JOAN BAEZ TURNS 80 TODAY, JANUARY 9, 2021
I went to jail for 11 days for disturbing the peace; I was trying to disturb the war. —Joan Baez, 1967 Pop Chronicles interview.
“If the 16th century had Joan of Arc, we have Joan Baez.” (Patti Smith) She described Baez’s legacy as a “solitary fierceness” that has been “a vehicle for social protest, a comfort and a ray of hope for people” Amnesty International Award on 50th Anniversary.
Joan Baez turns 80 years old today, January 9, 2021—and unlike John Lennon, who was assassinated December 8, 1980, and Phil Ochs, who took his own life on April 9, 1976, both of whom I wrote appreciations of for their 80th birthday—JB is still very much alive and able to enjoy this milestone. Indeed, she is celebrating the event on-line and live-streaming it for her many fans at 5:30pm PST. Here is the link. (Tickets are $15 and can be purchased in advance.)
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan duet Blowing in the Wind for final time 1984
Joan Baez will be on hand for a livestreaming reception on her 80th birthday, January 9. Photo credit: Marina Chavez.
My sweetheart, author Linda Huf, PhD, told me the best story about Joan Baez I ever heard: She was at a reception for her back in the early 1970s in connection with their work for Amnesty International (Joan was the first major artist to join—in 1971) and had a few minutes alone with the doyenne; but got so flustered trying to strike up a conversation she didn’t know what to say to her; when suddenly her boyfriend Bernard walked up and put his hand out to shake Ms. Baez’s hand. The first words out of his mouth were, “Miss Baez, I’m a great admirer of your father Albert.” You see, Bernard taught physics at the University of Maryland—where Linda was a graduate student in American Literature—and Albert Baez was a Professor of Physics at the University of Redlands, where Joan Baez grew up (right here in Southern California.).
In the world of physics Albert Baez was famous too—a real doyen. Bernard broke the ice for Linda—and she was able to go on from there—talking about Joan Baez’ father—before getting down to what she really wanted to ask her about—folk music and human rights! I never got tired of listening to Linda tell of how excited Joan Baez was to talk about her father—the physicist—it made me wonder whether he might have been named for another Albert—who was also a physicist. It turned out he was—and Einstein would have been proud to know it.
Joan’s father was also a Quaker and a pacifist who refused to capitalize on his knowledge of physics to participate in the Cold War involvement with atomic weapons—thus inspiring his daughter’s lifelong commitment to resistance and nonviolence. At her 2016 Disney Hall concert one of the most moving anecdotes she had to tell was of her father Albert Baez—who was born in Mexico and came over the border as an eight-year old (one of the so-called “anchor babies” who have now become little more than a presidential debate punch line for the candidate who pledged to send them all back to Mexico). Well Joan has a story to tell about this particular Mexican immigrant, and it didn’t take long but it challenged those who think that immigrants take more from us than they have to give. Joan’s father became a well-known physicist who forty years later co-invented the x-ray microscope—a medical diagnostic tool that has saved thousands of lives, and all because—Joan was able to say with a single expressive shrug—it never occurred to Truman or Eisenhower to build a wall to keep him out or deport him once he was here.
To call Joan Baez the “Voice of a Century” is an understatement; before Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877 there would have been no point in God creating a voice that would sound like she had a direct pipeline to Heaven. For Him to have created an instrument of that quality when there was no way to meaningfully preserve it for future generations would have been a waste of valuable time; Joan Baez must therefore be the voice of a millennium. (I am well aware that both Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson have an equal claim to the title “Voice of a Century,” but I am talking about folk music—not art song and not opera; let us defer that conversation to another time. By the time you read this she will have turned 80 on her birthday this year, and having made her first record (for Vanguard Records) in 1960 when she was 20, we may now join in celebrating Joan’s 60th year in show business—folk music’s still reigning royalty.
What Mozart was to classical music, what Dylan was to songwriting, and what Koufax was to a fastball, Joan Baez was to folk song—the purest vocal expression of this body of music that has been put on record, indeed I would argue why recording was invented.
Let us therefore be honest: that incandescent voice is not the voice of an 80 year-old woman, who is now the custodian and torch-bearer of her own youthful magic, and who admirably succeeds in every way in recapturing enough of that magic to remind her audience of why they show up in gratitude whenever she makes a rare concert appearance—even though she retired from performing last year in 2019—the year before the pandemic. I count over 30 of her classic LPs in my collection, and they are the very heart of what endeared me to folk music in the first place—for, as Keats would have said, its beauty and its truth. I go to hear her sing for the same reason pilgrims go to Mecca—out of a sheer sense of privilege to be able to bear witness and pay my respect.
Let us now praise this famous woman—for both the artistic and social justice dimensions of her music:
I got to sing with her once, when she came down here to join the protest at South Central Farm—the urban farm in a concrete jungle south of the Alameda corridor. She wound up climbing the Walnut Tree on the farm—and I serenaded her up the tree with my 12-string guitar singing “Jacob’s Ladder.” “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder/We are climbing Jacob’s ladder/We are climbing Jacob’s ladder…” As the song’s powerful melody kept building Joan started singing along with me: “Every rung goes higher and higher/Every rung goes higher and higher…” even as she was going higher and higher. She was smiling, climbing and singing all at the same time. I felt like I was climbing with her.
Later, after the cameras had left, and she had returned to terra firma she walked up to me again and this time gave me a heart-felt hug and thanked me for “serenading me up the tree.” Joan Baez planted a seed while she was here, as she has been doing all across the country for forty-five years. She gave us the hope to continue an uphill struggle and to believe that one day the poorest of the poor will be able to enjoy the fruits of their own labor as well as those higher up on the ladder of opportunity.
