21 July 2019

Heroes of music

Saint Joan

As Joan Baez prepares to give her final performance, Liz Thomson talks to her and traces a 60-year career filled with courage and conviction

Half a century ago, in the sunny weeks between primary and secondary school, I first heard Joan Baez. I’d been given a guitar, a beautiful blonde, genuinely Spanish, guitar by Emilio, the cigar-smoking, whisky-drinking, Franco-hating veteran of the Spanish civil war for whom my sister was working.

I learned a few chords and, seeking something to play, rummaged through Maureen’s LP collection. I came upon Joan Baez, Vol. 2, a title as unostentatious as its black-and-white cover, which showed a long-haired young woman, arms folded. But it was the image on the reverse that ensured its place on the turntable: in dappled shade, she sat playing an acoustic guitar! A couple of the track listings rang a bell – ‘Barbara Allen’, ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’, ‘Plaisir d’Amour’, familiar probably from Singing Together!, the BBC Schools broadcast that inspired generations of schoolchildren – me and Jarvis Cocker among them.

By the end of the day, I could fumble my way through a couple of songs. By the end of the holidays, I was cool. I found two more Baez albums in the school library – her 1960 debut and Vol. 5, at which point it dawned on me that Baez had a truly remarkable voice. For along with ‘There but for Fortune’ there was a breath-taking performance of Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, an aria for eight cellos and soprano that has challenged many classically trained singers with its top As and sotto voce passages. I was hooked on what I came to understand as “the grain” of her voice. I’ve loved it ever since, and it launched me on a path of lifelong discovery and adventure.

Twenty years later, Baez recalled that recording for me: “I’d known Bachianas Brasileiras for years from Bidú Sayão. From when I was tiny, it had been one of my favourite things. So I knew I just had to have the words taught to me.”

“I have this image of me on that high note, on my tippy-toes trying to get to it. Bearing wrong, head tilted back, everything stretched out of shape – but I was 23!” She laughed: “It sounds pretty good.”

Baez and I had met several times over the previous decade and we would meet several times again, most importantly in 1995, when I was invited to report on the live sessions at New York’s Bottom Line for Ring Them Bells, the album that began a renaissance for her. But in 1990, as we chatted over afternoon tea – she was always very particular about a warmed pot – her career was in the doldrums. In the 10 years that had separated her debut at the Newport Folk Festival and her starring appearance at Woodstock in 1969, she had effortlessly ruled the roost: her music and social activism combined to make her one of the most influential figures of the 1960s. According to the Woodstock Census, “a nationwide survey of the Sixties generation” conducted by Rex Weiner and Deanne Stillman in 1978, 44 per cent of the 1,005 respondents said they had admired or been influenced by Baez. That figure put her at number eight, behind (in order) The Beatles, Bob Dylan, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Ralph Nader and Robert Kennedy. She was more important to women than men – 52 to 39 per cent – and 32 per cent of women admitted to having ironed their hair to get “the look”.

Baez was one of a handful of Woodstock musicians to play Live Aid in 1985 – but she was given only the 9am Philadelphia opening spot. It gave her a short-lived boost, but, by 1989, her album, Speaking of Dreams, released on a small label, passed virtually unnoticed.

Joan Baez at Live Aid in Philadelphia, July 1985

Still, political life sustained her. She was energised by the fact that, after the yuppie Eighties (“the years of silence and ashes”), young people were once again on the march, and that her old friend, Václav Havel, had come to power in Czechoslovakia. The previous year she had smuggled Havel into a Prague concert disguised as a roadie and then brought him on stage, a moment he later described as key to the Velvet Revolution that was to follow.

Even then, her career was 30 years old. She had considered quitting, but she was having voice lessons and hoped to have “maybe another ten years”. She wanted to bow out at a time of her own choosing, not merely fizzle, so she’d hired a manager and for the first time in her life was planning – a band, a record, a tour. She had finally got over the debilitating stage fright she had suffered all her life and wanted to have fun. “There are still so many places I’d like to go, Eastern Europe and a real tour in Latin America,” she told me.

I reminded her of that conversation backstage at Bristol’s Colston Hall last year, the first date in the second leg of her Fare Thee Well tour (which returned in spring this year). She had a bad back, a perennial problem born of years of standing with a guitar round her neck, but was in good form as she chatted over pea and mint soup. “It’s been an extraordinary 30 years,” she laughed, eyes crinkling behind rimless glasses. “I don’t think I had expectations and that’s been one of the keys to my success. Anything comes as a nice surprise.”

