Joan Baez Is in a League of Her Own
The legendary folksinger and MLK confidant is heading to Port Chester on what she says will be her last formal tour.
Photo by Dana Tynan
For Joan Baez, saying goodbye to the road doesn’t mean saying goodbye to art. “I don’t think I’ll be just sitting around, wishing I was on tour,” says the iconic singer, songwriter, and activist. “I was so relieved and so happy to be home for a couple of months recently, and I thought: You know, I can do this; I really could. I want to be painting — that’s the biggest drive. Just slowing down has been such an extraordinary thing.”
Perhaps slowing down is all in the eye of the beholder. Over the last few years, Baez has become a noteworthy painter in her own right, exhibiting work at Washington’s prestigious National Portrait Gallery and unveiling nearly 20 new pieces at the Seager/Gray Gallery in California. But with a life as incomparable as Baez’s, one could be forgiven for thinking mainly of music and activism after hearing her name.
Self Portrait, 2017, courtesy of Seager Gray Gallery, from the collection of Sonoma State University
Indeed, Baez existed at the very heart of the 1960s and ’70s, headlining Woodstock, reigning as a folk-music icon, introducing the world to Bob Dylan, and becoming a close friend and confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., with whom she engaged in activism ranging from the fight for civil rights across the South to opposing the Vietnam War.
However, long before she met King, Baez was already well on her way to a life of resistance. “When I was 8, my parents converted to Quakerism. So, through that, I had heard the nonviolence argument in my house since I was that age. By the time I was around 10 or 12, I already had instinctively made the decision that that was the way I was going to live my life,” recalls Baez.
“Then, meeting King was a huge deal. I was just in tears…. I was swept off my feet because he was doing what I had been reading about. [He led] a bus boycott, and people were walking in the face of danger. So, that was not a turn for me, since I was already on that path, but it was just like being shot out of a cannon. It solidified my feelings about civil disobedience.”
“Right now, in my life, at this age and with this career, what do I do next?”
Beyond her activism, Baez is also one of the previous century’s most significant musicians. She has released more than 30 albums over the last six decades, the first three of which went Gold. She is also a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, as well as the inspiration for an Amnesty International award in her name. Baez’s most recent album, 2018’s Whistle Down the Road, was nominated for a Grammy.
For Baez, the album’s genesis was one of both serendipity and careful planning. “It so suddenly seemed with the Fair Thee Well… tour that it was the absolute right time to do an album,” says Baez of her current concert series, which will bring her to Port Chester’s Capitol Theatre on May 3 and May 5. “For the most part, I discover those songs on my own, but a lot of them come from my manager. He says he has a stack of them about five feet high next to his desk,” she laughs.
All jokes aside, Joan Baez has always been a hot commodity. She was the subject of 2009 American Masters documentary and she is once again the subject of a new one, which she says is hopefully headed for The Sundance Film Festival at some point in the future.
Performing with Bob Dylan at the civil rights March on Washington, August 28, 1963.
“This documentary isn’t just about the things I have done,” explains Baez, who took home a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2007 Grammys. “Right now, in my life, at this age and with this career, what do I do next? I mean, if I’m ending, it’s a fascinating time to be doing this because we were interested in traveling around and filming my concerts, interested in what happens before and after the show. And then, at home, long interviews about everything — childhood stuff I have never brought up…, honest feelings about members of my family. It’s just real.”
And even now, so many years after that fateful day she stood beside MLK as he recited his “I Have a Dream” speech, Baez still sees the products of both her and King’s hard work today. “It seems to be easier and easier to find mischief-makers,” she says with a smile. “They may not be on the grand scale, like Gandhi and King, but there certainly are people doing a lot of interesting stuff — a lot of which is involving some serious risk — and that is truly important.”