Joan Baez Gots to Ramble
Famed folk activist says fare thee well to touring
By Elise Barbin,
12:10PM, Wed. Apr. 17, 2019
For starters, her soprano sewed together the Civil Rights movement. Any look back on Joan Baez’s 60 years of song reflects that as well as 31 albums and thousands of shows replete with feeling and conviction. As she bids adieu to a dedicated life of performance, Baez calls in from her California home ahead of a sold-out show tonight at the Paramount Theatre.
Austin Chronicle: Like the bulk of your catalog, your most recent album Whistle Down the Wind is comprised of covers. What qualities in other writers’ songs draws you to record their song?
Joan Baez: It’s always been kind of a mystery, because sometimes it’s the music or the melody or the words or the social impact. I think we ended up with a wonderful combination of all of those. I think that album wouldn’t have been anywhere near as strong if we didn’t have “Another World” and the president song [“The President Sang Amazing Grace”] on it. They made it something deeper than just a group of wonderful songs.
And I haven‘t written literally for decades. At the very beginning, I depended on old folk songs. I didn’t write anything until I was well into the hole. And then I quit writing maybe 30 years ago and never bothered thinking about it. I’ve just used other people’s material.
AC: As you wind down from formal touring, do you see any contemporary artists continuing the work you’ve been doing throughout your career?
JB: I think there probably are a lot of them, most of them probably not getting much air time because of the state of the nation. My guess is that around open mics you’ll find a lot of that material. Another thing worth mentioning is there was such a huge 10-year period of talent that probably can’t be repeated.
From Dylan to Joni Mitchell to the Rolling Stones to the Beatles, people long for it. They say, “When is somebody gonna write the next ‘Imagine,’ the next ‘Blowin’ in the Wind?’” Well, they’re not. There will be something else eventually that’ll come out, but it’s hard to try to match that time period because of everything. It was just the perfect storm politically and musically. I’m just lucky to be a part of it.
AC: Right, it’s so much of a cultural renaissance that it’s hard to replicate.
JB: Yep. People are trying to and it’s kind of exhausting. That kind of music we have to reinvent. I will say, I went to a conference on Civil Rights and it was for the purpose of us older ones and then young people who have shown interest in it. The young people don’t have new songs. What they did have was their call and response.
The older group members wanted me to close the show on the last day with “We Shall Overcome” and I said I didn’t want to. I think it defeats a lot of purposes. It has to be something fresh. Well, then they started the shouting and responding and dancing along with it, and it’s beautiful. So I thought, “Until the next miracle comes, we’ll take this one.”
AC: In that sense, I think hip-hop has become the communal voice for political pushback the way folk was 50 or 60 years ago.
JB: That’s exactly what I’m thinking and saying. That was a form of hip-hop going on there. You take whatever is moving people, especially kids. If that’s working, then it’s better than us old folks coming in singing old songs.
AC: Do you ever listen to hip-hop or rap?
JB: Not really. It doesn’t move me the way it does a lot of younger people and people in different strata. I don’t listen to much of anything actually, when I think about it. I listen to classical, favorites from way back when. Occasionally I’ll ask my granddaughter to send me a list and I’ll give a listen to everyone on that list. My thinking it’s worthy doesn’t really mean much because I’m from another era.
AC: Is there anyone on that list you find worthwhile?
JB: I would say at the moment I can’t think of a name, although they exist. I do have my secret enjoyments, like Sam Smith, because he has a brilliant voice. Sia is somebody I took my granddaughter to see and all her friends too, and I enjoyed it as much as they did. If I can enjoy it with my son and my granddaughter, it says something about the music more so than it does about me.
AC: On your most recent album, you covered topics of climate change, war, racism – themes you’ve been singing about your whole career. Is there a cause you think supersedes in today’s political climate?
JB: Climate change is doing us in even while we’re fighting about who’s running for what, making a mess out of politics. It’s just chugging along and we haven’t been able to stop it because of money. With what they’re making out of fossil fuels, they’re not gonna change. It can end civilization if something doesn’t get done about it. There’s not any question to me of what’s the most important. It’s also the most difficult to get a grip on and do anything important.
AC: Has your perception of activism changed since you started singing political songs?
JB: I was thinking back to the first song that would fall into that category. It was “Emmett Till” and I was 15. It gives me an idea of what was going on in my little head when I was 15. It was an era of pretty superficial music. Some of it I liked listening to, but it’s interesting that I just took a right turn when I found something that was meaningful.
I think the tactics change periodically, but I think the bottom line is that it will involve taking a risk. Until people are willing to do that, we won’t have the social change that we need. I think the kids from Parkland are willing to take a risk. That’s as close to a movement to anything we’ve had in 40 years. They were willing to lie down in front of the Capitol and not really care whether they got arrested. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
AC: There’s not that willingness to risk within members of Congress, which is the problem.
JB: The conflict there is in the institution, where it’s almost impossible to do the things you want to do once you’re in it. At the same time, I appreciate everyone who’s gotten there who will inch toward something decent when it’s a battle for them.
AC: I think we’re also in a unique cultural moment where technology avails us to be more aware of what’s going on, but at the same time it’s just as difficult to affect change. Do you have advice to overcome that sense of pessimism?
JB: A little thing I say is “little victories and huge defeats.” We’re facing huge defeats at the moment, so find what it is that’s calling you, whether it’s going to Ethiopia to dig wells or whatever calls to your heart. That means everything to the people where you’ve gone to do that work. In a way, it’s its own risk just taking yourself out of your comfort zone. You find that thing that really calls you. Little things that we can do have become so, so important.