Joan Baez: 50 years of music to move you
Folk singer-activist discusses new hope, new songs, new film
By Chris Boeckmann
Sunday, March 1, 2009
Put simply, Joan Baez is a legend. She might hate the title, she
might think she doesn't live up to it, but it's true. Baez helped
bring folk female folk music especially to the mainstream, and
along the way, she was courageous enough to stand up for a number of
Early in her career, she stood next to Martin Luther King Jr. Later
on, she did the same with farm workers, supporters of Harvey Milk and
Musically, she is known as a master interpreter and gifted
songwriter. Now at age 68, she is in her 50th year as a musician, and
she's touring the country. On March 16, Baez comes to the Missouri
Theatre Center for the Arts.
She says she'll play a mixture of songs from all points of her long,
busy career. The Tribune talked to Baez on the phone early this week;
Baez was in Austin, Texas, at the time.
Tribune: Before I started doing more research, I had pegged you as an
optimist. Do you come across that a lot?
Baez: I come across it, but I've never been an optimist. (She
laughs.) I think human nature would show otherwise. Being a
non-optimist has never really interfered with the things I do. I see
hope here and there, and I've seen human behavior do some pretty
Tribune: You talk about your lack of optimism in an article from The
Guardian; that article is from 2006, in the middle of the Bush
presidency. Now President Barack Obama, whom you openly supported, is
in office. Are you any more optimistic now?
Baez: Obviously, there's been a sea change. There's been a huge
atmospheric change for everybody in the world, so yeah, I certainly
buy the word "hopeful" in a way that I never have in the past, except
perhaps when I worked with Dr. King and when I've worked on smaller
projects when the word "hope" was in accordance with the size of the project.
Tribune: Why do you play music?
Baez: I guess because I can. I guess at age 13, somebody handed me a
ukulele, and I discovered I could make tunes on it and sing to it,
and within a year, I developed sort of a distinct sound, y'know, for
a kid, and I liked it. It provided something interesting for me in a
situation I was not very happy in, which was school. So I began to
spend more and more time with my little ukulele, and my voice
developed, I didn't ever have plans for anything, but I moved in that
direction because I liked it.
Tribune: What about today? Why do you still play?
Baez: I think that when my voice begins to really stop functioning
properly, that will be the time for me to stop singing. But the fact
is that over these years, luckily the voice has held up because
really as the years go by I enjoy it more and more. When I was
younger, I was so fraught with problems and age fright and feeling I
had to be more than I was and carrying the world on my shoulders
everything that could interfere with you having a wonderful time on
the stage was there. And now due to the years and due to a lot of
therapy, it's really not there anymore, so I can sing and have
wonderful music and travel on a bus that I love. It makes up for a
lot of difficulties I had earlier.
Tribune: For you, what sort of differences are there between touring,
say, 40 years ago and today?
Baez: Well, I used to run through the airport with my guitar 50 years
ago and catch planes. I was all alone, I didn't know what a tour
manager was. I had a sort of semblance of a manager, but we had no
contract, and I was flying, so that was a miserable experience
(laughing). But eventually I had musicians playing with me,
eventually I traveled in a bus, and it was all a really long process.
Now we have no maintenance, we have the right musicians and the right
manager and the right driver. It's just a completely different situation.
Tribune: How do you choose songs to interpret?
Baez: I just choose a song that's usually how I think and feel and
hear. Sometimes it's a song I don't even understand. I've never
really understood why I pick songs. I'm sure there are very different
reasons, some of them are obvious right off, like the song "Day After
Tomorrow," which has so many things that remind me of me. And
sometimes there are songs that are beautiful that I know aren't for
me; it's been that way my whole life.
Tribune: Do you listen to much new music?
Baez: I don't keep up with new music, I'm sure of that. When most
people grow up, they turn into horrible parents and they say, "Ugh,
what's that you're listening to?" to their kids, and I'm probably in
that same category, except my kid plays African music. And he plays
very, very current West African music, so in that sense, I'm very
current in some kinds of music. But what I listen to? It completely
varies. I've looked at my iPod, and what I've been listening to for
the past month is either opera or Willie Nelson. (She laughs.)
Tribune: When this article comes out, we'll be celebrating our city's
documentary film festival. I know you've shown support for Michael
Moore and appeared in multiple documentaries. Do you watch many?
Baez: I'm in the process of making my own. I'm in my 50th year, and
I'm sure that's why we're doing it. Rather than having talking heads,
half of the interviews are just conversations with me and different
people like my ex-husband about the draft in the military, like the
president of the Czech Republic because I knew him before the
revolution. Let's see, Jackson Browne is great, just sitting and
talking, Dar Williams sitting and talking and she wonderful,
y'know, she's funny and fun. And my father was a camera buff when he
was quite young, so we have extraordinary footage of stuff that
either he took or he handed the camera to somebody. There's footage
of him and my mom coming out of a church right after getting married.
