Joan Baez remembers the pivotal day in 1956 when, as a 16-year-old, she first heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak on nonviolence and civil rights at a youth conference. It ignited a fire in her that has never dimmed.
“It was one of those life changes,” says Baez interviewed before performing on Maui. “Two hundred kids from all over the country came together to discuss what was going on in the world and what to do about it. One of the speakers was Martin Luther King Jr. When he started to speak I started to weep and I couldn’t stop. This man was doing what I had been reading about and talking about. I was basically blown away.”
Seven years year later the folk music icon delivered an extraordinarily moving performance at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (the day when King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech), singing “We Shall Overcome” before more than 200,000 protestors.
“I have a photo of myself from that day and I look like a lion going into battle, ferocious,” she recalls. “And that’s how I would get.”
A lifelong social activist, Baez participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights in 1965, and protested the Vietnam War, releasing the 22-minute ballad “Where Are You Now My Son.” She wrote the song “China,” to condemn the massacre in China’s Tiananmen Square, and released a Spanish language album in solidarity with those oppressed by Chile’s dictatorship. An influential member of Amnesty International since the 1970s, she sang to Occupy Wall Street protesters in 2011, and journeyed to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in September.
In April, Baez will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “I never considered myself to be a rock and roll artist,” she reports. “But as part of the folk music boom which contributed to and influenced the rock revolution of the ‘60s, I am proud that some of the songs I sang made their way into the rock lexicon.”
Baez embraced the American folk music movement of the late ‘50s at the perfect moment. “The stars lined up,” she says. “It was the right time at the right place and the right voice.”
While playing Boston coffee houses she was invited by a musician friend to join him on stage at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival. The performance generated praise for the “barefoot Madonna” with the extraordinary soprano voice. It wasn’t long before she became the most popular folk singer in America, appearing on the cover of Time Magazine in 1962, and headlining Newport a year later, as well as starring at the Monterey Folk Festival with boyfriend Bob Dylan.
It was all a bit of a whirlwind she says. “When you are young the idea of future is the following Wednesday. I didn’t see beyond where I was. I was living in Big Sur in a shack with my West Indian boyfriend. The only phone was down a hill in a lodge, and someone would yell, ‘hey your manager’s on the line.’ I had money, but didn’t understand it. One day I went to town to buy a flashlight and the kind of milk you mix with water to save money, and I ended up buying a Jaguar. The store was closed, so let’s go round the corner and look at British Motors and we drove out in an XKE. So it was a bit of a whirlwind.”
Attaining almost mythical status as the queen of folk one wonders if the mantle ever became a hindrance for her? “It was, but I didn’t know it,” she responds. “I had been so poor up to the switch, that Madonna’s looking pretty good.”
At concert dates in her early days she had strict staging requirements – a black stage with one light and a microphone. “I was horrible,” she laughs. “I was miss make it simple, and it was impossible for everybody else.”
While primarily known as a folk artist Baez has ventured into wider territory, including singing a Rolling Stones’ song at Woodstock, transforming The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” into a worldwide hit, recording the country rock “David’s Album,” and rocking with Steve Earle on her 2003 album “Dark Chords on a Big Guitar.”
Some of the artists she’s recorded with range from Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson to John Mellencamp and the Grateful Dead, while her songs have been recorded by hard rock gods Led Zeppelin and metal legends Judas Priest. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were inspired to cover “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” after hearing her folk version, and Judas Priest covered her top-40 hit “Diamonds & Rust.”
“It’s so rare that anyone covers anything of mine,” she says. “I met (lead singer) Rob Halford of Judas Priest. I gave him a hug and he said, ‘you do know that we…’ He was nervous I wouldn’t like it. I said, it’s great, my son told me about it.”
Over the course of an extraordinary life promoting social justice, civil rights and pacifism in her music, this legendary artist feels especially grateful for helping future Czech president Vaclav Havel.
Invited to play music festival in communist Czechoslovakia in 1989, she helped him avoid arrest by government agents. And when her microphone was silenced because she addressed a dissident human-rights group, she proceeded to sing a cappella for the 4,000 strong audience. Havel later cited her as a great inspiration and influence in his country’s Velvet Revolution overthrow of Communism.
“It’s one of the incidents where I did make a difference,” she says. “It was very gratifying to see that in print when he wrote about it.”
While there are many courageous moments in her life, she points out: “The most courageous thing I did for years was walk out on stage because I had such stage fright. It paled any political stuff I might have been doing.”
As for the turbulent times we live in, Baez feels somewhat hopeful. “We’ve been waiting for years for people to have the feeling we had way back then, that brought us together, a feeling that the other one is there with you,” she says. “It was missing. People would say I want to do something, but I don’t know what. And there was nowhere to go with that. Just about anywhere you turn now there’s something you can be a part of.”
Asked about any special secret to her successful longevity she offers a joke. “An old guy who won a record for being old was asked to what do you attribute your longevity and he says, ‘sheer bad luck.’ I wouldn’t attribute that to myself, but it comes to mind. I didn’t do drugs, I didn’t do alcohol, and I did political action instead. That was probably healthier than if I had gotten into drugs and sex and rock ‘n roll. And I have reasons to be alive. I think we need to do what needs to be done. I can’t tell anybody what to do, but I can say it’s what has made my life rich.”
Washington D.C. 1963