The amazing grace of Joan Baez

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You can't help feeling that certain people were simply born for the time in which they lived. Joan Baez, the great Mexican-American folk singer known, among other things, for helping to bring Bob Dylan's songs to prominence, is one of those artists who seemed both to define and be defined by the 1960s zeitgeist.

'In the early 1960s we folk singers — and there were lots of us, in the coffee shops, learning from each other — we were a counterculture, we were running just beneath cultural acceptance,' Baez says. They were, in short, primed for that decade's impending perfect storm of social and creative (r)evolution.

'With Civil Rights, with the war in Vietnam, with that explosion of energy and of people wanting to state their case, we came up and became part of the culture,' Baez says. 'We had started out just creating our folk songs, and then all of a sudden, something like "Blowin' in the Wind" crossed over.'

The rest may be history, but Baez is still very present. After five decades working as a recording and performing artist, she returns to Australia this month with a small ensemble to promote her latest, lovely album, Diamantes — a collection of mostly Spanish-language songs recorded during a recent tour to South America.

'I hadn't been back to Latin America in 40 years and I wanted to give it my all,' she says. 'We planned this album specifically. We threw in two new Portuguese songs, and the rest were picked from different albums, all in Spanish, to appeal to the public there. Apparently it appeals to other people as well, so I'm delighted.'

Baez, at 74, can still flood a lyric and a melody with utmost poignancy. There is a strong religious dimension to the album, though Baez, whose grandfather was a Methodist minister, notes that her long-time interest in gospel music has more to do with its association with Civil Rights than any personal spiritual conviction.

That's significant, because it is impossible to separate Baez the artist from the activist. Her rendition of 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' at Woodstock and the image of her, young and bold and grinning in front of a row of state troopers during the immortal Selma-Montgomery marches, are equivalent cultural touchstones.

Baez was romantically and artistically involved with Dylan before he came to prominence. While her own career was already on the rise, she would perform his songs, and invite him — his frank and gruff vocals a living rebuff to her impeccably melodious ones — onto stage with her, to her audiences' chagrin.

The 1967 fly-on-the-wall documentary about Dylan, Dont Look Back, captures Baez on the road with Dylan's band, and the dying moments of their relationship. Her 1975 signature track 'Diamonds & Rust' remembers Dylan fondly but frankly: 'your eyes were bluer than robin's eggs; My poetry was lousy you said'.

The 2009 documentary Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound helped heal a relationship that had remained fractious for 45 years, with Dylan offering somewhat of a public apology for his callous treatment of her. Whatever of their personal relationship, Dylan, says Baez, was a singular talent for a singular era.

'He came out of that exotic period where we had the British invasion, we had Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin, and Kris Kristofferson, and on and on,' she says. 'I know that many people, especially kids, long for those years — "I wish I'd been there, I wish I'd been part of it". But those years won't repeat themselves.'

This is not to say that there aren't still plenty of issues to fire the passions of activists and artists alike. Baez has campaigned, among other things, to end the death penalty in the US; a natural progression of her civil rights advocacy, given the complex disparities that exist regarding racial factors and capital punishment.

In May, she received the Ambassador for Conscience Award from Amnesty International, the agency's highest honour. 'She was suddenly among us', said Patti Smith, presenting the award, 'not claiming to lead but leading by example, guiding us to a new path of creative expression synonymous with activism.'

Baez's fire hasn't dimmed, either. Today she rages at the status of race relations in America, half a century on from Selma. 'It's really disgusting,' she says. 'I'm hoping next year I can do a tour to highlight the issue of police violence, mass arrests of people of colour, torture in prisons. I'm looking for the right vehicle.'

Amid these horrors, Baez finds herself able to be moved by examples of 'amazing grace'; by the capacity of the survivors of the Charleston church massacre, for instance, to forgive the perpetrator of that crime. 'That people can have their terrible sorrow yet can keep their dignity, and forgive, astounds me,' she says.

Tour dates


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, civil rights, Selma, Martin Luther King, Woodstock

 

 

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Existing comments

I wasn't a great fan of Joan Baez -Joni Mitchell's incisive and haunting lyrics appealed more. Nevertheless, Baez is a singular talent and someone who is still fired with passion for equality and dignity. And I agree with her that the survivors of the Charleston church massacre have displayed amazing grace and forgiveness.
Pam | 10 September 2015


Thanks Tim, for this wonderful tribute to a wonderful human being. I have admired Joan Baez, what she stands for and her music for many years ever since I read her outstanding memoir, 'And a Voice to Sing With'. There she outlined her activist activities and her passion for human rights. She has never digressed from this path.
Anne Doyle | 10 September 2015


A beautiful woman in the truest sense - outstanding talent and inspiring activism. Thank you for reminding us of her and for sharing the video. Sadly she is not coming to Perth.
Helena | 11 September 2015


Joan Baez is an amazing woman with boundless energy and a great social conscious. I went to her concert in Melbourne and she is an inspiration. Sings beautifully.
Faith | 26 September 2015


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