The folk songs that Joan Baez sang in the early 60s made her a star. As much as she is known for these ballads, she is also known for political activism.
Baez has stayed true to the songs that made her a star, true to the ideals she nurtured and true to her voice, which still rolls with a beautiful vibrato to this day.
Gene Myers talked to Baez about the highs and lows of fame as she compared the political climate of the 60s to the political climate of today.
GM: There is a renewed interest in folk songs these days. Roger McGuinn has had success with his Web site, The Folk Den, where he shares traditional music with listeners through the Internet. And Dan Zanes has been very successful performing and recording folk songs for kids, not to mention the new crop of acoustic singer-songwriters. Any theories as to why that is?
JB: It may be the context in which we live and function. It has become more available. There has been a squash on art for so many years now. A lot of songs may have been written, but they didn’t have anywhere to be heard, except for small clubs, small record labels and alternative radio. I think now perhaps, the political atmosphere is going to create some extraordinary things.
GM: Even though you are an activist interested in affecting the world around you, this is the first time ever that you are endorsing a candidate. Why start with him?
JB: I never ever dreamed that I would. Only in the face of what I feel Obama does for people, the only reason not to come out on his behalf was because of my posture all these years, that I was supposed to not change it. But in this situation, I felt that it was really important to say what was in my heart.
GM: Would you elaborate on that?
JB: My feeling has always been that party politics is just so…what did my father call it…fraught with ghastliness (laughs). There is so much lying, cheating and stealing that I still don’t want to have anything to do with it. I believe that real social change has to come from the base, and not from the top. And I think that Obama reminds me of the base, which means people, the base of power…Certainly he will come closer than anybody than I have ever known in my lifetime. For me, it’s very reminiscent of the civil rights movement in the fact that it is not the rhetoric. It’s what happens with young people, what happens with the videos that have been created on his behalf. This is what he brings out of people, which we haven’t seen in decades!
GM: Growing up in the 80s, I was jealous of the 60s. The 80s seemed like a selfish, frivolous time whereas the 60s are usually portrayed as a time of altruism, experimentation and activism. Did it feel that way while you were in it?
JB: I didn’t know anything different. When I was that age, the phenomenon was going on. I had been politically active in the sense of (listening to) Pete Seeger from a very early age. For me, it just rolled on from my high school junior and senior years. It developed into the singing and the kind of politics that so many of us took part in. It was a time for dreams and a lot of those dreams actually came about. As much as civil rights is failing, it is also succeeding in a massive way.
GM: If the 80s were one end of the spectrum and the 60s were the other, where do you think we sit now?
JB: Due to the phenomenon of Obama, it could be shifted – very seriously – back in the direction of… (interrupts herself) I never want to say back to the 60s. Nothing is ever going to be that again. It’s going to be what we create now. I see the possibility now.
GM: Why is folk music the music that is tied to political change?
JB: I suppose that is because it came from the earth. It was written by folks. There was nothing contrived about it. It was about their daily lives. In the beginning it was protest music by poor people who didn’t have much else to do except talk about the conditions of their lives. It wasn’t necessarily poor people — the folk music I grew up with – and what’s going on now. It’s the people who need to be heard rather than the people who sing so they can get money.
GM: Do you think that there are current artists out there today doing this?
JB: I do, for instance, the album I am making with Steve Earle. Clearly his interest is not in making money. It is in making social change.
GM: Can you tell me a little about the album and what is going to be on it?
JB: The songs on it sound more like my beginnings than any album I have done in many years. It is completely “unplugged,” even has a standup bass. It’s four musicians, plus Steve [as producer and musician], in Nashville. Nashville is very laid back. I really flourish in that atmosphere. The songs on it have been chosen for their beauty and for their words, and a sense of what I was known for for many years. It’s a sound. It’s simplicity. You will hear them and know exactly what I am talking about. Steve wrote three of them.
GM: Why the return to your beginnings now?
JB: Probably because I am 50 years into it (laughs). It is a good time. Maybe it’s bookends.
GM: How has your relationship to music changed over the years?
JB: It’s changed in my never-ending search to find something fresh. It’s more important to me what remains constant. It’s what goes with my voice and what it creates for people beyond just music. That remains the same. As for the differences, I guess the phases that I went through as the years went on. Everybody who has ever been called a star reaches a point in his or her life when there is suddenly this great dip. You were something and, all of the sudden, you are still that something and the world is going on around you and not paying that much attention. (laughs) That is a crisis for everybody – and I mean everybody— Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Dylan…Those years are difficult. They were difficult for me. I finally, after many years, got past them. I was singing the whole time, but I had to come out on the other side knowing that I still create something that is unique in this world. It is valued and I want to stick as close to what I do best as I can.
GM: When did you feel you went into that dip?
JB: It’s all a haze now, but I am sure that, for me, it had to do with the end of the war in Vietnam. So much of my visibility had to do with political and social change and music. One thing I have to thank George Bush for is creating an atmosphere in which I became relevant again.
GM: It seems like a lot of your contemporaries hit a dip in the 80s. Not just in record sales, but also artistically. It seemed like James Taylor, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell…they got to the 80s and, all of the sudden, BAM!
JB: I don’t think you can create much music in a cave. We are creating music from what is around us, whether we know it or not, or whether we like it or not because that is what we have. I think when that became somewhat of a vacuum, it was hard to create anything relevant for anybody! I also think that if Obama is given half a chance, it will give us a different context. Already songwriters, especially hip-hoppers, have responded because suddenly there is a relevance for them. There is something aside from the vacuum. I think it is going to create an explosion of creativity.
GM: Was it Reaganomics that created the vacuum?
JB: It started a little before that, but yes. (laughs) Reagan took us there. He put the stamp on the decades of greed.
GM: What can people who come to your current tour expect to see at the show?
JB: They can expect to see me and three musicians trying to communicate in a way which is as down to earth as possible, singing some very beautiful material. The voice is a different voice, but it is certainly in tact.