The ballad of Joanie Baez

by Diana Wichtel / 04 July, 2013
The 72-year-old firebrand who became a legend has never stopped caring, and never stopped making music.
Joan Baez
Still getting on with it: Joan Baez at Occupy Wall Street protests in New York in 2011. Photo/Getty Images

Hello, it’s Joan,” reports a musical, no-nonsense voice from the past down the phone from California. Yikes. Joan Baez. Her ardent anthems, her quavering, celestial soprano, were the soundtrack to much truculent after-school mooching for my generation: Farewell, Angelina; The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; many songs with words like “blowin’” in them … The queen of the Golden Age of folk: I’d expected a fanfare, or at least a PR person. “Well,” she says, “they just leave me here and I do it myself.”

Of course she does. Baez made the cover of Time in 1962 at 21, having convinced the world that what it needed was a slip of a girl with a guitar singing sweetly of struggle and strife.

She launched a young Bob Dylan, marched with Martin Luther King, played Woodstock in 1969 and Live Aid in 1985 and generally charted a course that reads like a chronicle of 20th-century counterculture. Or a folk song: The Ballad of Joanie Baez.

Joan Baez Time Magazine
Baez on the cover of TIME Magazine.

While sisters were still contemplating doing it for themselves, she was getting on with it. “I didn’t get it about other women’s struggles, I would say that. Because as a, quote, ‘star’ at an early age, I didn’t have the struggles they were having, trying to get a job at Columbia Records; trying to get equal pay.”

Baez uses the word “quote” a lot, lest we think she’s anything but ironic about the “star” part. “I was paid ridiculous amounts of money for what I did, and so you’re right, I didn’t think about it. I know I alienated some feminists when I was married by doing those housewife-y things I thought were such fun. You know, offering them cookies.” Cookies? What was she thinking? “They were very angry.”

The firebrand who was arrested twice back in the day couldn’t even bake without getting herself into an ideological fight. Though it’s typical of Baez’s extraordinary life that she can invoke no less of a pillar of feminism than Simone de Beauvoir in her defence.

There was a gathering in France. The party included de Beauvoir and the Minister of Human Rights. “She was this really angry, forceful woman,” says Baez, of the minister. “I kept not really agreeing with her, just because she was kind of too feminist – ‘We’re going to talk unique monde du femme, only women.’” Separatism doesn’t do it for the Quaker-raised Baez. “I was sitting next to Simone and I said, ‘I don’t feel as though I’m really a champion of this cause.’ And she said, ‘Oh, that’s all right. They just talk. You do things.’”

Changing the world – it’s a full-time job. We get to her relationship with Dylan. She wrote perhaps her best original song, Diamonds & Rust, about him. “I was crazy about him,” she says in How Sweet the Sound, the superb documentary about her life and a’changin’ times. She wanted him to be more political, “to be on our team. I realised he didn’t need to be on the team. He wrote the songs.”

On the 1975 Rolling Thunder tour, the relationship soured. In the film, Dylan speaks of “Joanie” with fondness and respect. “I tried to practise it,” he recalls, of her distinctive strumming and picking, “but I couldn’t get that style down.” He also says, “I was sorry to see our relationship end.”

It sounded heartfelt. “I thought so,” says Baez. “I was happy with it.” It sounded like an apology, I suggest. She’s not playing. “Oh, I don’t know about all that stuff.” Are they still in touch? “Nobody’s ever really been in touch with Dylan,” she fires back. There’s a pause while we hoot in unison, the nearest I’ll come to a duet with a 60s folk icon. “I knew it would make you laugh,” she crows, deftly derailing talk of anything too intimate. For someone who started out singing about doomed maids and death bells knelling, she’s good company.

Baez also stepped out with, of all people, Steve Jobs. “And in spite of what people might think about the differences between me and Steve Jobs … Well, they were huge,” she admits. “He had a left brain, I had a right brain. In many things, we just disagreed in a ridiculous way. But he was sweet, you know,” she says, sounding a little wistful.

Dylan and Jobs: two major cultural forces of our times. A person could get overshadowed in such company. She never seemed to. “Yes, that’s true. I’m so used to my own identity being what it is that it would be very difficult to push me off of that horse.”

Indeed. We speak six weeks after the death of Baez’s mother. “There is nothing to regret,” says Baez. “She went at home with no pain, with all of us there. She had reached 100. Three months before her birthday, I said, ‘Mom, what do you really want to do on your birthday?’ And she said, ‘Drop dead.’ So, you know, you can’t ask for more.”

True grit appears to run in the family. Baez was forever putting herself in harm’s way: opposing the draft during the Vietnam War, on a peace mission to Hanoi, performing in Sarajevo … Her concerts defied segregation in the deep South.

