly angelic.
Also last year, Baez threw her support behind presidential candidate Barack Obama. Baez, who worked intimately with Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement, and has traveled to war-torn corners of the world in the name of non-violent protest, had never so publicly championed a presidential contender.
Baez recently spoke to Boulder Weekly about her new album, Obama, the state of social change, and why G.W. Bush was the best publicist she ever had.Boulder Weekly:
Your new record marks the 50th Anniversary of your recording career, and you’ve said that you were working to channel the spirit of Club 47 with this album. I’m wondering what that spirit was, and how you went about interpreting that spirit for yourself at this point.
Well, let’s see, what was it? For me I was pretty young, so entering the music scene, I was young and I was already rebellious about just about everything. So the folk scene started to happen, and it was the rebellion against what we used to call bubblegum music. It’s kind of the same thing that’s happening right now; music that’s just so utterly superficial and commercial (but sometimes it’s pretty). So I kind of formed myself in that whole musical era. I’ve been through lots of phases over these 50 years, and having Steve Earle producing this album, it does touch back, it is like a bookend to the very beginning, because it’s so rough and it’s so unplugged and just four or five musicians and simple songs. No fuss, no muss. It’s a lot like the beginning.BW:
At the beginning, you were picking topical songs. The new record doesn’t seem to be topical in the same way. It seems to be more internal and reflective. How did you choose the songs for this album?
The songs choose me. I wasn’t looking for any direct hits on any social issues. When I walk out on the stage, I’m already a direct hit. I am a part of history that people can identify immediately, so I don’t feel that I have to overstate much.
The song “Day After Tomorrow” is, in itself, however, almost like my whole history of my singing career and my political career. It’s an anti-war song that covers any war. But I wasn’t looking to make a protest album.BW:
I’m interested in the idea that you’ve been averse to party politics through your whole career. Some people might be surprised by that. They might think: “Oh Joan Baez, she’s a Democrat or a leftist or something like that.”
I’ve never trusted party politics. I mean, you do what you have to do to get there, but even Obama — whom I really threw my weight behind, and would do again — I mean, look at the position he’s stuck in. I feel like I know where his heart is pulling him, and then he has to do all these dances to just try to please everybody. He does it more cleverly than anybody I’ve ever seen, but for the most part, I guess I’ve just been more comfortable doing my politics on the ground. And that comes from being taught about Gandhi at a very early age, and then being able to be with Martin Luther King, who literally was on the streets and literally worked with street gangs who over night would put on an armband and become Marshals in his marches. He was just transforming people. And he was smart enough to know not to run for President, because that would mean he would have to start to compromise everything. So I guess that’s where I’ve always been comfortable.BW:
You’ve talked about how the ’60s were a perfect storm for a lot of social and musical forces coming together for change. I’m wondering how the present moment looks to you in terms of the peace movement and the environmental movement. It seems pretty fractured compared to then.
I think you are right, and then at the same time, you know what I picture when you say fractured? I see light. I see light bouncing off the fractured parts. I’ve seen just dullness for so many years. People plugging along and doing the work, because you have to continue trying to be decent even in the worst of times. But to be decent now, there is some possibility it’s going to amount to something. So whatever your project is, if it’s in the Congo, or if it’s in a nursery in Romania, it feels as though it’s all beginning to amount to something. I think the trick now is literally — with global warming — is whether we are going to be around long enough to see the fruits of any of our labor.BW
: Have you worked on the environment and the global warming issue?
I have not done a great deal. I haven’t picked a project. I’m aware of it. I’ve been watching, and I think, like most of us, we’re doing whatever small thing we can do at home. I haven’t found a place that I can hook in. I think that’s also like most of us.
Sometimes I feel like, if there were laws, even on a local level, that said, “This is how much water you can use this week.” If I knew that I had to flush my toilet with gray water from the sink or I’d get arrested, I’d be happy that way, because I do it half the time, but the rest of the time, I’m not paying attention, you know? And I know that if I had to do something, I would do it.BW:
How has the experience been touring last year and this, going out and playing these new songs and talking to people?
So refreshing. It was interesting, during the Bush Years actually — he was the best publicity agent I ever had. People were so ill with having had him around so long that I was like this beacon. That in itself brought back a lot of songs, like “With God on Our Side,” because we needed them. And there was this rush of excitement and joy with Obama, and that opens up another whole field of just pleasure. It’s taken this long in my life to make the tour absolutely flawless; I don’t have any high-maintenance people. I just have it smooth and we love each other and the bus is a family, so it’s like walking out on stage is a pleasure, seeing what I can do with the evening.
On the Bill:Joan Baez
performs at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 15, at Chautauqua Auditorium,
900 Baseline Rd., Boulder,
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