She gave us the hope that we could all climb Jacob’s ladder.
And for one magical day I got to sing with her.
Oh, did I mention, I also got her autograph in one of my most precious books—it’s called New Folks and is the first time that her music appeared in a book.
And now, a few words recounting former President of the United States Barack Obama:
Protest heroine Joan Baez sang civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome, as Mr. Obama and wife Michelle sang along. It was the latest White House musical soiree, following previous events dedicated to country and classical music and jazz. The concert also formed part of the White House’s celebration of ‘Black History month.’
The president lauded singer-songwriting legends Dylan and Baez, who in 1963 sang of revolution and change a few hundred yards away on the National Mall, for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at a time of turbulence and generational rebellion.
“They sang of a day when a righteous journey would reach its destination,” said Obama, who also invoked the powerful legacy of civil rights hero Martin Luther King and other members of the “Moses generation.” (Rolling Stone)
And now Joan, in her own words, from her induction speech to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame:
It gives me enormous pleasure to accept this prestigious, and very cool award tonight. Thanks to the Hall of Fame for this somewhat unlikely induction. A special thank you to my manager, Mark Spector, for having kept my career visible, viable, and vibrant.
I’m aware that I’m speaking to many young people, who, without this induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame would have no clue who I am. [Laughter] My granddaughter had no clue who I was until I took her backstage at a Taylor Swift concert, where she got a selfie, an autograph, a T-shirt and a newfound respect for her grandmother.
Though one cannot say I am a rock & roll artist, one cannot overlook the folk music of the Sixties and the immense effect it had on popular music, including rock & roll. Nor can anyone overlook the role I played in that phenomenon. I was lucky enough to have found my voice when coffee shops were the order of the day. My first job in music was on Tuesday nights at Club 47 in Harvard Square where I sang three sets and made fifteen dollars a night, all as I gleefully flunked out of college. I owe my beginnings to the friends and folk artists from whom I picked up the chords, the melodies, the finger picking and a budding repertoire.
My childhood and teen years were filled with classical, country and western, rhythm and blues, and the Hit Parade. When I was 16 my aunt took me to a Pete Seeger concert. And my mom brought home a Harry Belafonte album. Though Pete was not in any way gorgeous like Harry, he was already committed to making social change. He paid a high price for holding fast to his principles. I learned the meaning of “taking a risk” from Pete. The Cold War was getting a foothold and ushered in a shameful period in this country.
My family was by then Quaker, and socially and politically active. Pete’s influence on me took like a good vaccine, and I turned my attention to folk music and political activism.
My voice is my greatest gift. I can speak freely about the uniqueness of it precisely because it is just that: a gift.
The second greatest gift was the desire to use it the way I have since I was 16 and became a student of and practitioner of nonviolence, both in my personal life and as a way of fighting for social change. What has given my life deep meaning, and unending pleasure, has been to use my voice in the battle against injustice. It has brought me in touch with my own purpose. It has also brought me in touch with people of every background. With open, generous, fun loving, hardworking people, here in this country and around the world. It has brought me in touch with the wealthy, the ones who are stuck in selfishness, and the ones who give generously of their time and resources to benefit the less fortunate, and light the way for others to do the same.
And I’ve met and tried to walk in the shoes of those who are hungry, thirsty, cold and cast out, people imprisoned for their beliefs, and others who have broken the law, paid the price, and now live in hopelessness and despair. Of exonerated prisoners who have spent decades in solitary confinement, awaiting execution. Of exhausted refugees, immigrants, the excluded and the bullied. Those who have fought for this country, sacrificed, and now live in the shadows of rejection: People of color, the old, the ill, the physically challenged, the LGBTQ community. And now, in the new political and cultural reality in which we find ourselves, there is much work to be done.
Where empathy is failing and sharing has been usurped by greed and the lust for power, let us double, triple, and quadruple our own efforts to empathize and to give of our resources and ourselves. Let us together repeal and replace brutality, and make compassion a priority. Together let us build a great bridge, a beautiful bridge to once again welcome the tired and the poor, and we will pay for that bridge with our commitment. We the people must speak truth to power, and be ready to make sacrifices. We the people are the only one who can create change. I am ready. I hope you are, too. I want my granddaughter to know that I fought against an evil tide, and had the masses by my side.
When all of these things are accompanied by music, music of every genre, the fight for a better world, one brave step at a time, becomes not just bearable, but possible, and beautiful.
Thank you again.
But lest we forget—among the many memories we have of Joan Baez singing—the one time she didn’t sing, because the Army banned her from performing for recovering soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital, after having been invited by John Mellencamp to share the stage with him. Said Joan when she was informed, “They let the rats in, why not me?”
And finally, here is Joan singing John Lennon’s Imagine and Phil Ochs’ There But for Fortune—since they are no longer here to sing it for themselves:
Joan Baez (2020)
Joan Baez sings Imagine for the world during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis as an offering of hope and courage.” (Songwriter: John Lennon)
Joan Baez – There But For Fortune
Joan Baez sings There But For Fortune by Phil Ochs, which Linda Huf heard him sing before the antiwar Pentagon March October 21, 1967, when he sang at the Lincoln Memorial beforehand:
Show me the country where the bombs had to fall,
show me the ruins of the buildings once so tall,
and I’ll show you a young land with so many reasons why,
there but for fortune go you or I.
(See my Requiem for Democracy in FolkWorks.)
Happy 80th Birthday, Joan Baez; and—may you stay Forever Young!
Dedication: In Loving Memory of Linda Margaret Huf, PhD