From the tour’s opening in Stockholm in March 2018 to its close in Madrid this month, Baez has savoured every moment, not least the closeness to her son and percussionist, Gabriel Harris, with whom she was famously pregnant at Woodstock. “It’s bittersweet and I will miss the gang so we’re making the most of this trip. The halls are all filled up so it’s double the excitement of any tour. I’ve loved it.” It seems strange to recall that, a few years earlier, a concert at the Royal Albert Hall was cancelled for lack of interest.

By the time this tour ends, I’ll have seen eight of the 140-odd concerts, including the night at New York’s Beacon when the Clintons came. “I’m not used to being upstaged,” she said, when everyone was finally seated and the concert began – late, which is not her style. After the final encore, Baez and the band linked arms and took a knee to the strains of Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. It was Gabe’s idea. The place erupted.

I have seen her scores of times, first at London’s Rainbow Theatre at Christmas 1971, just after ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ had been a transatlantic hit. My parents wouldn’t allow me to go alone so we all went. They loved her voice and grew to know her work well but were less keen on Dylan, to whose records I was quickly led.

Martin Luther King leading black children to their newly integrated school in Grenada, Mississippi, with Baez

I learned how important folk music had been to the civil rights and anti-war movements, and at Dobell’s record shop in Charing Cross Road I found a Folkways recording of the March on Washington, which featured not only music from Baez and Dylan but also Dr Martin Luther King’s full “I have a dream” speech, which I’d never heard. I read and listened voraciously: from 3,000 miles away, the American Sixties came alive. Classmates, screaming for The Osmonds and David Cassidy, found my interests perplexing.

It was at Dobell’s, in whose basement studio Dylan had once recorded with Ric Von Schmidt and Richard Fariña, that I eventually found the live album that captured Dylan and Baez singing together at Newport ’63. At that point he was scarcely known beyond New York City.

It has taken a long time for Dylan fans to acknowledge the key role Baez played in his early career, or even the fact that he cared about her. Baez was accused of using him and it wasn’t until years later that Dylan would recall that it was her voice, just as much as the fabled Guthrie, that drew him to New York in the first place: she sounded “like a siren off some Greek island,” he said.

Baez was already a chart-topping musician by the time they met in the spring of 1961 at Gerdes Folk City, the Greenwich Village coffeehouse a few blocks from “that crummy hotel over Washington Square” as Baez was to recall it in ‘Diamonds and Rust’ (1975), the love song in which she laid bare their relationship. Soon she was singing Dylan songs we now think of as classics: ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ and ‘With God on Our Side’ appear on her fourth album, Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2, recorded on a tour of southern US campuses before audiences she insisted must be integrated. After Newport, she invited Dylan to share the stage at Monterey and then on her tour of the East Coast. She provided the young Dylan with a ready-made audience.

Baez and Bob Dylan in a duet at the Newport Folk Festival, Rhode Island, 1963

Their painful split was preserved for posterity in Don’t Look Back, the documentary of Dylan’s 1965 British tour on which he’d invited her – to sing, Baez had assumed. Instead she was mocked and insulted by Dylan and his groupies and eventually quit the drunken, druggy scene with “a farewell kiss” to Dylan’s head, a gesture he alludes to in ‘Visions of Johanna’.

Baez felt the break-up, and the humiliation, acutely and only in 2009 did Dylan finally apologise: “I feel very bad about it,” he said in Mary Wharton’s documentary How Sweet the Sound. “I was very sorry to see our relationship end.” Anyone doubting the intensity of the feelings they had for each other, and their shared sense of artistic purpose, need only glance at the concert performances in the newly released Rolling Thunder – A Bob Dylan Film, created by Martin Scorsese from the endless footage shot on Dylan’s mid-1970s Rolling Thunder Revue. But Dylan wasn’t an activist like her and it took Baez years to realise that didn’t matter – his songs provided “the arsenal”.

Dylan had phoned to ask if she would join Rolling Thunder, inspiring ‘Diamonds and Rust’, and the tour itself prompted Baez’s one entirely-self-written album, Gulf Winds, the acoustic title track recalling her childhood and family life in characteristically vivid imagery. Three of the songs muse about her relationship with Dylan.

Two more studio albums followed and then nothing but live albums recorded from various European stages for 10 years. Baez was label-less; had become, as she put it, “an anachronism”. Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner told her she was “timeless but not timely”.

