Joan Baez: Folk heroine

Joan Baez was the queen of the Sixties protest movement, with a voice of elemental power and a charisma to match. Bob Dylan was her lover, Martin Luther King her friend, and world leaders vied for her approval. But, as she tells John Walsh, a living legend must move on
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The Independent Culture

Joan Baez was bumped off by Harold Shipman last week. She was due to appear on the BBC Breakfast programme on Tuesday. She had risen at some dispiriting, dawn-chorus hour, made a long, jet-lagged trek to BBC Television Centre - and then the general practitioner of death hanged himself, all the programme's guest slots were cancelled, and Joan was bumped off the show for 24 hours.

This was shocking news. Because nobody postpones, cancels or otherwise discommodes the formidable Ms Baez. Nobody would dare. For several decades, she has been a combination of folkie queen, concert-hall diva, human-rights saint and empress of attitude. In the Sixties, she was the embodiment of purity (her voice was so pure, strong and haunting, it made everything sound like a hymn) when she spear-headed the American Folk Revival - and its radical spawn, the Protest Song - alongside Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Peter, Paul and Mary, et al), but also of political virtue, of grim, unsmiling global right-on-ness. Her huge, hurt brown eyes seemed to contain the world's masses, and dared you to look away. She was Mother Courage crossed with Harold Pinter in his what-are-you-doing-about-Nicaragua period. She was a byword for protest, a marcher and sympathiser for every cause going.

She had astounding clout, heft, leverage. In 1979, Jimmy Carter sent the Seventh Fleet and the US Air Force to rescue the Vietnamese Boat People from a soggy fate in the South China Sea, as a kind of personal favour to her. François Mitterrand, a close friend, awarded her the Légion d'Honneur in 1983 after she sang on the Place de la Concorde in Paris to an audience of 120,000. She hung out with The Beatles, the Stones and Jimi Hendrix. She worked for Martin Luther King and saw him drunk. She introduced Bob Dylan to a startled world in 1963, and insisted that the world shut up and listen. A chap could feel a little intimidated by meeting her - especially since she is famously reluctant to talk about her Sixties heyday.

So, can this really be Baez, this friendly Latina matron sitting in a Gloucester Road hotel in thrift-shop woollies and stripy pastel socks? Her eyes are as huge and melancholy as ever, but she is friendly, disconcertingly frank, rather jolly. At one point, she told me a joke, about three microsurgeons and a horse's arse. My goodness. Joan Baez tells joke. What next? Joan Baez does stand-up?

Since she dropped beneath the music fan's radar in the 1980s, she has had a kind of psychic and professional makeover, and reinvented herself as a modern interpreter of songs by the cream of younger songwriters: Gillian Welch, Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant, Greg Brown. The former icon of American trad folk hasn't abandoned the genre, simply cross-hatched it with atmospherics, lots of moody percussion and heavy guitar, as displayed on her new CD, Dark Chords on a Big Guitar. "I guess I made a decision, at some point, that I didn't want to be the world's oldest-living folk singer," she says, wryly. "So I don't do many ballads now."

She's singing the new stuff with a four-piece backing band on a 17-venue UK tour. Since you ask, there will be a solo slot every evening, when she strums an acoustic guitar and sings stuff from the old days (though I wouldn't recommend yelling for "Kumbaya, My Lord", or "Where Have All the Flowers Gone", if you know what's good for you).

After nearly half a century in front of audiences, did performing bother her? "Losing my voice would be a problem," she says, deadpan, "but I've cancelled only 12 concerts in 47 years. I used to have terrible stage fright, but now I can control it. I learned auto-hypnosis 30 years ago, and I use it incessantly." How does it work? "It's a kind of image rehearsal - I think myself through the thing that's coming up, go through it all ahead of time, then I can take the anxiety and simply wrap it up and throw it away. Or else, you simply think of something that makes you feel as happy as you can feel, then transplant that feeling into a coming event - and the feeling stays with you." It's a tiny bit surprising to discover the human-rights termagant recommending the same whiskers-on-kittens therapy as Julie Andrews urged on her charges in The Sound of Music...

