By Adam Hammer
July 15, 2010
After more than 50 years of music, Joan Baez still has a voice.
While it's not as loud on the social activist tones, it's still one
of the most memorable voices in folk music.
"I haven't been out on the front line for a while, and my feeling is
that if I felt the calling to do that I would probably go and do it.
I'm not going to go hunting for it right now," Baez said. "I'm kind
of making up for time I haven't been at home."
Right now, Baez is also touring just for the sake of touring with the
songs that have become her legacy.
Baez makes a tour stop Saturday at the Paramount Theatre where she
will perform to a sold-out house. She performed Tuesday at the
Minnesota Zoo's Weesner Amphitheatre in Apple Valley.
"This is different from the last show only because we move on. We get
bored with something so we change it... it's pretty casual. There's a
general skeleton of a show," Baez said, but mostly this tour is just
about celebrating the past 50 years.
With a catalog of music spanning five decades, there's a lot of music
to choose from to help keep the shows fresh.
"I think fresh is the key word because it's been 50 years," Baez said
laughing. "It could get dull if we weren't really careful."
She said the key is to drop songs from the set when they start to
feel old or work with the band to make them different and new again.
One song that Baez continually comes back to is "Diamonds and Rust,"
a top-40 hit she wrote and recorded in 1975.
"Fortunately, I enjoy singing it," she said.
While "Diamonds and Rust" is a Baez original, many of her songs are
interpretations of other songwriters.
"I started that way. For the first 10 years I didn't even consider
writing anything," Baez said, recalling her college days in the late
1950s in Massachusetts. "I think probably the first person I remember
seeing writing anything was Tim Hardin in New York and then it began
to be kind of rage."
Hardin wrote the hit "If I Were A Carpenter," which Baez also recorded.
"Sweet Sir Galahad" was the first song Baez wrote and recorded for
her 1970 album "One Day at a Time." She famously performed the song
at Woodstock in 1969, introducing the song as "the only song I've
ever written that I sing anywhere outside of the bath tub."
Baez kept writing for about 20 years and then mysteriously stopped, she said.
"If it ever came again, I'd be happy to write again," Baez said.
Except for "Diamonds and Rust" being covered by Judas Priest on their
1977 album "Sin After Sin," not many of Baez's songs go on to be covered.
"Most of my songs are just mine," Baez said. "I'd love to write
universal songs that other people would want to sing, but for the
most part people like listening to it but it isn't for them to sing so much."
Baez has built much of her career around interpreting work like
Robbie Robertson's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," former beau
Bob Dylans' "It's All Over Now" and "Farewell, Angelina" and Woody
Guthries' "This Land Is Your Land."
In 1963 she led 30,000 in singing her first hit, Charles Albert
Tindley's gospel song "We Shall Overcome," at the Lincoln Memorial
during the March on Washington.
"A song has to have certain qualities to it and Dylan was the best of
them and Guthrie was, in a way, a mentor with a combination of the
simplicity in his songwriting and the reason he was writing," Baez said.
Baez performs in true folk tradition, singing songs with meaning
written and performed by working-class folk and passed along by
word-of-mouth and in social gatherings.
Besides performing songs by well-known songwriters, many songs in
Baez's repertoire are difficult to trace back to original songwriter,
such as a "Jackaroe," a song that dates back to sometime in the early 1800s.
"When I first started, I had complete disdain for anything that was
written. It had to come down from through the ages," Baez said.
She admits that she knew little about the songs' histories.
"I've been singing things for 50 years, and I never looked anything
up," Baez said. She recently started delving into the history of many
of the songs after signing on to perform at a benefit for her
granddaughters' school and wanting to explain some of the music's background.
Family and activism
While Baez's career has been enveloped by social activism since the
1950s starting with the civil rights movement and even as recently as
the 2008 presidential election, family has increasingly become a
large part of her life.
"In the 1960s ad 70s, I didn't have a family. I didn't pay attention
to them and now I have a 97-year-old mother and a 6-year-old
granddaughter and I make it my business to spend time with them
between tours," Baez said.
Even though activism has taken a backseat to family, the foundation
of what Baez stands for remains strongly in tact.
"The foundation of it has never changed and that's the nonviolence.
That's the foundation in spirit and the way I've tried to live and
the things that I've tried to do," Baez said.
"The most important thing is the fact that we're about to do
ourselves in as a human race. We're nearing the tipping point. When
you look at it that way, all the rest of the things seem almost
minor," Baez said, adding that it's like we're in a car headed for a
brick wall only we're in the trunk.
"How are people going to hear it in time because the powers that be,
as usual, are the focus of money and do not have a major concern in
the human race."