“That was probably more dangerous than anywhere else,” she cracks, not really joking. She wasn’t, she insists, particularly brave. “Often, I didn’t put the dots together because I didn’t realise how dangerous it was. Courage is courage only if you’re scared and do it anyway.”

Joan Baez
Baez in 2008

Well, she did that, too. In How Sweet the Sound she describes pure terror – of flying, of going on stage, of leaving the house. “It was not much of a stage persona, just me, scared stiff … Sometimes it was almost like walking to an execution.”

Panic attacks forced her off the stage mid-song to splash water on her face and cry. “I’d walk back onto the stage and pick up the song, the note that I’d been on.” No one said anything. “They don’t want you to be sick.”

She did some therapy but it was years before she tackled the big stuff. “Diving in to bite off the head of the big demon, that was scary,” she tells me. “I didn’t start till I was 50 and then I went in there with all my forces and found the sources of the different phobias and dealt with them. The stage fright went; the fear of flying went, one by one.” She recommends it.

Did she identify the big demon? “Yeah, there were a lot of them and they’re all for me not to talk about publicly. But I can just say we all have them to one degree or another and mine happened to be pretty boisterous.”

Her father was a physicist. The family moved around a lot. In home-movie footage, the Baez vibe seems warm, musical, happy. On the face of it, the family looked good. “That’s right. You’re right” is all she’ll say about that. “Congratulations.”

Whatever’s gone on in her life, there was always the music. She seemed to hit the stage an artist fully formed. “Well, all I did was play the guitar. I went to college for about six hours and then just dropped out and lied to my parents for a long time,” she says. “I just went from coffee shop to coffee shop and I sang and I learnt songs. I would beg them off of people and I would literally play myself to sleep with my guitar on my chest, wake up and finish the song.”

The music was always inextricably linked with politics. In his Li’l Abner comic strip, Al Capp featured a character called Joanie Phoanie, a limousine-riding fright. He really didn’t like her. “God, I know! It was nastier for my manager, who was depicted as a cigar-smoking Jew. But they spelt my name right. What can I say? It’s flattering that he cared enough to write something hideous.”

Water off a duck’s back, you imagine, for one who has been in so many tight corners in the cause of non-violent dissent. These days she’s less in the frontlines, still fighting the good fight. “There’s global warming, which I think is probably going to get us before any of the other stuff will. It’s such a hideous backdrop that none of us want to think about it. I don’t. So that’s the big defeat which makes every little victory something very important to me.”

The Civil Rights movement was one of those rare, shining moments when the defeats were small and the victory epoch-making. That, she believes, informs the vitriol directed at America’s first black president. “We were celebrating and didn’t think, then, about [the] hundreds and thousands of people who just had to bury their anger because nobody was interested. I think, in a sense, the Tea Party is their way of expressing, finally, their hatred of black people.”

She supported Obama; hoped for more. “I’ve often lamented that if Obama had run a movement instead of run for office, it would have possibly made the real changes we need to make. But in office, no. And his weaknesses seem to heighten with the right-wing craziness. I don’t blame him. He’s turning into an old man and there’s every reason he should.”

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan
Baez with Bob Dylan in 1963. Photo/Getty Images

Baez is 72. She meditates. Like her old mate Bob Dylan, she paints. There’s the intense discipline of maintaining her voice. “I’m not through with the singing yet.” You hope that, along with the combat, she’s had some fun. Back in the day, on stage she would just stand solemnly and deliver. They don’t do that any more. “No, they hang from the ceiling at the Grammys.” Didn’t she fancy a bit of that theatre? “It’s pretty clear to me,” she says drily, “that I would not have been able to be a Lady Gaga or the other Madonna.”

Still, footage from the 1975 Rolling Thunder tour shows her prancing like a rock chick. She’s not having that. “Rock’n’roll chick? No.” Well, maybe a little. She’s playing here with her son, Gabe Harris, and musician Dirk Powell. You may find them out clubbing in Auckland. “People don’t know, but after a concert if there is anywhere that we can dance, Gabe and Dirk and me, we just go and we dance like crazy people.”

So, no sign of letting up, except possibly on herself when it comes to what a committed activist folk singer can achieve in this world of diamonds and rust. “When people used to say, ‘Oh, you’re such an idealist’, I’d say, ‘Well, not really.’ I’m just a realist. I look around and see what’s happening,” she says. “I don’t think it’s about trying to, quote, save the world any more, if it ever was. It’s really about keeping compassion and kindness and empathy and sacrifice alive. And if it’s done just on an individual basis, it’s still more important than anything.”

Amen to that. Afraid of flying, she soared pretty high. And if she hasn’t quite saved the world, she certainly helped change it. “Do I have any regrets? I don’t think so. If I do they would be pretty small ones,” she muses, “I mean, it’s been pretty magnificent.”

AN EVENING WITH JOAN BAEZ: Auckland, August 29, The Civic; Wellington August 31, Michael Fowler Centre.
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