Joan Baez burst onto the folk scene in the late-'50s as a talented and idealistic young singer, and embarked on a journey that took her from Greenwich Village coffee houses to the Newport Folk Festival and Woodstock, protest marches and warzones. Now 72, she hasn't eased up on her beliefs one bit. Her last album, Day After Tomorrow, was produced by longtime friend Steve Earle and released in 2008. Time Out talks to Baez ahead of her first Australian tour in 25 years.
Joan, your activism has taken you from Vietnam draft queues, to sitting alongside Martin Luther King at Civil Rights protests, but also to war-torn areas like Hanoi and Sarajevo. Do you think you’ve suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome?
No doubt about it. About five years ago I went to see the Vietnam Wall in Washington and I put my hand on it and I started to scream. I just screamed bloody hell until it had passed.
The strain is etched on your face in a lot of that old footage. How did you rationalise to yourself the fact that you might die?
I think we all have such big egos that we don’t think we are going to die. I did in the bomb shelter in Hanoi, though – it crossed my mind more than once. It’s an interesting phenomenon that close to a bomb scare – you’re terrified and then the planes pass over and you haven’t been hit and you breathe this sigh of relief. After the sigh of relief you think that you’re not vulnerable anymore, then they come back and you’re vulnerable.
Why do you think a lot of people have a strong social conscience and others don’t?
I think it’s mostly upbringing, plus sometimes an epiphany. I probably didn’t need one because of the surroundings I’ve been brought up in and then meeting Ira Sandperl when I was 17, who was a Gandhi scholar and an activist [he formed The Institute for the Study of Nonviolence with Baez]. He was a huge influence on my life and I know he could have met somebody else and they wouldn’t have been interested, but I was interested. I wanted to read Gandhi and I wanted to meet Martin Luther King and I was moved by courage. Courage means that you’re afraid of it but you do it anyway. If you’re not afraid then its not particularly courageous but if you are scared the way King was – he was afraid of tear gas and some of his cohorts were afraid of beatings – then you have to deal with that fear and push through it to do what you’re gonna do.
How peaceful are you feeling right now?
I don’t regret anything I’ve been through. We live with little victories and big defeats – and if you look at the backdrop of what the world is in right now we are in a big defeat. Most of that would be contributed to largely by global warming. I honestly don’t know how my nine-year-old grandchild is going to have a life 20 years from now and that’s so terrifying, so I do think you need to work for little victories. Do what your heart tells you to do. If you can sacrifice something for somebody else and you know that you have empathy, those things all have to count.
I wish Obama had decided to create a movement instead of run for office. Because he is the only phenomenon that has happened in this country since Kennedy, but his hands are tied and he’s making terrible decisions.
Your music has produced eight gold albums and a Grammy. Do you still play for the love of it between albums?
Right now, because I’m painting a lot, I tend to neglect the music side – but you know at the beginning I played nonstop. I would play until I was tired and then I’d go to bed and play with the guitar on my chest, fall sleep, wake up and go on playing. It was incessant, but it’s not my primary interest anymore. I’ve been sketching my whole life, but now I’m completely caught up in acrylics.
The seeds of activism
1941 Born in New York to Scottish mother and Mexican father, both pacifists
1951 Being frequently mistaken for an Arab while living in a white area of Baghdad with her family gave Baez a first taste of racism
1959 Big break at Newport Folk Festival
1961 Dates Bob Dylan. It falls apart when he loses interest in activism and doesn’t invite her onstage, the way she would invite him when she was the bigger star
1963 Sings ‘We Shall Overcome’ to a 250,000-strong crowd at the Civil Rights March on Washington
1967 Jailed for 10 days during protest against the draft