So it's really rich with material.
Tribune: So what stage are you at?
Baez: I think we'll have more footage of comments and maybe a couple
more interviews. But we're just about through, and it should be out
in the fall.
Tribune: Wow, cool. Are you going to aim for festivals?
Baez: Yes, I think I'll be at festivals.
Tribune: Are there any particular films that inspired this one?
Baez: No, not really, just my life.
Tribune: Besides the documentary and touring, what other plans do you
have for the near future?
Baez: Spending a lot of time with my family. I didn't spend enough
time with them in the '60s and '70s. My mom is 95, and my
granddaughter is 5. They're a big part of my schedule.
Tribune: So I'm guessing you spend a lot of time on the phone?
Baez: Talk a lot about them in the show?
Tribune: No, talk to them on the phone, while you're on tour.
Baez: I'm not hearing you again.
Tribune: Oh, I was just saying that when you're on the road, you
probably spend a lot of time talking on the phone.
Baez: (Laughter) Yeah, I do. Right now my son is with me. He plays percussion.
Tribune: I've read some very positive reviews. It looks like the tour
is going well.
Baez: Oh, really, really well. We just love it. It's just so simple.
These musicians are just top, top quality, and we really care for
each other a lot, so all the way around it's a pretty wonderful experience.
Tribune: What kind of crowd do you draw?
Baez: It varies from show to show, from country to country. In Europe
they're much younger. Here there are some younger, but the majority
are my age or somewhat younger. But over these past 10 years, there
have been more younger people.
Tribune: Do you think folk will continue to thrive?
Baez: Yeah, I do. It's sort of a goofy phenomenon that I'm here in
the first place after 50 years what's even goofier is that they are.
Chris Boeckmann is a freelance music reporter. He can be reached at
Joan Baez savors success, political change
By Dave Paulson • THE TENNESSEAN
February 27, 2009
Joan Baez and George W. Bush have had a complicated relationship.
The legendary folk musician and protest singer was a vocal critic of
Bush throughout his administration, but she also has frequently cited
him as her "greatest publicity agent," as dissenting times have
reminded audiences of her work.
Still, if you think the end of Bush's second term was even slightly
bittersweet for Baez, think again.
"Fortunately, things have picked up (in my career) just exactly at
the time that he left," Baez says. "I'm not worried. I'm pleased with
the status of the musical aspect of my life and ecstatic about the
changes in Washington at the moment. Things seem to be in pretty
Adding to Baez's good mood is the critical and commercial success of
her latest album, Day After Tomorrow, recorded in Nashville with
producer Steve Earle and commemorating her 50th year as a performer.
"I love (working in Nashville)," Baez says of the sessions. "It goes
back to the beginning of time, way back. This one was the most
successful of the visits in a long time. You sort of find your
direction by the time you're 68 (laughs)."
One of Tomorrow's most striking moments comes in her heart-wrenching
take on Tom Waits' "Day After Tomorrow," told from the perspective of
a disillusioned soldier. Looking back on the last decade, Baez says
she can be more driven to create and perform in periods of unrest,
but that unified moments are equally inspiring.
"I've chosen the places that I go in the world, usually because it's
at a time that's difficult for the people there. Since I was about 13
or 14, the inclination was always to sing for something, for
something that had nothing to do with money and limousines, but had
everything to do with people who had less than I had. I was and am
most comfortable singing when it's a context that includes people in
need, people that can't speak for themselves. Now, at this moment,
when things are looking up, I also feel very connected, as though,
you know, I did all those things all those years, and wow, maybe this
is a little payoff at the moment."
Reach Dave Paulson at 615-664-2278 or email@example.com
Review: Joan Baez at Paramount Theatre
By Ed Crowell
February 26, 2009
She's now a genuine diva. Not the manufactured, self-labeled kind who
keep popping up. Joan Baez earned her diva bona fides over the past
50 years of singing with an ethereal voice and marching with a steely resolve.
So she can raise her hands diva-style all she wants, as she did
Wednesday night at the Paramount Theatre, and simply smile at the
outbursts of adulation flung her way. The audience members, many of
them women of a certain age, knew most of the songs but didn't need
to be led along on the kind of sappy singalongs all too common these
days. Instead, they simply took in the songs for all the sincerity
that Baez puts into them (except, of course, for the requisite Dylan
number mocking his nasal phrasing this time in a verse of "Love Is
a Four-Letter Word").