Liz Thomson with Baez

I was first introduced to her in early 1980, when she came to London to record The Muppet Show. I was just out of university and interning on a magazine with Robert Shelton, the former New York Times journalist who wrote the earliest reviews of Baez, Dylan and so many others, and whom the singer Janis Ian regards as “the father of rock journalism”. Baez was then preoccupied with her campaign to save the Boat People who were fleeing Vietnam in large numbers, a move which brought her into conflict with old friends from the anti-war movement. It was a demonstration of her unshakeable commitment to Gandhian non-violence, a concept to which she was introduced as a child. The Baez family had begun to attend Quaker meetings as Joan’s father tried to reconcile his work as a physicist with the use of that science for military purposes. It was at a Quaker youth camp that the teenaged Joan first heard a young Martin Luther King speak .

Baez greets protestors at Greenham Common

A couple of years after our first meeting, Baez decided to visit the Greenham Common peace camp and I found myself organising a press call. Despite a February deluge, the media converged from all over and evening news programmes showed a sodden Baez arm-in-arm with the women, singing in front of the barbed wire, and sharing scones they’d baked over an open fire.

She returned a few months later to play what was then the Glastonbury CND Festival. It was a Friday afternoon spot and she hoped to be singing to socially engaged youngsters, but the audience was already stoned and scarcely knew who she was. We talked for The Times, and she revealed that she’d recently sung at a rock festival in Germany, programmed between Frank Zappa and Genesis, where the organisers were taking bets as to how long she’d last before being booed off stage. She had to give seven encores.

It would take another ten years for Baez to emerge from the wilderness. In 1993, she went to Sarajevo, then under siege. She donned a flak jacket and toured the streets, visited hospitals, danced with firefighters, wept with the Cellist of Sarajevo, gave impromptu concerts to the sound of shelling, and wrote about the horrors she had seen for The Washington Post. She returned to Greenwich Village in 1995 to record a live album with friends. I attended a rehearsal and watched with delight as she and Janis Ian engaged in musical knockabout on a number from My Fair Lady.

In the years since, a new generation of singer-songwriters, some of whom she mentored, have acknowledged her influence – as did Led Zeppelin. In 2017 she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the sort of honour, I suggested to her, she would have scorned in her youth. She laughed: “Yeah, I’d have been appalled! I was such a snoot. But it was fun.”

Her final album, Whistle Down the Wind, bookends her first, a collection of superb songs that fuse the personal and the political. And that voice – no longer the “achingly pure soprano” Shelton described – is richer, deeper, more expressive. It is freighted with emotion where once she relied on the ethereal beauty of what she calls her “old Joanie voice”. The Spaniards would call it duende.

It’s not just the Dylanistas who have disparaged her down the years. She has often been regarded as too serious to be much fun. The US television show Saturday Night Live once mocked her with a recurring skit called “Make Joan Baez Laugh”.

Baez at the Selma To Montgomery Civil Rights March in Montgomery, Alabama, 1965

And, it’s true, she doesn’t do drugs and drinks little. Christine Coffey, the blunt Yorkshirewoman who was her friend for 40 years, once told me: “If she finished the first glass of wine it’s cause for comment and if she finished a second you’d ask if she were all right.”

Coffey, a veteran of the Signal Corps in the second world war, had settled in Carmel, California, and was nursing a terminally ill young woman when she met Baez in 1961. On what was to be her last birthday, the patient asked to hear Baez sing. After an emotional encounter, Coffey invited the singer into the kitchen for a restorative cup of tea. They hit it off. “I told her I was having a brunch the following Sunday and she was welcome to come – as long as she didn’t wear blue jeans, which always remind me of Communist China.”

So began a relationship with the Baez family that lasted until Coffey’s death in May 2002. She was cook, “general factotum” and nanny to Gabriel, ensuring his speech did not acquire the American slang of his school friends. And she never failed to speak her mind, something Baez appreciated.

Coffey was far from uncritical of her friend but told me that when she had been rushed to the emergency hospital treatment for pneumonia, Baez had sat with her all night. When she got home, “Joanie came every day to make my bed and tidy the apartment,” she said. “Joanie is essentially a good person.”

