Baez gives a concert with depth, context
April 20, 2008
"This is a special concert," Joan Baez told the packed house at the
Bama Theater two Fridays ago.
"The content of this concert will be pretty much the same content of
the concert I've been doing in different places around this country.
The context is different. The context takes me back to 44 years ago
when I was last here performing.
"Powerful emotions to deal with that haven't been dealt with that are
down there," she continued, "but let's see if I can work it out as
this evening goes along."
I wondered what kinds of emotions were pulling on the 67-year-old performer.
When she last played in Tuscaloosa on April 3, 1964 powerful
emotions were sweeping the country.
The civil rights movement was in full throttle. Selma was a year
away; Birmingham was a year behind. Student activists were planning
for what would become known as "Freedom Summer" in Mississippi. It
would be three months before President Lyndon Johnson signed a
federal law making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race,
color, religion or national origin.
Baez had been in Alabama the year before. Disappointed at performing
before segregated audiences, she'd made it a point to schedule her
1964 Tuscaloosa concert at Birthright Auditorium on the Stillman
College campus to ensure there would be a racial mix.
It was a gutsy move a potentially life-threatening one, given the
time and place. On Aug. 4 of that year, the bodies of three
civil-rights workers two white and one black who had been
murdered by the Ku Klux Klan would be recovered by FBI agents from an
earthen dam near Philadelphia, Miss., a little more than 90 miles west of here.
I was curious to know if the concert at Stillman had raised hackles
under white hoods locally. At the time, a local rubber worker named
Robert Shelton was Grand Wizard of the nation's largest Klan group,
headquartered in Tuscaloosa.
But any emotional intensity surrounding her Stillman appearance
stayed beneath the surface. The Tuscaloosa News carried a small
announcement of the concert in its April 2 edition. With the
exception of a small, perhaps telling phrase "Provisions have been
made to handle the large crowd that is expected" the announcement
is pure mayonnaise.
The day after she sang, the newspaper published a review by Fred
Goossen, who served for years as its music critic. It focused more on
the concert's musical aspects than its social ones.
Calling her "[y]outhful, untutored, unglamourous," Goossen wrote that
Baez nevertheless "exudes a powerful appeal that reaches across the
footlights and captures her audience."
He offered the observations of someone who understands sopranos in
terms of Sutherland and Sills. "She has an above-average voice,"
Goossen wrote of Baez, "particularly in the curious realm of
folk-singing, where technical skill of a conventional kind is looked
upon with ill-concealed contempt."
She was best, he said, on folk songs "of a plaintive nature virile
and optimistic songs do not suit her waif-like demeanor."
I smiled and closed my eyes, thinking of Baez's gorgeous recording of
"Silver Dagger," which my older sister played endlessly on our family
phonograph. The song's dark beauty seemed to match Baez's raven hair
and her gypsy eyes.
"Joan Baez is a kind of musical J.D. Salinger," Goossen wrote. "She
is a bard of one segment of the younger generation. In that role, she
is convincing and appealing."
But all that was long, long ago. It's like Baez once sang (and
reprised, hauntingly, at the Bama): "We both know what memories can
bring/They bring diamonds and rust."
As the optimism of the early '60s corroded into the cynicism of Nixon
and Watergate, blacks got benign neglect at home; the war abroad came
crashing to an ugly, ignoble end.
"You wake up in the morning," Baez told Boston Globe writer Joan
Anderman, "and the path is not defined for you by the fact of that war."
Married and divorced, mother of a neglected son, Baez ultimately lost
her way. By the late 1980s, she was, in her words, "a nervous wreck,"
heavily dependent on therapy.
The slow cancer death of her sister, Mimi, in 2001 jarred Baez into a
slow healing process and an eventual return to performing. Emerging
into a new millennium, she found some familiar wars to fight.
"If George Bush has done one thing for me, he's the best publicity
agent I ever had," she told her audience at the Bama on April 11.
"People are so desperate to get away from him that they come to my concerts."
There was more than politics that night. She brought a sense of place
and time; of humor and peace.
"OK," Baez was saying, "this is a song from down South ... a song I
learned from Johnny Cash when I was very young. He was very, very,
very cute. He was with his first wife. Which is how he introduced her."
Then she sang "Long Black Veil," from 1959. I remembered hearing it
as a teen-ager on the jukebox at the DQ in Selma. But singing it drew
more than memories from of Baez.
"There is something about the way the South smells at night," she
said when she finished, "and it sort of made me cover-songish.
"Like last night. I'm generally cooped up in hotels, you know? So I
went out to the bus to get something and on the way back, I heard
this tree rustling.
"And I sat under the trees and drank a little water. And I looked
longingly around to see if there were any paths and there weren't. So
I sort of made one.