Baez's humor on stage remains a counterbalance to the weighty
material about injustice, war, loss and love that she interprets so well.
Her funniest story at the Paramount involved the re-marriage of her
91-year-old, dying father to her mother after a long divorce. She had
to talk her mother into the idea and then get him to honor the
bride's single request: that he wear a tux instead of his usual
sloppy attire. When Baez, as ring bearer, handed him the band during
the ceremony, his addled response was "What's that for?" She allowed
but a brief pause for laughs before singing the gorgeous opening
lines of "Forever Young": "May God bless and keep you always/ May
your wishes all come true."
God certainly was around for this show and its sampling of songs from
her newest album, "Day After Tomorrow." She praised Steve Earle (who
produced the CD) before singing his
something-for-every-kind-of-believer "God Is God" and thanked Eliza
Gilkyson for her timeless "Rose of Sharon." Then she set sail with
"Gospel Ship" and circled back to Earle's belief in an eventual peace
With strong backing from three string guys and her son Gabriel Harris
on percussion, Baez satisfied with plenty of classics as well, many
by or about Dylan. The unex
pected turn came when she whispered a change-up to her band and
launched into the schoolgirl frivolity of Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World."
For this night at least, the 67-year-old veteran of so many wars and
weary times avoided political asides to have a little fun in between
calling on a voice that still takes us to a higher place.
Crusader and folk legend Joan Baez uses her voice as a finely honed
instrument of inspiration
February 24, 2009
By MARIO TARRADELL Music Critic firstname.lastname@example.org
Folk-music legend Joan Baez spent much of her influential career
involved in political and social activism. She rallied for peace,
civil rights, human rights, gay and lesbian rights and environmental
causes, to name a few. Her music helped express, as well as guide,
Her new CD, the critically acclaimed Day After Tomorrow, does the
same thing. And this time, she's crusading for peace. The 10-song
disc produced by Steve Earle provides much-needed sonic tranquillity.
Largely homespun, benefiting from beautiful instruments such as
mandolin, acoustic guitar, Dobro and harmonium, it is a musical salve
in tumultuous times.
Baez's iconic voice is a resonating, melodic and quietly emotive
instrument that gently penetrates the soul.
"I'm not sure what it is that has appealed to people," says Baez, 68,
by phone from her home in Woodside, Calif. "There are a lot of
reasons. It's a feeling that we had. It's a feeling that we had 35,
40 years ago, but it's also contemporary. I've reached a point in my
life where I do have peace. It made its way onto the record."
Day After Tomorrow also is significant in that it is filled with
songs penned by writers inspired by Baez's status or close to her in
importance: Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Patty Griffin and producer Earle.
"It took some doing," she says. "It's not an easy job finding them.
... People say it's a religious album, a spiritual album. It wasn't
conscious, but it does have more spiritual energy. We didn't set out
to do that. We wanted to do a grounded album."
It's hard to imagine that Baez's career was ever not firmly planted
on solid earth. But she feels as though her livelihood sputtered
through much of the '80s.
For her, the resurgence began in the early '90s. That was the decade
of well-received discs such as 1992's Play Me Backwards and 1997's
Gone From Danger.
Asked whether the "legend" tag has been daunting, Baez immediately
says it's never been a problem. But she often felt she wasn't living
up to the title.
"When I was just a legend, it was frustrating," she says, adding that
new management helped her regain her career footing, and made her
"We did it little by little. Young singer-songwriters opened for me.
It began to benefit them and me. I gathered so much from them. I am
more contemporary. It's sort of icing on the cake to be a legend.
That word connotes some sort of finality. It's the Ella Fitzgerald syndrome."
She admits that she coasted for a while.
"I didn't have proper management," she says.
"I wasn't paying attention. I wasn't having somebody doing the work
for me to get the CDs heard. People didn't know they were there."
Now that she's artistically rejuvenated, Baez has returned to talking
Her latest endeavor: supporting Barack Obama. She publicly endorsed
him in February 2008 by writing a letter to the editor of the San
Francisco Chronicle. It was the first time Baez made a presidential
choice known to the masses.
"I don't endorse political candidates," she explains.
"Then there was this phenomenon called Barack. If I didn't support
him, I was worried about my own image."
No need for concern. In classic Baez form, she once again used her
status as musical royalty to communicate her political activism.
"As for music and politics, I do my best when I have both hats on at
once. Music has always been more than music for me. It was a gift to
have the voice, and it was another gift to share it with people. I
looked at music and politics as Siamese twins. I think we're on the
right track. I'm sure it could go wrong if enough people don't like
it. But right now, there are enough people that are willing to be
more active because they are more moved than they have been in a
quite a while, particularly young people."