Singer, Songwriter and Activist Joan Baez
By Phil Reser
A Farewell Tour
Story by Phil Reser
Photos Courtesy of JoanBaez.com
“If people have to put labels on me, I’d prefer the first label to be human being, the second label to be pacifist, and the third to be folk singer”-Joan Baez
Legendary singer, songwriter and political activist Joan Baez is on her final professional music tour across America and Europe, and it includes a few North State stops.
“I need to say goodbye to the six weeks in the bus at a time and keeping the voice up, which is a daily affair. I need to say goodbye to preparing for the concert and then singing for an hour and a half to two hours, and then getting on the bus and going to the next place,” she says. “Obviously, anytime I feel compelled to take part in some form of political action, or if somebody calls and says, ‘We’re having a folk festival, would you like to do 20 minutes?’ I can and will do those things.”
In the dressed-up 1950s, Baez was the dressed-down Barefoot Madonna, an international star and Time magazine cover story at the age of 18. A decade later, she made headlines as the apostle of nonviolence, whose records went gold and whose passion and energy made her a heroine of the movements for civil rights in America and peace in Vietnam. When others left activism for the pleasures of the “Me Decade,” she continued to take the cause of human rights to audiences around the world with her voice and her presence.
Although a talented songwriter herself, it’s her interpretation of other writers’ work that really stands out. At age 13 she was taken to see Pete Seeger, whose performance inspired her to start learning some of his repertoire and performing publicly.
Gifted with a natural singing voice and influenced by an early appreciation of opera, her career took off following a performance at Newport Folk Festival in 1959, her first self-titled album coming out the following year.
In her early days, Baez was at the core of the American roots music revival, where she toured and gained attention, paving the way for other artists like Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris.
During the ‘70s, her cover of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” went to the top of the charts and is arguably the definitive version of that song. She was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2007.
Her stirring version of the cover song, “We Shall Overcome,” became an anthem for the civil rights movement, while “Diamonds and Rust” presented a more vulnerable, poetic side. Her popularity soared on hit albums such as “Joan Baez In Concert” and “Farewell, Angelina,” and Baez’s impossibly pure soprano became the voice of her generation.
She opened the Live Aid show in the United States in 1985 and performed on two Amnesty International tours in the same decade. The organization honored her in 2011 at its 50th Anniversary with the inaugural Joan Baez Award for outstanding inspirational service in the global fight for human rights.
The 77-year-old Queen of Folk continually lends her voice to many political causes, having found herself on the frontlines of the civil rights battle in Selma, Ala., the Occupy Wall Street protests, and the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation.
“In light of what we’re experiencing today, in the face of what looks really bleak, we have to go for little victories,” Baez says. “And you have to consider every step that’s a positive one that brings back compassion, brings back empathy, brings back political action. Day by day, these are the victories. At the end of the day, you get only what you did that day. You don’t get a whole future of world peace.”
Most recently, in the aftermath of Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, Baez made a plea for a return to nonviolence, a long-standing theme in her career as an activist and musician.
“Intelligent, impassioned high school students are taking risks in order to save lives, enhance life, and bring goodness into the world.” •
Friday, November 2 • Laxson Auditorium, Chico
Wednesday, November 7 • Cascade Theatre, Redding
November 8 • Arkley Center for the Arts, Eureka