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During concerts staged shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, folk icon Joan Baez regularly launched into anti-war rhetoric, to the profound displeasure of many attendees. "A big number would walk out," she recalls. "I kind of go by my merch man, who sees everybody come and go, and he said there were a couple of hundred one night. But that day is over."
She's right. As fortunes in Iraq have declined, so have the number of people storming away from Baez gigs when she criticizes American foreign policy. "I haven't seen anyone leave lately," she notes, "and the crowds have gotten bigger." She chuckles as she adds, "Thank you, George Bush. It's the only good thing he's ever done -- enlarge my audiences."
Baez has publicly shared her views about current events for half a century. She had already embraced the philosophy of non-violence when she saw Martin Luther King Jr. speak about the Montgomery bus boycott in the mid-'50s; she was fifteen at the time. The next decade, after becoming one of the country's best-selling recording artists (and, for three years, Bob Dylan's squeeze), she was a frequent performer at civil-rights fundraisers, as well as a movement insider who was invited to strategy meetings with King and his most intimate advisors. Not that each moment of these sessions was freighted with seriousness. "We would laugh until we were sick," she says. "They joked incessantly, just incessantly. They told jokes, they ate, they wanted pie, they kidded each other about wanting pie. It was very, very lighthearted."
After the Vietnam War ended, Baez retired much of her topical repertoire, but the situation in Iraq inspired her to dust it off. She believes that her renewed focus on protest came as a surprise to some fans. "It was a little strange getting back into my older vein," she admits. "When I was younger, I really didn't care who I alienated. And then, in between, I've had this look of respectability, whether it was there or not. But I've decided to be totally unrespectable now."
These days, Baez mixes contemporary covers of the sort that dominate 2003's Dark Chords on a Big Guitar, her most recent studio release, with classic ditties that sound fresh, she feels, "because I haven't done them for 25 years. Sometimes I say, 'I really love singing this song, and I'm really sorry I have to sing it.'" As for new originals, there aren't any. According to her, "I find the structure of songwriting makes it just difficult enough that I'm probably not going to bother again, unless one just arises on its own."
How long has it been since that happened? "About fifteen years," she replies.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of other people's tunes for Baez to sing, and she hopes their sentiments will energize listeners who may have grown too complacent. "This is the fattest nation," she says, "so it's not the ideal group to get to leap to their feet. Maybe they can stagger to their feet -- if they can stand."
Maybe that's why there have been fewer walkouts at her shows.