As to seeming too serious, Baez has always put doing what was right ahead of doing what was popular. That conviction has led to two spells in jail for “aiding and abetting” draft resisters, one of whom she married. And she took risks – in the American South, during some of the bloodiest years of the civil rights struggle; in Hanoi, during Nixon’s Christmas bombing campaign, when she travelled with a liberal Episcopalian minister and a former brigadier as a guest of the Committee for Solidarity with the American People, a North Vietnamese group which aimed to maintain friendly relations with the US even as it was bombing their country. When she championed the plight of the Boat People, old friends on the left branded her “a CIA rat”, while those on the right, who’d once accused her of being a KGB agent, declared that she had at last “seen the light”.

Baez performs at a rally for the Free Speech Movement, University of California, Berkeley

In person Baez is warm and funny, a fine mimic, gracious, but she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. “If you’ve got an opinion, why be humble about it?” she said. We once talked about the reaction to her memoir, And A Voice to Sing With: “You know, I thought when you wrote an autobiography that you were meant to talk about yourself. Someone said that I had ‘a pre-Copernican view of the world’. I worried about that for a time and went to Quaker meeting to try to deal with it. But I spend my life answering questions about myself! I’m not sure there’s much I can do.”

Perhaps when she repairs to the peace and quiet of her home amid the Santa Cruz mountains she will talk less. She is 78 and fit but has spoken about wanting “to die well” – though her Scottish-Irish mother, descended from the Dukes of Chandos, lived till 100 and her father, the Mexican co-inventor of x-ray microscopy who went on the become the Open University’s first Professor of Science, till 94. She plans to write and paint, and last year gave her first exhibition, Mischief Makers. As to the occasional concert or guest appearance, she doesn’t rule it out, if the ageing vocal cords permit, but one thing’s sure: she’ll always be a mischief-maker herself.

Baez has always felt at home in Europe and it’s perhaps no surprise that her final 15 concerts are taking place across the continent, closing at Madrid’s Teatro Real on 28 July, 60 years and two weeks since the Newport debut that assured her place in musical history. She didn’t sing in Spain until Franco was dead and buried, democracy restored, and in 1977, on live prime-time TV, she broke a decades-long taboo by dedicating ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’, sung in Spanish, to La Pasionaria.

Baez performs on stage at the Istanbul Jazz Festival, 2015

“We have to bash on regardless,” she declares, as I leave her to prepare for her Bristol concert, alluding to the ‘Nasty Man in the White House who inspired her, after many years, to write a song under that title. In comparison, “George Bush was an intellectual wasn’t he, a great scholar! We couldn’t have scripted this, nobody could have. Nobody could have imagined it. I’m not sure anything necessarily is going to get him because he’s got everyone around him supporting him and they’re all such yellow, spineless people that even though they know he’s defective – seriously defective – and causes tremendous damage, it doesn’t matter to them. The whole conservative agenda has nothing to do with much except self-service. Money. You teach your kids to go out and make money, and that’s what it is.”

a JOAN BAEZ PLAYLIST

‘House of the Rising Sun’ (Joan Baez, 1960) from her debut album reveals both the thrill and exhilaration of her young voice, her remarkable control – and her skill as a guitarist.

‘Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5’ (Joan Baez/5, 1964) provides a tantalising glimpse of what might have been had Baez decided to pursue a classical career. No guitar – instead, eight cellos. Breathtakingly beautiful.

‘Diamonds and Rust’ (Diamonds and Rust, 1975), inspired by Bob Dylan, this is her best, and best-known, composition and it lays bare their relationship in evocative, self-deprecating lyrics. The guitar riff is distinctive.

‘Speaking of Dreams’ (Speaking of Dreams, 1989) is a song that deserves a wider audience – a lush production ballad, Baez at the piano, singing about her young French lover and the delights of Paris.

‘Ring Them Bells’ (Ring Them Bells, 1995), a song from Dylan’s 1989 album Oh Mercy is sung here with Mary Black, recorded live in Greenwich Village in sessions that set the stage for Baez’s renaissance.

‘Last Leaf’ (Whistle Down the Wind, 2018) is a Tom Waits song from what will almost certainly be her final album. Layered with meaning, it’s a song about survival against the odds, whatever the weather. Baez’s voice is deep, distinctive, aged like an old wine. “I’ll be here for eternity” she sings – and indeed her music will be.

Photography by Getty Images

Liz Thomson

Liz Thomson is a journalist and author whose long-term fascination with American culture and counterculture led to her founding of The Village Trip, a festival celebrating the history and heritage of Greenwich Village. Launched last year, The Village Trip 2019 takes place at venues in and around Washington Square from 26 -29 September.