A new protest song: Joan Baez - she shall overcome

A veteran of 40 years of demonstrations, the American folk singer's latest campaign involves camping in a tree to save a 14-acre farm from the developers. Andrew Buncombe reports

If the words of the song came easily to Joan Baez it was because she has been singing them most of her life. Standing in front of an ageing walnut tree threatened - along with the land on which it stood - by developers in Los Angeles, the veteran folk singer jammed her hands in the front pockets of her jeans and sang: "No, no, no nos moverán. No, no, no nos moverán."

For the mainly Hispanic farmers and gardeners hoping to prevent the 14-acre site known as South Central Farm from being sold to developers, the presence this week of the silver-haired Baez and her Spanish rendition of the protest anthem "We Shall Not be Moved" has boosted their efforts to save their community garden. For Baez, now aged 65, it is just the latest protest in a lifetime of demonstration and campaigning.

"At the moment it is absolutely extraordinary. It's one of those things that just take off," Baez yesterday told The Independent by telephone. "Two days ago it was very iffy - there were just a couple of people [here]. I thought it would either fizzle out or else take off and it's taken off. It's such a morale-booster - everybody is bustling to work."

Baez's twin-track career as a folk singer and outspoken campaigner has seen her involved in issues ranging from everything from civil rights, the Vietnam War, equal rights for gay and lesbians through to landmines and Live Aid. More recently, she has been involved in demonstrations against the ongoing war in Iraq, last year getting out her guitar and singing songs of protest at the peace camp established outside of President George Bush's Texas ranch by anti-war campaigner Cindy Sheehan.

In this, her latest protest, Baez and other campaigners have converged on the urban farm in an effort to save land that has been used for more than 10 years by around 350 farmers to grow fruit, herbs, cactus and vegetables. The farmers had failed in their efforts to raise sufficient funds to buy the land and on Wednesday night a judge approved an eviction order that will allow the authorities to remove the protesters - Baez included.

The job of removing the demonstrators will not be easy. Among those vowing to remain at the site with Baez are Julia "Butterfly" Hill and John Quigley - two veteran campaigners who specialise in establishing protest sites high in the branches of trees located on threatened sites.

In 2002 Mr Quigley spent 71 days in a tree in the Santa Clarita valley while the Arkansas-born Ms Hill, 25, is famous for having spent 738 days between 1997 and 1999 living in a 180ft, 600-year-old Californian Redwood north of San Francisco that the Pacific Lumber Company wanted to chop down.

On Tuesday night, Baez herself slept in the walnut tree, having been hoisted more than 50 feet up into its branches. She is hoping that the Hollywood actress Daryl Hannah, who has joined the campaigners along with musician Ben Harper, will also try to climb the tree. The only thing preventing her is her fear of heights. "It was wonderful to be up there and away from everybody, looking at the stars through the leaves," Baez continued. "The freight trains [that pass nearby] are so loud but I did not hear them ... For me it was a wonderful experience."

Baez's career started in the late 1950s when she started singing and playing in the folk clubs of Boston, where she was a student. Her parents were Quakers and her father, a physicist who moved the family to New England when he took up a position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), reportedly inspired her political activism by his refusal to take up lucrative defence industry jobs at the height of the Cold War.

Baez says she was also inspired to speak out when, as a 10-year-old living in Baghdad - where her father's job had previously taken the family for work - she read The Diary of Anne Frank. "I was so inspired and moved. I know I cried a lot and read it again. There was a serious [connection] with the 12-year-old [Frank]."

Whatever it was that inspired her, before the age of 20 Baez had recorded her first, eponymous album, made up of traditional ballads and laments including "Fare Thee Well (10,000 Miles)" which includes the lines: "Oh, fare thee well, I must be gone/ And leave you for awhile, Wherever I go, I will return/If I go ten thousand miles." Her follow-up album, recorded in 1961, went gold and in the early 1960s Baez was one of several singers at the forefront of the American folk and roots revival.

Among the up-and-coming musicians that Baez knew at the time was Bob Dylan. She had first met him at Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich Village, New York, in 1961 and she and Dylan had a three-year relationship. The two performed together live and on several recordings. In early 1965 they toured the US together, though by that point their relationship was coming to an end.

Around that time, with Dylan about to break from the traditional folk mode and start experimenting with electric instruments, Baez was becoming increasingly known as a campaigner against the war in Vietnam and for civil rights for African Americans. She had famously joined Martin Luther King's March on Washington two years earlier where she performed folk singer Pete Seeger's seminal protest song, "We Shall Overcome".

Throughout the remainder of the 1960s and the 1970s she continued to campaign on various issues and was arrested several times. Whatever she did, she always urged non violence, stating: "Non-violence is a flop. The only bigger flop is violence." In 1985 she performed at Live Aid's concert in Philadelphia telling the audience: "Children of the Eighties. This is your Woodstock." She was also involved in famine relief for Africa.

More recently Baez has been protesting against the war in Iraq. She has said that in some ways the polarising effect of the Bush administration makes it easier to speak out, despite the allegations of being "unpatriotic" which are often aimed at those, such as the Dixie Chicks, who dare to criticise the war.

"In a way, at this very moment, when you find a way to do it, it is easy because there is so much pent-up frustration and angst ... the sense that we don't seem to be getting anywhere," she said. "When there is something - such as [campaigns by] Michael Moore or Cindy Sheehan, and... those generals who spoke out, things like that give a start."

Baez and her fellow celebrities became involved in the effort to save South Central Farm after the tree-climbing Ms Hill learned that the farmers were trying to save the land, which had been leased to the Los Angeles Regional Food Banks organisation after the city's 1992 riots. A local businessman, Ralph Horowitz, bought the land from the city three years ago and in recent months he has been trying to sell it.

When Ms Hill learned that the farmers were struggling to raise sufficient money to buy the land, she turned to Baez, whom she had met in 1998 when the singer Bonnie Raitt was hoisted high into the Californian Redwood that the young activist was trying to save. That battle concluded with a happy ending when the logging company agreed to preserve the tree in exchange for $50,000 that Ms Hill and other activists had raised.

Mr Horowitz has not commented on the demonstration at the site but in a previous interview with the Los Angeles Times he said he had agreed to sell the land to a non-profit-making group. He had wanted $16.35m and the group was $4m short. "They agreed to turn it into a public-use property, to change it around from the way it's being run now," said Mr Horowitz.

Campaigners at the site say they are determined not to leave and they agree that the presence of Baez and others has boosted their cause. Fernando Flores, an organiser with the South Central Farms Support Coalition, said: "We have mobilised our supporters onto the farm. Supporters have been bringing supplies and holding vigils." Of Baez's involvement, he said: "It's great. She really puts this onto the worldwide level. It's really put us in the spotlight."

In the meantime, Baez declared she is determined to see the current protest through. She said she was often asked where she got the energy to carry on campaigning - it was a question she sometimes asked herself - and had concluded that it may have been partly genetic, "something I was born with".

And for those who believe taking part in such protests is ultimately pointless and will achieve nothing, the woman who has spent her life campaigning had a ready response. "I would just say that in my life, what gave my life meaning and where I was always the most complete... [it did not] come through money or fame, it was always when I was... standing with those whose voice was not heard and I was able to do something about that."

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