Baez’s desire to overcome the wrongs in society still burns as bright as ever

Joan Baez
Joan Baez
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American folk legend, songwriter, activist and campaigner, the remarkable Joan Baez is back on tour in the UK. She talks to Chris Bond.

WHILE most of us watch history unfold on our TV screens, Joan Baez has witnessed it with her own eyes.

She was there when her friend Martin Luther King Jnr made his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, she was there when audiences booed Bob Dylan, and she was there, too, when protesters took to the streets in opposition to the Vietnam War. Years later she stood on stage with Nelson Mandela at his 90th birthday celebrations in Hyde Park and was in New York last November, singing at a concert for the protesters at Occupy Wall Street.

At the age of 71, Baez has lost none of her energetic zeal and the folk icon – famous for songs like We Shall Overcome, There But For Fortune and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – is back in this country for a new tour.

“I love travelling around the UK, the fans there have been a very important part of my career from very early on and I’m glad they’ve stayed faithful,” says Baez, who has vivid memories of her first visit to Britain back in 1964. “I remember singing at the Royal Albert Hall. I think it was my first performance in England and I was scared stiff but somehow I got through it.”

It seems strange to hear this from someone who has always appeared so self-assured, but Baez admits she used to struggle with nerves.

“It took me a long time to get over my stage fright, although maybe I don’t have enough now because it’s good to have some nerves before you go on stage.”

It’s more than half a century since she first dazzled audiences at the Newport Folk Festival and she continues to captivate generations of music fans.

“There’s a line in my song Diamonds and Rust that goes, ‘Where are you calling from? A booth in the midwest ten years ago.’ I realised the other day I’ve been singing that line for more than 30 years and I thought ‘oh, my God, it’s not 10 years ago it’s 40’.”

The second of three daughters born to a Mexican physicist father and Scottish mother, she had an itinerant upbringing as the family followed her father’s work wherever it took him. In the midst of this upheaval she sought solace in music and at the age of 13 started playing the ukulele.

“It was an escape from school which wasn’t a pleasant experience for me. I used to play for hours, I had a bottom bunk bed and I would lie there and play my ukulele into the night.” She graduated to the guitar a couple of years later by which time she was into rhythm and blues music. “I would sit listening to Johnny Ace and The Penguins on the radio. They only played four chords on every song which was good because it meant I could learn them.”

It wasn’t until she heard Harry Belafonte that she became interested in folk music. “He had a great voice and he was so beautiful, I remember me and my mum would just stare at the picture of him on the album cover. Then there was Odetta and Pete Seeger, of course, and after that I was hooked.”

She made her debut in 1958 with a residency at the famed Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I was paid $10 and then this went up to $15. I knew I had talent but I didn’t think of myself as a big deal,” she says. The following year, at the age of 18, she lit up the Newport Folk Festival. “I’d been invited along by Bob Gibson and it wasn’t advertised that I was playing, but I sang two duets and after that it was just mayhem.”

Her performance earned widespread praise and she was dubbed the “barefoot Madonna” with the otherworldly voice. She was snapped up by Vanguard Records and the following year released her debut album, Joan Baez, which pushed her further into the limelight.

“How do you handle fame when you’re just 19?” And how did she? “By going in the opposite direction of commerciality. I was scared stiff of the industry and I was very wary of becoming some kind of commodity.”

She says she finds it intriguing looking back and seeing footage of herself in those early days. “I watch some of those old films and wonder what was going through my head. There’s one where I heard myself referring to these ‘kids’ hanging around outside a limo and yet I was the same age as them.”

By 1963, Baez was a big star and she used her popularity to help bring a little known folk singer to prominence. His name was Bob Dylan. “I knew he was good but the audience didn’t at that time. I brought this ragamuffin out on stage and there were some boos when he started singing because he didn’t have the angelic voice they had come to hear, and I would scold them and say, ‘You’ll see’ and, of course, the rest is history.”

Although she has written her own songs she is better known as an interpreter of other people’s work, having recorded songs by the likes of The Beatles, Woody Guthrie, Stevie Wonder, Leonard Cohen, Steve Earle and, of course, Dylan. “I can often tell on one listen whether or not a song will work in my repertoire. It sounds trite to say the songs choose me because there’s no formula, they’re all different. For a time I only wanted to do politically conscious songs but then I thought it’s the context that counts. Suzanne isn’t a protest song but it’s associated with that period in the late 60s and Leonard Cohen’s brand of consciousness.”

But of all the songs she has sung over the years it is Dylan’s that resonate with her the most. “His are the most powerful and magical. I couldn’t write an anthem if my life depended on it, but his songs are so anthemic and they are sung all over the world.”

During a career spanning six decades Baez has produced more than 30 albums, but running parallel to her music has been her ceaseless campaigning on everything from gay rights to the abolition of the death penalty.

She went on her first demonstration when she was 13 and at the age of 16 refused to leave her school classroom and go to the bomb shelter as part of a drill, in protest against what she believed to be misleading government propaganda.

She was actively involved in the civil rights movement and became friends with Martin Luther King.

“He had a great sense of humour but a lot of people aren’t aware of that. He couldn’t afford to show that side of his character because people wouldn’t have taken him seriously, but he was very warm and funny with his friends.”

She was a staunch opponent of the Vietnam conflict and joined in numerous anti-war marches and rallies, even spending time in jail for blocking an army induction centre. “It wasn’t a big deal, other people had it worse than I did. I was just protesting against something I felt was wrong,” she says. It’s one of the reasons she has been so impressed by the Occupy Movement. “It’s the first time in 40 years that people have been willing to take risks. Critics say they’re confused and don’t know what they’re doing, but they felt that something was desperately wrong with the system and they showed up in Wall Street in their masses and that’s a beginning. It’s started a debate about who has money and who doesn’t and the movement has become a kind of focal point.”

Baez was a prominent cultural figure during the 60s, but how does she look back on that turbulent decade? “I was there for the most extraordinary 10 years we may ever see in this country, people got involved and took big risks, it was a perfect storm. The problem for people now is there’s only one Dylan, there’s only one me and there’s only one civil rights movement, although unfortunately there wasn’t just one war.”

But while she came of age during the so-called age of Aquarius, a lifetime of political activism has hardened her outlook on the world. “I’ve never been an optimist, I’m what I call a realist. The human race has behaved so badly for so many decades it’s hard to be optimistic. Dreamers say ‘music can change the world’, but it can’t change the world by itself it has to be backed up by something else.”

Joan Baez is playing at York Barbican, February 26, (sold out) and Sheffield City Hall, March 5.

Protest songs from the past

Sam Cooke, A Change Is Gonna Come (1964): Inspired by Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, Cooke’s lyrics were paraphrased by Barack Obama in his 2008 victory speech.

Credence Clearwater Revival, Fortunate Son (1969): Opposing the war in Vietnam, John Fogerty’s song was told through the eyes of GI drafted into the fight.

Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1970): The poet and novelist’s song became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement.

Junior Murvin, Police and Thieves (1976): Following violent elections in Jamaica which left scores of people dead, Murvin’s song became a soundtrack for that year’s Notting Hill Carnival.

Fela Kuti and Afrika 70, Zombie (1976): A satiric swipe at Nigeria’s army, it led to Fela’s compound being raided by soldiers.