Joan Baez: The Queen of Folk Still Reigns

"I needed reinvention," says the iconic musician and activist.

By Michelle Ciarrocca
Photograph: Photo by: Dana Tynan

From the beginning of her career, Joan Baez eschewed being thought of as a celebrity, “I was scared to death of being labeled as something commercial. I was afraid people wouldn’t think I was serious enough about the things I did politically,” says Baez. “I had no interest at all in discussing music.”

But singing music was a different matter altogether. Her striking soprano voice, along with her unusual repertoire of traditional folk ballads, set her apart and caught the attention of a generation. George Wein, founder of the Newport Folk Festival – which celebrated its 50th anniversary this past August – lists Baez’s 1959 performance as one of his stand-out memories. “She wasn’t even scheduled to be in the show,” says Wein. “Joanie was just starting out, playing in coffeehouses in Harvard Square. She came to the festival and she was so beautiful. She had bare feet and she personified what every young girl in America wanted to be.”

This week, as part of its American Masters documentary series, PBS will premiere Joan Baez: How Sweet The Sound, a beautiful look at the life and career of the folk legend and activist. Weaving together intimate conversations with Baez, recent tour clips, interviews with Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, and ex-husband David Harris, rare archival footage of her trip to North Vietnam and marching with Martin Luther King Jr., the film serves as a poignant reminder that for Baez the music and social causes go hand in hand.

Baez’s activism has been displayed in many forms throughout the decades. Whether it’s recording some verses of “We Shall Overcome” in Farsi, marching against segregation in Alabama, camping out in a redwood tree, or endorsing President Obama,  Baez has never strayed from her belief in nonviolence. As for activism today, she says, “I know when I walk on stage I’m some piece of history and it reminds people, and sometimes that’s good enough. It jolts them.” Baez also points to climate change as the cause of the day. “That to me is the most important thing to deal with, and I don’t know how to deal with it,” she says. “There are things that need to be done to keep Mother Earth as balanced as humanly possible.”

She also knows that the ways and means that were effective in the ’60s and ’70s might not be the best route today. “I know there were years of us floundering around, waiting for it — whatever it was going to be. And, people saying to me, well, when is somebody going to write another ‘Blowing in the Wind,’ and knowing that they hadn’t… It’s not right for us to try and recreate something that was," she says. "Maybe something different had to emerge from the ashes. I don’t know whether it’s marching, whether it’s the internet, or what kind of political conscience can reemerge. How can the word compassion really find its way back into the vocabulary? I think it’s on the verge, maybe.”

In her music career, Baez was keenly aware that something different had to emerge too. “The world keeps going faster than you go,” she says. “I realized I needed reinvention… In the beginning I just got to working with the younger musicians – to know them and their music. That’s what really got me started on a different path that was honest and which was my genre of music, but was now contemporary, and that’s what I needed. This last album with Steve Earle [Day After Tomorrow] was the most comfortable of all the things I have done, it almost seemed like coming home. It’s like a bookend.”

The soundtrack for How Sweet the Sound includes newer songs like Earle’s “Jerusalem” and Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s “Day After Tomorrow” and older ones such as Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” and her own “Love Song to a Stranger.”

As Baez admits in How Sweet the Sound, her happiest times were when her life was balanced between music and social causes, but often her family got short-changed. Today, she says, “Unless I’m really signed onto something, I don’t like to pretend that I am. I think that if there were a calling I would go, but right now that calling seems to be family.”

What’s on the horizon? “I’m going to publish a book of poetry in the next year, that’s my next little project,” says Baez.

Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound, Thirteen’s American Masters Documentary, will premiere on PBS nationwide October 14; the soundtrack and DVD are available for purchase.

Michelle Ciarrocca is a freelance writer based in Lancaster, PA.

First Published Tue, 2009-10-13 15:42

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