"And it was through grass and clover and something about it tends
to ground you, you know, till you almost become that earth. And
forget about that hotel room for a little while."
She shrugged a little.
"At any rate, it was a very sweet, sweet feeling. And there's no
particular point to that story."
I laughed with the rest of the audience . But I found myself genuinely moved.
Depth of feeling
Baez marched with Martin Luther King in Mississippi. She sang
Christmas songs to Vietnamese children as U.S. planes bombed Hanoi.
She walked in the "killing fields" of Cambodia, worked with the
Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina and collaborated with Lech
Walesa in Poland.
And here in Tuscaloosa, Baez, who has led such an extraordinary life,
was reaching deep into her hidden places, summoning up intense emotions.
They came through, powerfully. Before it was over, she had us in the
palm of her hand.
She sang songs as pointed and potent as Steve Earle's "Christmas in
Washington" ("To listen to the radio/You'd think that all was
well/But you and me and most folks know/It's going straight to hell")
and as off-the-wall as Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World." The audience
loved it all.
Particularly strong were the lush "Rose of Sharon" by Eliza Gilkyson
and a shimmering, transcendent "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," sung a
capella, which I believe she performed with the Stillman Choir in 1964.
"She's one of the great interpreters of songs alive on the planet,"
says Earle, who is producing her new album, tentatively titled "Day
After Tomorrow" and scheduled for release this fall.
As an encore, Baez led the Bama audience in John Lennon's utopian
We had seen her in the fall of 2006 in Birmingham. She closed her
appearance there with a version of "Amazing Grace" that seemed to
fill the house with God.
"Her concerts are so ..." I fumbled for a word " ... uplifting," I
told my wife as we walked out of the Bama into streets drenched by rain.
And yes, the Southern night did have a particularly sweet smell.
Editorial Editor Ben Windham may be reached at 205-722-0193 or by
e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joan Baez: older, yes, but still a legend
Sunday, April 20, 2008
By STEVE BURTT Correspondent
We were all younger once upon a time.
I was reminded of that this past weekend when my wife, Donna, and I
stepped into what seemed like a time machine and traveled to Ole Miss
for a concert by Joan Baez.
It brought back a lot of fond memories of the days of hippies, flower
power and social unrest. In fact, Joan's last time in Mississippi was
when she was traveling with Martin Luther King during the civil
I'm not sure she felt quite comfortable being back in Mississippi,
but a large, mostly gray crowd of diehard fans gave her a very warm welcome.
There were a lot of gray ponytails and beards in the crowd, and even
standing in line, there were lots of jokes about the elderly crowd.
Somebody suggested they give away a hip replacement as a door prize.
Donna's daughter, Lindsey, a junior at Ole Miss, was with us, and the
man behind us had to ask: "Do you even know who Joan Baez is?"
But Lindsey's mom turned her on to the pure vocal sounds of Joan Baez
years ago. Lindsey not only knew who she is, she's a big fan and had
Joan's biography in hand to get signed after the concert.
As I talked about the concert this week, though, I got a lot of blank
stares. I can't believe how many people don't know the music of Joan
Baez. She's a living legend of folk music.
"Do you know who Bob Dylan is?" I would ask. "Well, she was Dylan's
girlfriend and occasional singing partner back in the days of folk music."
But that was just so they could connect and not really fair to Joan,
because Joan's career really out-shined Dylan. Dylan was the poet,
but Joan was the musician and singer. She had the vocal tones that
nobody could match. She's the one with the lifetime achievement Grammy award.
I had forgotten what a wonderful guitarist she is. For most of the
concert she was accompanied by a small band, but for several songs
she was up there alone with her acoustic guitar. Her voice was as
strong as ever as she sang a mix of newer songs with many of the old
favorites. After a couple of encores, she finally led the audience in
singing "Amazing Grace."
It was an amazing evening of nostalgia. Back when Joan was popular, I
was a hippy, too, but only in my heart. I was led in another
direction by a young man's need for adventure. When the hippy nation
converged on Woodstock in 1969, I would probably have been there, but
instead, I was a Marine living on a small helicopter base just south
of China Beach in Vietnam. I never got the chance to grow my hair long.
After the concert, just like the groupies we all are at heart, Donna,
Lindsey and I went around to Joan's bus. After a short wait, we were
led, along with about a dozen other diehards, to her dressing room,
and Joan came out and talked with us, signed autographs and posed for photos.
Lindsey got her book signed and Donna got her ticket stub
autographed, and I came away feeling strangely satisfied. We were,
indeed, younger once, but we are older and wiser now, and maybe even better.
Correspondent Steve Burtt can be reached at email@example.com or