Over the course of her 55-year-long storied music career, folksinger and activist Joan Baez has been fearless in standing up for what she believes in, both on stage and off. She marched with Martin Luther King Jr. on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963, got arrested with more than a hundred people for blocking the entrance to the Armed Forces Induction Center in Oakland in 1967, and on her current tour, she’s partnering with the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to exonerate people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes.
But earlier this month, Baez performed an entire concert without mentioning the presidential election. “It was a clean place to be for an hour and a half,” she says. “I didn’t even realize until I was through with the concert that I hadn’t said anything. And I thought, ‘You know, that’s probably a better statement, that there are other things going on in the world than this charade.’ And certainly in my audience, there are very few people who have not shared the same opinion.”
Baez, recently nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, admits that she’s addicted to watching the election coverage, even though she says she doesn’t believe in “that stuff.” She also points out that the election is eclipsing a lot of other things happening around the world: “It’s pretty rough, starting with climate change right on down to each country that’s overflowing with refugees. Part of our job on stage is to try to throw what I think is the appropriate light on the situation of something like refugees. We tend to think of refugees as the people who are going to take stuff away, but it’s what they bring. And even an example like the border to Mexico: What they bring is the work nobody else wants to do, and they put the vegetables on our table. So somehow we have to arrange our heads so we think of it that way.”
When asked whether today’s music could still effect change like it did during the era of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam, Baez says that while music is still critical to social movements, “what’s lacking is a focal point.” At the end of the Vietnam War, she felt there was a “driving force that brought people together with the feeling of ‘Yes, we can do this.’”
She equates that feeling with the wave of national support for Obama when he first ran for president: “[It] was the same feeling that Obama brought to people for the first time in many years while he was speaking, and that extraordinary thing happened, so that even young people who’d never experienced that cohesiveness from the ’60s and early ’70s could feel what it was like. It shifted the entire world for a short period of time. So I’m grateful for that, if nothing else — that people could experience what it is we need in order to move on a larger scale.”
Baez is doing her own part to move things on a larger scale by working with the Innocence Project, which she says she chose because “they’re viable and couldn’t be more relevant.” And she’s not alone. “Emmylou Harris has put together a concert tour around refugees. She went to Ethiopia,” she notes. “Patty Griffin went to the border of Mexico, literally listening and taking notes and sympathizing with refugees. That’s a big hunk of energy doing something very important and affecting people’s lives.”
Baez herself has affected people’s lives through the thirty albums she’s put out as a folksinger. She plans to take next year off from touring to work on a new album, and she’s thinking about recording cover songs “that are under the radar” — by Tom Waits, Josh Ritter, Richard Thompson and Antony and the Johnsons. She says they’re mostly simple tunes that she can play on just the guitar if she needs to.
“They just come at you sideways,” she says of the songs. “I really don’t want anything blunt on this album, so we’ll see what happens. Sometimes during the more blatantly political years of my life, what I wanted to have on those albums was really much more of a direct message. At the moment, we’ll find a way for whatever it is to come through, but I don’t want anything blatant.”
This year, Baez released the Joan Baez 75th Birthday Celebration live album and DVD, which includes guest appearances by Paul Simon, David Crosby, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, Judy Collins and more.
“It was a great acceptance,” she says of the milestone. “I didn’t have to celebrate it. I didn’t have to call it ‘75th.’ But when my manager asked me, I said, ‘You know, it’s a good time to start dealing with what most of us don’t want to think about, which is getting older. And then, of course, thinking about death, which this culture is allergic to. I think it’s very, very important. So I hang around Buddhists a lot and keep their perspective, which is both getting the seriousness of life and living things, but also — I don’t know if you’ve seen those monks in Tibet, but they giggle all the time. They totally get it, but at the same time, it’s sort of, ‘Oh, well, you just gotta keep laughing.’”
8 p.m. Saturday, October 29, Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Place, 303-623-0106, $49.95-$85.
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