There's a lot of New Age whimsy about the reinvented Ms Baez. When the Californian weather permits, she sleeps in a tree in the garden of her home in Woodside, 30 miles south of San Francisco. She communes with inanimate objects. "I'm big on stones and rocks. I pick 'em up everywhere. They sort of talk to you, and I pick up the ones that shout the loudest." At the house party to celebrate her 63rd birthday, earlier this month, she left the revels at 2am to visit a nearby field and tape the croaking of frogs on her new CD-recorder. But her political intelligence remains acute. The war on Iraq has given her a new crusading zeal. Last spring, she found herself singing in anti-war rallies in San Francisco, just like in the old days. She has become part of the unofficial public opposition to President Bush - not always to her audience's approval.

"I had 50 people get up and walk out, a year and a half ago. I told this wonderful joke about George W Bush, and, shortly afterwards, this fellow down the front said, "Joan - sing 'God Bless America'. I was tuning my guitar and just ignored him, but everyone heard. He said again, 'Joan - please sing 'God bless America'. He had me rattled. I looked at him and I said, 'No, I don't think so'. He said, 'Do you love America? We love America. Do you love America?'. I said, 'I really love the human race' - and they all got up and left. Kind of a strange response, after what I'd just said..."

Her new album is dedicated to Michael Stupid White Men Moore, whose Oscars-night vilification of the Prez ("Shame on you, Mr Bush!") she admired. "What he did at the Academy Awards took guts. You know you're going to get shot down, you know people are going to write you hideous mail, but he just went ahead and did it. Very few people were booing, but it was presented as if he was booed off the stage. I thought his line about how we have 'a fictitious President' was really true. So I thought I'd dedicate the new record to him. The other choice would have been Senator [Robert] Byrd, a man who gets up and speaks his mind to that group of morons, those spineless senators."

Joan Baez has been speaking her mind since she was a child. She was born in Palo Alto, California, into a strict Quaker family (both her parents were the children of preachers). Her father Albert was a physics lecturer and pacifist, who worked for Unesco, and his influence on Joan's social conscience was crucial. "When you're involved in great struggles for freedom and justice, personal gratification seems an indulgence," she has written. "I had the giggles knocked out of me as a kid." In 1951, when she was 10, the family moved to Baghdad, where her father had a university job. What were her memories of the city? "It wasn't a happy time. I was introduced to poverty that I'd never have seen otherwise. I was ill with hepatitis, and my mother took me out of the local hospital because it was dirty.

"I remember building mud huts. Across the fence from our house, there were people living in mud huts, and I built little copies of them. And I watched ants forming colonies. I was fascinated. It was one of the best years of education I had. And the skies were orange and pink and red at night, with flocks of birds flying across them..."

Watching Baghdad being bombed had a bracing effect on its one-time inhabitant. "Yeah, I knew those main streets. It added a little extra to the horror of the whole insane enterprise." Baghdad was also where she read The Diary of Anne Frank at 10. It radicalised her overnight. "That was a biggie. It opened my eyes to injustice".

She is unimpressed by the growing resistance to President Bush from the likes of Howard Dean. "You see, I never put my political stock in candidates. I preferred to work, in just about everything I do, with the people. I was lucky to work with Martin Luther King, who worked at the bottom of the pyramid, because he knew that, if you get enough people there, that's what moves it around. At the top of the pyramid, they can instigate change, but it's a dangerous position to be in. Because you have to know, or to learn, how to lie, cheat, steal and kill in order to be a good president. That's part of the job, when you're commander-in-chief.

"But, frankly, I'd vote for anybody who'd bump Bush out of there. Because I think he's a sociopath. He doesn't care. He has no empathy. Nothing registers with him. He doesn't understand the world's disapproval - he just unplugs the TV. Now I understand, for the first time in my life, what the answer is when people ask, 'Why didn't people stop Hitler?'. It's a reign of fear. People are afraid of being called 'unpatriotic'."

