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The amazing grace of Joan Baez

  • 10 September 2015

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