Joan Baez: the voice of folk bids farewell

Folk singer Joan Baez strumming her guitar on the beach near her home.  (Photo by Ralph Crane//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Joan Baez in the 1960s. Photo: Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

The luminous soprano extension to her voice melted away years ago, but that was just the snowy peak of her singing, anyway, not the mountain. The mountain was her conviction. Even back in high school Joan Baez took a lone stance against participating in a nuclear war drill. This was what set her apart; what made her voice steely as well as crystalline; what made her words ring true and echo around the world.

By the age of 21 – in 1962, just as that decade of social change began – she was not just a folk singer, she was folk music. Even when Bob Dylan came along she was the mentor, he the tyro. That was before they became lovers; before Dylan’s stinging, witty, enigma-laden lyrics revolutionised song-writing.

Speaking to her via telephone at her California home I tell Baez that the first time I heard her on the radio I thought I was hearing an angel. “Little do you know!” she replies, and laughs an infectious laugh. Yet this sunny woman (who is an improbable 77) contrasts sharply with the intense, insecure girl of her teens, who had trouble making friends and desperately sought approval through her music.

Now, after a 10-year hiatus between studio albums, Baez is releasing her last ever, Whistle Down the Wind, and embarking on a mammoth final tour called Fare Thee Well (that, alas, will not bring her to Australia – she sends her fans here her “very fondest regards”). Even the longest careers aren’t endless.

“When I was in my 30s I asked my vocal coach how I would know when it was time to quit touring,” she says recounts, “and he said, ‘Your voice will tell you.’ It’s just exhausting to try to keep the voice going, and it was time to stop. I’ve been doing it for 60 years.”

That’s not just 60 years of recording and one-night-stand touring, it’s 60 years of relentless social and political activism. She inherited a staunch moral compass from her parents, and famously applied it to denouncing the Vietnam War and championing Civil Rights. “When I started singing it was just normal for me to match up the music and the morals,” she says, “and realised I had a knack for doing that, and that that was when I was happiest.”

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Not that the teenaged Baez set out with any specific career ambitions. “My idea of the future was the following Tuesday,” she says. At junior high school her teachers assumed she would become a cartoonist, and, given her broad musical tastes, she could have easily pursued a path other than folk music. “I used to sing along with Joan Sutherland, and could make a lot of those notes,” she says. “I didn’t have the power because I didn’t breathe properly. But I knew that if I got trained I could be an opera singer. I guess what I told myself was that I felt more like I had my feet in the dirt when I did folk music, and that’s where I was comfortable.”

The dirt in question, however, does not refer to lyrics dovetailing with her politics. “It’s interesting,” she says, “because that didn’t really have a voice or vocabulary until Dylan. There were some songs, but the amount of stuff that came out of his arsenal was just unbelievable, and it’s still what is known the best. I mean now in political action on our streets what’s missing is some kind of anthem that is not Blowin’ in the Wind or [John Lennon’s] Imagine or [gospel song] We Shall Overcome.”

Baez is arguably the finest Dylan interpreter of all, so did he like her versions, himself? “I think he does,” she replies. “He never says anything.” Then she laughs that laugh again. “He’s been very complimentary about the voice and about the playing. But anything he feels he’s been forced into, he just doesn’t respond. So I never try.”

Asked if it was a competitive relationship, she seems surprised. “Maybe in some ways it was,” she says. “But when we were at our best we were just happy doing duets of his music, and once in a while somebody else’s songs. That was a really happy period.”

It didn’t last. Dylan tersely ended their affair during a 1965 British tour, for which he apologised 44 years later. Stray towards this territory with the woman he called “Joanie” and a question about whether their celebrity interfered with their relationship, and her voice hardens ever so slightly as she tells me it was all part of the big picture. A different, nervous laugh suggests I’ve entered a no-go zone.

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Her one marriage was to the notable Vietnam draft-resister David Harris (with whom she had a son, Gabriel, who became her percussionist). Now she has contentedly lived alone for many years, accepting her “inability to live with somebody with any great degree of success”. “After dealing with a lot of therapy,” she says, “I’ve reached a level of calm that I never thought would happen. I would think that someday if somebody crosses my path and rings a few bells that I would think, ‘Hmmm.’ But my guess is that those people have already walked across my path, and I said ‘Hmm’, and that was it!”

In the Civil Rights movement she marched shoulder to shoulder with the great Martin Luther King in what became a close friendship. “I got to spend enough time with him to share a sense of humour and silliness – the part of him that other people didn’t get to see, and that he couldn’t afford to show because people would tear him down,” she says. “If he cracked the wrong the joke it could have had all sorts of disastrous consequences, so he didn’t act silly around people, but he did when he was with ‘the gang’, and I was happily included in that.”

Baez famously went to Hanoi in 1972, just as the US unleashed its biggest bombing campaign of the Vietnam War. “It was mostly at night,” she says, “so the routine was you’d go to bed and get as much sleep as you could, knowing that the sirens would go off at a certain time, when you’d jump out of bed, and then there’s a stampede – not from the Vietnamese; they don’t even go into the shelter – from all of us, the Cubans, British and French, flying down the stairs to the bomb shelter. And I made this decision I was not going to run. I was not going to be that undignified. So I sat down on the stairs, and there was a huge explosion, and I was out of there like a shot! It was almost something you couldn’t control: just get up and run.”

On the same trip her hosts took her to see the pilots of a US plane shot down the night before. “I had nothing but sympathy for them,” she says.

She has put her body on the line many times, including in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, and once said her activism was more important than her music. Now she just sees them as completely intertwined.

The end of the Vietnam War left her feeling “derailed”, and the idealism of the ’60s petered out with so much still to be done against racism and violence of all sorts – whether international, domestic or environmental. The warrior in her still flares up at the mention of contemporary US politics.

“It’s a scenario that none of us could have ever dreamed of!” she exclaims. “It is so evil and so awful. The hope is that I saw George Will – arch-conservative, brilliant man – on TV one night, and the next night I saw [leftist film-maker] Michael Moore, and they were both saying exactly the same thing. If the people can seriously organise on the ground level and run for offices, and topple whatever evil is in their territory, that is the only chance that this country has of not becoming a full-on fascist state.”

Nonetheless she gazes upon world with more benignity than her younger self would have managed. “There’s a part of me that can smile and accept that we are just a silly race,” she says. “If you don’t keep smiling you’re really in trouble.”