Sunday, March 1, 2009

Diamonds and Rust (Joan Baez)

Joan Baez: 50 years of music to move you
Folk singer-activist discusses new hope, new songs, new film

By Chris Boeckmann
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Put simply, Joan Baez is a legend. She might hate the title, she might think she doesn’t live up to it, but it’s true. Baez helped bring folk — female folk music especially — to the mainstream, and along the way, she was courageous enough to stand up for a number of noble causes.

Early in her career, she stood next to Martin Luther King Jr. Later on, she did the same with farm workers, supporters of Harvey Milk and environmental activists.

Musically, she is known as a master interpreter and gifted songwriter. Now at age 68, she is in her 50th year as a musician, and she’s touring the country. On March 16, Baez comes to the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts.

She says she’ll play a mixture of songs from all points of her long, busy career. The Tribune talked to Baez on the phone early this week; Baez was in Austin, Texas, at the time.

Tribune: Before I started doing more research, I had pegged you as an optimist. Do you come across that a lot?

Baez: I come across it, but I’ve never been an optimist. (She laughs.) I think human nature would show otherwise. Being a non-optimist has never really interfered with the things I do. I see hope here and there, and I’ve seen human behavior do some pretty wonderful things.

Tribune: You talk about your lack of optimism in an article from The Guardian; that article is from 2006, in the middle of the Bush presidency. Now President Barack Obama, whom you openly supported, is in office. Are you any more optimistic now?

Baez: Obviously, there’s been a sea change. There’s been a huge atmospheric change for everybody in the world, so yeah, I certainly buy the word “hopeful” in a way that I never have in the past, except perhaps when I worked with Dr. King and when I’ve worked on smaller projects when the word “hope” was in accordance with the size of the project.

Tribune: Why do you play music?

Baez: I guess because I can. I guess at age 13, somebody handed me a ukulele, and I discovered I could make tunes on it and sing to it, and within a year, I developed sort of a distinct sound, y’know, for a kid, and I liked it. It provided something interesting for me in a situation I was not very happy in, which was school. So I began to spend more and more time with my little ukulele, and my voice developed, I didn’t ever have plans for anything, but I moved in that direction because I liked it.

Tribune: What about today? Why do you still play?

Baez: I think that when my voice begins to really stop functioning properly, that will be the time for me to stop singing. But the fact is that over these years, luckily the voice has held up because really as the years go by I enjoy it more and more. When I was younger, I was so fraught with problems and age fright and feeling I had to be more than I was and carrying the world on my shoulders — everything that could interfere with you having a wonderful time on the stage was there. And now due to the years and due to a lot of therapy, it’s really not there anymore, so I can sing and have wonderful music and travel on a bus that I love. It makes up for a lot of difficulties I had earlier.

Tribune: For you, what sort of differences are there between touring, say, 40 years ago and today?

Baez: Well, I used to run through the airport with my guitar 50 years ago and catch planes. I was all alone, I didn’t know what a tour manager was. I had a sort of semblance of a manager, but we had no contract, and I was flying, so that was a miserable experience (laughing). But eventually I had musicians playing with me, eventually I traveled in a bus, and it was all a really long process. Now we have no maintenance, we have the right musicians and the right manager and the right driver. It’s just a completely different situation.

Tribune: How do you choose songs to interpret?

Baez: I just choose a song that’s usually how I think and feel and hear. Sometimes it’s a song I don’t even understand. I’ve never really understood why I pick songs. I’m sure there are very different reasons, some of them are obvious right off, like the song “Day After Tomorrow,” which has so many things that remind me of me. And sometimes there are songs that are beautiful that I know aren’t for me; it’s been that way my whole life.

Tribune: Do you listen to much new music?

Baez: I don’t keep up with new music, I’m sure of that. When most people grow up, they turn into horrible parents and they say, “Ugh, what’s that you’re listening to?” to their kids, and I’m probably in that same category, except my kid plays African music. And he plays very, very current West African music, so in that sense, I’m very current in some kinds of music. But what I listen to? It completely varies. I’ve looked at my iPod, and what I’ve been listening to for the past month is either opera or Willie Nelson. (She laughs.)