As Ms Baez waxes passionate about modern politics, you can almost see in her the teenager who, in 1959, provided the hinge between traditional folk music and the libertarian culture of the Sixties. Where would hippies, flower-power, student revolt and the anti-Vietnam generation have been without Joan Baez, the Californian Joan of Arc? It happened on a Sunday evening in July 1959, at the Newport Folk Festival, when Bob Gibson, an exuberant Chicago folk singer, invited the 18-year-old Baez to join him on stage for a duet. The waif-like Joan was not a prepossessing sight. She was drenched with rain. Wet hair hung down her face like dirty string. Her bare feet were muddy. But Gibson called her up on stage to sing two old spirituals with him, "Virgin Mary Had One Son" and "Jordan River". After a couple of verses, he stepped back from the mikes and Joan let rip. "She woke everybody up, all the way to Boston," the concert organiser remarked. Backstage, people congratulated Gibson on his discovery. "It was like 'discovering' the Grand Canyon," he later wrote, modestly.

Baez remembers it more simply. "I was scared to death," she recalls. "My knees were shaking. I stood there by the stage and watched other people, as the time got closer and closer to when Bob was due to go on. It meant I had plenty of time to get into a real state. I mean, there were 13,000 people there. But for all the stage fright, there was something in this little frame, some stoic little thing in there, and I knew the voice would come out."

Her debut album, Joan Baez, was released in October 1960 and stayed in the Billboard charts for nearly three years. There was, quite unexpectedly, a nationwide audience for the dark, virginal, half-Mexican gypsy babe strumming a guitar, singing "All My Trials", and looking sad but stoic. By 1961, she was an established star. In April that year, she met Bob Dylan, a grubby upstart from Minnesota, in a Greenwich Village club called Gerde's. A year later, they were singing "With God on Our Side" together at the Monterey and Newport Folk Festivals, and playing house in her Carmel home - the pair of them resplendent, triumphant, the Queen of Folk and her raspy-voiced Consort.

Contrary to most fans' assumptions, their love affair lasted only three months. Later, Dylan was to be dismissive of Baez ("Me and Joan? I'll tell you... She brought me up... I rode on her, but I don't think I owe her anything"). She now says, "It was one of those things where you're both on a strange trajectory, and you meet and connect, whether you want to or not. Then he started writing the songs that filled up the vacancy, the gap between us. Because his songs were brilliant; people have never been able to copy them. He always had a rainbow pen; the stuff just pours out of him. I'll always admire that." What was he like as a house guest? "Bob doesn't have much awareness of other people, you know? He's... sloppy. But if you're crazy about someone, it doesn't matter. As soon as you're not crazy about them, it becomes obnoxious very fast. You can take some artistic liberties, and all of us do to some extent - but he takes them all."

Was he a considerate boyfriend? Baez laughs, hollowly. "I don't think the word considerate rings much of a bell - or would ring one with Bob. But put it this way - when people say to me, 'You're going to be linked to him in history forever', I think that's a pretty fucking honourable place to be."

And here she is, 40 years later, a heroine down to her pastel-striped socks, her singing voice still an instrument of rare clarity and tremulous urgency. She works with a trainer every day to keep the upper register in trim, in order to sing the folkie anthems that made her name. At night, at home in California, before going off to sleep in her tree, she has taken to picking up a guitar and playing traditional tunes. "I've started singing 'Fair and Tender Maidens' again for the first time in 30 years!"

Tonight, she's at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge, singing modern stuff by Ryan Adams and Steve Earle, and satirising President Bush. She is unstoppably energetic and combative, reluctant to live in the past, fighting the good fight against government warmongering and lies. "Being a legend is a hazardous thing if you're only a legend," she says. "If you can keep updating yourself, then being a legend is just an added bonus. You know?"