Joan Baez is part of the history of American popular music alongside Bob Dylan. She continues her career inexorably across the world, always deeply engaged in the fight for liberty. Yesterday she told The View From Fez about her opinions on the Arab Spring, debunked the ‘Peace and Love’ myth and explained how she is coming to terms with getting older. Vanessa Bonnin reports.
At this stage of her life Joan Baez has mellowed and is currently placing family at the forefront of her world.
“Now I’ve got the opportunity to be with my son, my grand daughter and my mother and my friends so now the image of me as always at the front lines in battle is a little subdued for the moment and I don’t want to present a false image,” she said.
“But now I represent everything I’ve done and everything I do as non-violence, I haven’t changed that.”
Non-violence is the core of Baez’s philosophy in the face of adversity. Throughout her career Baez has always fought for human rights. In 1972 she went to Vietnam during the bombing of Hanoi, and continued her battle for liberty and against the death penalty across the world, including Sarajevo in 1993. An Amnesty International militant, she has also created her own association, Humanitas International. So how did she set out on this path?
“When I was 10 years old I spent a year in Baghdad and my mother gave me the Diary of Anne Frank which started to change my life,” she said.
“Then when I was 16 years old I met Martin Luther King and he changed my life again.“
This momentous meeting was on August 28 1963 during the march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Luther King made his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech and Baez sang We Shall Overcome.
The rejection Baez suffered by her white and Mexican friends because of a mixed-race background (her mother was Irish and her father Mexican), and a great sensibility in the face of world suffering, pushed her into expressing herself through music, fascinated as she was at the time by the great black singer Odetta.
In Boston she followed in the musical footsteps of Pete Seeger while the folk and protest song movement boomed. And then it was the famous meeting with Bob Dylan which launched her to stardom along with her faithful interpretation of the most historic songs such as With God on Our Side and later Farewell Angelina. Her ambiguous relationship with Dylan was described in Diamonds and Rust.
“Diamonds and Rust? Unfortunately there weren’t more songs of that quality!” she laughs.
“As for the generation of ‘Peace and Love’ – that’s not how I would typify it because it was also a generation of struggle, it was 10 years of enormous creativity, it was 10 years of people taking risks it was 10 years of difficulties that people who see it as a myth don’t remember. It’s Woodstock and flower children and peace and love, but in fact if you were an 18 year old American male you had to decided whether you wanted to go and fight in Vietnam or not.”
Since that time Baez thinks that the amount of risk in the western world has diminished and that it is only by taking risks that social change can happen. She said that music by itself is not enough to change the world, it has to be followed up by action.
“My greatest source of inspiration comes from seeing the courage of other people. I believe that courage is as contagious as violence and that if we can take our inspiration from other people who’ve done things and taken a risk,” she said.
“The Arab Spring is extraordinary - it’s as extraordinary as having a black president!
“For me the most extraordinary part is the people who have demonstrated non-violence in the face of such atrocity. Partly they understand the practicality because to attempt to use arms against the regimes is catastrophic, but for all of us to have seen this – for instance, the demonstrations in Wisconsin in the States, of the people coming to the capital, I don’t think would have happened without the example of the Arab Spring.”
Baez said that for the Occupy Wall St movement to continue it needed organisation because it was trying to tackle too many huge issues all at once.
“My motto is little victories and big defeats. If you can accept that there will be big defeats then you can relish and cherish and believe in your little victories and I think that’s what we have to do in this decade and maybe this century.”
So after seeing and experiencing so much in her lifetime, what gets her through and what is in the future? Baez says her spirituality comes from her mother and it has no name or specific God. She puts her attachment to nature at the centre of what helps her to stay grounded.
“The other night I was singing in Germany somewhere outside and a mockingbird started to sing and I just stopped and I said ‘I am nothing’ because that’s how I felt in the face of such an extraordinary sound, and animal and gift!” she said.
“As for time? Time is inevitable. And if I could be a little more on the side of the Buddhists I would welcome it better but one the reasons I am happy to be around my mother is that I am watching how to get old. If I’m lucky she’ll die at home and I’ll be there and I’ll learn more about this thing which the western world finds so terrifying, because none of us will escape it.“
As for the music, today Baez has a fundamental influence on a new generation of singers from Norah Jones to Katie Melua, from Souad Massi to Tunisian Emel Mathlouthi. At a time when folk and acoustic sounds are returning to the forefront of music, Baez, radiant and tough, continues to travel around the world with determination and grace.
“For Saturday’s concert, hopefully I will be smart enough to show you some new songs which will not bore you, I will show you some that you may have heard and then I’ll do the ones that you came to hear. I promise!”
Report and photographs: Vanessa Bonnin
Joan Baez performs tonight at Bab Al Makina @ 8.30pm.
SEE CONCERT PHOTOS AND REVIEW HERE!