Tribune: When this article comes out, we’ll be celebrating our city’s documentary film festival. I know you’ve shown support for Michael Moore and appeared in multiple documentaries. Do you watch many?

Baez: I’m in the process of making my own. I’m in my 50th year, and I’m sure that’s why we’re doing it. Rather than having talking heads, half of the interviews are just conversations with me and different people — like my ex-husband about the draft in the military, like the president of the Czech Republic because I knew him before the revolution. Let’s see, Jackson Browne is great, just sitting and talking, Dar Williams sitting and talking — and she wonderful, y’know, she’s funny and fun. And my father was a camera buff when he was quite young, so we have extraordinary footage of stuff that either he took or he handed the camera to somebody. There’s footage of him and my mom coming out of a church right after getting married. So it’s really rich with material.

Tribune: So what stage are you at?

Baez: I think we’ll have more footage of comments and maybe a couple more interviews. But we’re just about through, and it should be out in the fall.

Tribune: Wow, cool. Are you going to aim for festivals?

Baez: Yes, I think I’ll be at festivals.

Tribune: Are there any particular films that inspired this one?

Baez: No, not really, just my life.

Tribune: Besides the documentary and touring, what other plans do you have for the near future?

Baez: Spending a lot of time with my family. I didn’t spend enough time with them in the ’60s and ’70s. My mom is 95, and my granddaughter is 5. They’re a big part of my schedule.

Tribune: So I’m guessing you spend a lot of time on the phone?

Baez: Talk a lot about them in the show?

Tribune: No, talk to them on the phone, while you’re on tour.

Baez: I’m not hearing you again.

Tribune: Oh, I was just saying that when you’re on the road, you probably spend a lot of time talking on the phone.

Baez: (Laughter) Yeah, I do. Right now my son is with me. He plays percussion.

Tribune: I’ve read some very positive reviews. It looks like the tour is going well.

Baez: Oh, really, really well. We just love it. It’s just so simple. These musicians are just top, top quality, and we really care for each other a lot, so all the way around it’s a pretty wonderful experience.

Tribune: What kind of crowd do you draw?

Baez: It varies from show to show, from country to country. In Europe they’re much younger. Here there are some younger, but the majority are my age or somewhat younger. But over these past 10 years, there have been more younger people.

Tribune: Do you think folk will continue to thrive?

Baez: Yeah, I do. It’s sort of a goofy phenomenon that I’m here in the first place after 50 years — what’s even goofier is that they are.

Chris Boeckmann is a freelance music reporter. He can be reached at

Make sure you watch/listen to the YouTube post all the way to the end - the last lyric of the song when first written was "and if you're offering me diamonds and rust ...I've already paid"... which segued over the years to "...I'll take the diamonds" which is now "...I'll take the Grammy" (ha!).

I've always been a Joan Baez fan... and I credit her for "introducing" me to Dar Williams, whose You're Aging Well I first heard on Joan's 1995 Ring Them Bells CD... and was instantly captivated, needing to know more - and the rest, as they say, is herstory. I love Joan's covers of Dar, as well as Richard Shindell and Dave Carter, her activism and her ability to age gracefully - to paraphrase Gloria Steinem, this is what 68 looks like... :-)

Thanks to sharon for her heads-up post to the Dar-list about the Baez article!

P.S. SMM here and here...

SONG: Diamonds and Rust by Joan Baez

And a Voice to Sing With: A Memoir by Joan Baez

POEM: For What Binds Us by Jane Hirschfield

There are names for what binds us:

strong forces, weak forces.

Look around, you can see them:

the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,

nails rusting into the places they join,

joints dovetailed on their own weight.

The way things stay so solidly

wherever they've been set down --

and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back

across a wound, with a great vehemence,

more strong

than the simple, untested surface before.

There's a name for it on horses, when it comes back darker and raised:

proud flesh,

as all flesh

is proud of its wounds, wears them

as honors given out after battle,

small triumphs pinned to the chest --

And when two people have loved each other

see how it is like a

scar between their bodies,

stronger, darker, and proud;

how the black cord makes of them a single fabric

that nothing can tear or mend.

QUOTE(S): "Action is the antidote to despair." ~ Joan Baez

"It seems to me that those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page." ~ Joan Baez

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