Column: Joan Baez on ‘Nasty Man’ Donald Trump, #MeToo and her final tour as a musician
Hers is the voice of folk music and protest music of the 1960s and ’70s, and hers, too, the voice for civil rights and peace. Joan Baez takes her new album on tour in early March, and last month, she visited the California state Assembly, to mark the 70th anniversary of the crash of a plane sending migrant workers back to Mexico. For decades, Baez has sung “Deportee,” the song Woody Guthrie wrote about it. Over those years, her voice has changed; her passions have not.
This is your last tour?
Years ago, when I asked my vocal coach, when will I know it’s time to quit? And he said, your voice will tell you. It’s just gotten more and more difficult to do what I need to do to keep the voice even respectable. The high range is gone and the lower range is — actually I like it right now. It’s kind of a reflection of this last 60 years on the road. And then there are other things: I want to paint, and spend a little time trying to shut up and be quiet.
You were in Sacramento for the remembrance of the plane crash in the song “Deportee.” Politically, you have not been invisible, shall we say?
You went to Occupy Wall Street. You’ve been to women’s marches. What is it that’s important that you think you should be there?
I imagine if there were a huge issue about which I was passionate, which I thought would be important for me to do, to be back on the streets, quote unquote, and end up in jail, I’m sure that I would let that happen. At the moment that’s not where I feel my place is. It’s more about painting and doing something within reach, which was going up to Sacramento; to celebrate brown people and their suffering and immigration was important. And I’ll try to do those things as often as I can.
Your singing was really a backstage, all-access pass to all these great matters and great people of the world.
You’re absolutely right, and for that I’m just eternally grateful. Part of it is the voice, and obviously part of it is how I decided to use it. So I’ve met the most extraordinary people, and that’s what’s made my life rich. Singing has been wonderful, but the real richness of it has come by being out there doing the things that I did, often when I thought nobody else was going to be doing them.
Is it just me, or with rare exceptions we don’t hear a lot of political music nowadays? Musicians make speeches but the music isn’t necessarily doing it for them.
I think that what you and I and most kids, even still, are waiting for is what we had for a 10-year period in the ’60s and ’70s, which was this explosion of talent, and the politics that urged it along, and the activity and togetherness — and glue, I call it.
We really had a movement. And right now, there are many movements. That’s what we need; we can’t do a big movement right now. It’s symbolic that an anthem has not been written. And you can’t really have a singalong without an anthem.
How do you get a “We Shall Overcome” and a “Blowin’ in the Wind”? It’s part genius, it’s part urgency. A lot of people write a lot of songs, but to get that one that makes the glue is not an easy thing.
We’re being outfoxed, probably from 40 years of think tanks the conservatives have had.
What I have seen that’s positive is the numbers of people who’ve never really gotten off their couches before for just about anything. So there are extraordinarily progressive things going on.
The other night — stop me if you want — I heard George Will and Michael Moore, on two separate shows, saying exactly the same thing: that our only hope in this country, to make it livable again, to make it a place you can dream, is up to the people who are at the bottom of the pyramid who are willing to sacrifice a lot of things, and eventually, I’m sure, civil disobedience.
The stuff we’re facing now, which is every day another blast, every day another catastrophe — how do you make a movement to keep up with that? It’s a big question. How do you learn to speak the way the conservatives speak, which out-speaks the progressives 10 to one? They know how to talk, they know how to destroy a little saying. The ultimate of that is how did “the cradle of civilization” [part of ancient Iraq] become the “axis of evil”?
We don’t know how to talk like that. Not that we should, but we’re being outfoxed, probably from 40 years of think tanks the conservatives have had. In a sense, it’s not [President] Trump so much as it is this program that they’ve been creating.
Looking at the songs on your new album, I see “The President Sang Amazing Grace,“ about President Obama at the memorial for the victims of the Emanuel AME church shooting. There’s “Whistle Down the Wind,” with the lyrics, “Let your voices carry, drown out all the rain, light a patch of darkness.” Is there a message from these songs that you want the album to carry?
We set out to make a bookend for the first album, which was in ’59. It’s very similar in the sense that some are just flat-out ballads, like “Silver Blade,” which is a bookend of “Silver Dagger.” And then some obviously fell into my lap, like that “President” song. It was so right for me. Songs fall into my lap, and most of the ones that I hear the first time, I think, “I can do this.” It is really trite and really true that the songs choose me.
You’ve seen the empowerment of the women’s marches and the #MeToo movement. Did you have a #MeToo story of your own?
They’re everywhere. If I had, I would talk about it later on in my life — if there is a much later! I think there will be. The movement is long overdue and it’s very exciting. Women have really held that stuff in for years. It’s sort of like the LGBT fight. That happened so quickly. The gay fight took way, way longer, and then the LGBT fight just happened, I thought, very suddenly, and this #MeToo movement happened even more suddenly. I don’t know what that means, but it’s interesting and it’s good.
I think women are emboldened now. My distance from a lot of the suffering that women have been through that I didn’t have to go through — in the music business, women tried to get jobs, they tried to be engineers, they tried to work there with some kind of equal pay. I didn’t have those concerns, because it doesn’t matter with a star what your sexuality is. So I didn’t have those struggles that other women had.
The doomsday clock moves according to the degree of risk of nuclear war. If we had a humanist clock, where would it be on the environment and nonviolence and women’s rights?
I think it’d be chugging along. It wouldn’t be anywhere near where the doomsday needle is. I hate to think we’d be back with the troglodytes!
I read the other day that it’s a waste of time to be a pessimist, so I’m working on it. Sometimes I think I’m not a glass-half-empty person; I’m all-empty-and-holding-it-upside-down. But I think that right now, the littler victories are even more important than they ever were. Because that almost is the glue. I hear so many young kids — and they don’t get written about in the paper — do amazing things for other people. They get on a plane and go to a country they’ve never known before, to go and work with orphans.
People don’t know that you parted company with the catechism of the left when you criticized Vietnam for human rights abuses. You told “Rolling Stone” that a rubber-hose beating is a rubber-hose beating, no matter who’s administering it.
It was the North Vietnamese; the left had really idealized them, and I was there, and like anywhere else, it’s not what you dream you want it to be. The left was infuriated with me because they said, “You shouldn’t say this now.” And I guess I thought that’s when you should say it. It was very funny, because William Buckley and the far right thought I had really come home to reason. And then [my] next outing was to Latin America, where I was banned everywhere, and I lost my right-wing status pretty quickly.
Did that bother you?
No, no, not at all. If you’re fighting both sides at once, you know you’re doing something right.
People who talk to you say, “I really appreciate what you did, or you changed my life about _____ .” What’s that fill-in-the-blank?
The nice thing is that very few people just say, “I really like your voice.” It’s meant more to them. A lot of people say it’s brought them the courage to do whatever, often public things that they were afraid to do. I ran into an airplane pilot from Vietnam who gave me the little wings he had on his lapel and he said, “You were right and I was wrong.” That’s pretty heavy stuff. I met another one who said, “Boy, I hated you in the ’60s, and boy, was I wrong.” I mean, that took years.
With music now, anybody with an iPhone can record a music video and put it on YouTube. The gatekeepers are different now, or almost gone. How do you think that’s changed music?
I never know the answer to that question because music changed on its own. It’s almost as though the circle has come all the way around. When I started singing folk music, part of it was kind of a backlash against what we called bubblegum music. It was “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” And there was so much meaning to the folk movement for me, and eventually for us, and it led into the anthems for the political action, it led into rock ’n’ roll.
Back when I was in junior high school, we had the girls’ glee club or the girls’ talent show. They lip-synched “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” That’s about as low as you can get!
I read you were disappointed in Barack Obama’s presidency.
That’s the only thing people read about what I said!
Well then, do flesh it out.
We all get disappointed when somebody isn’t perfect, and I was upset about issues — Afghanistan, immigration. And then I look at this guy and I think, oh, my God, he was a human being, he was bright, he was cultured, he was maybe too much of an intellectual. My feeling was always that I wished he had stayed on the streets. He’s the only person who could have made that movement, I think, as an organizer. I just burst into tears remembering, partly by contrast with what we have now, the simple kindness and empathy that he brought to so many things.
You don’t write many songs.
I haven’t written anything in 27 years except “Nasty Man.”
That’s what I want to ask: why Donald Trump gets the honor of breaking your 27-year non-songwriting streak?
He was so inspiring! I could have written another 30 verses. It had to stop somewhere.
It’s on YouTube. What kind of responses have you been seeing?
Well, there were 7 million hits.
Woody Guthrie had a sticker on his guitar that said “This machine kills fascists.” I know you’re against killing anybody. So what would the sticker on your guitar read?
You know the story about my guitar, don’t you, the inside of it? Somebody had poked a hole in it, so when I took it in to be fixed one time — wherever you are in the country, whoever is their best guitar fixer, that’s where you take it. And to fix it, this guy apparently took it apart first, and inside was written, “Too bad you’re a Communist.” What a great story.
How did that happen?
Oh, just some reactionary conservative whatever, working in a guitar shop. He was just venting his feelings on the inside of the guitar.
Is it still in there?
It is, and when they made copies for me — 59 copies celebrating the Newport Folk Festival, a limited edition — they put that in each one, and they put in a little dentist mirror so you could see it.
Speaking of dentists, do you really have a gold tooth with a diamond in it?
I do, and the diamond fell out the other day! I was munching and I thought, oh, my God, a chipped tooth. I was horrified. But it was a little diamond and I spat it out. I took it to my dentist so he could glue this thing back in.
What are you hoping to get from this tour?
I’m hoping to fully enjoy my tour family, most of whom have been with me for at least five years. I’m hoping to say goodbye to places that have been really good to me for the last 50 years, places I’ve gone back to many times. And then there a few places that are special to me because of political action I was involved in back then, like Belfast and Istanbul and Sarajevo and Bratislava. Those are not exactly big money makers, but those are places where I want to just go back to.
You were in Sarajevo when things were hot and heavy.
Yes, I was. Sometime I think in retrospect that maybe it was the most dangerous place that I’ve ever been.
Is there now still anyplace where you and your music are banned?
Probably. I would be insulted if it weren’t.
Because … ?
It means there’s a conflict on, and it’s making people think.
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