Belfast-bound Joan Baez tells of her lifetime as a singer and political activist

Source: The Irish News / / By Jenny Lee /

Folk singer Joan Baez was one of the major musical figures behind social justice movements in the 1960s. Fifty years later the singer, songwriter and activist is still passionate about the causes she embraces and will return to Ireland in the spring with her farewell tour. She spoke to Jenny Lee.

Joan Baez
Legendary singer, songwriter, activist Joan Baez, will be visiting Belfast and Dublin as part of her extensive Fare Thee Well world tour in March

IN HER history-making career as an international performer and activist, Joan Baez has been on the front lines of just about every non-violent social justice and human rights movement. She walked arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr on civil rights marches in Mississippi, got thrown in jail for protesting the war in Vietnam and conspired with Vaclav Havel to spark the Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic.

with Bob Dylan
Legendary singer, songwriter, activist Joan Baez, will be visiting Belfast and Dublin as part of her extensive Fare Thee Well world tour in March

She also has fond memories of joining in the 1976 Peace People marches in Belfast and London, led by Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, serenading the crowds to We Shall Overcome as crowds of over 10,000 people demonstrated for peace. The marches came in response to the tragic death of the three Maguire children, who were mowed down by an out-of-control car driven by IRA man Danny Lennon, who had been fatally wounded by a British army patrol which was chasing him.

“The marches in Northern Ireland were pretty groundbreaking back then, not to mention it was led by women – which in those days and age was pretty extraordinary. Such courageousness helped create change and doubled the efforts – something I’ve witness in so many places all over the world,” says Baez, who will return to Belfast next spring as part of her Fare Thee Well Tour.

The tour coincides with the the release of her new studio album Whistle Down the Wind, which will be released on March 2. Her first in a decade, the collection features material by some of Baez’s favourite composers and marks a return to her long-time theme of global peace.

It will be her second straight album to take its title track from a cover of a song by Tom Waits. The new album also features covers of songs by Josh Ritter, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Joe Henry, who also produced Whistle Down the Wind.

In one of the lesser-known covers, Baez performs Zoe Mulford’s The President Sang Amazing Grace, a piano ballad about the 2015 massacre by a white supremacist of African-American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, and the subsequent eulogy at which the then president, Barack Obama, sang that well-known Christian hymn.

Her favourite track from the album is Another World by Anohni.

“It’s written by a woman who used to be a guy in the band Anthony and the Johnsons. It’s very deep, dark, beautiful song about needing another place to go. It’s the most sparce song we do, with just myself on guitar and my son on percussion,” says Baez, whose album ends with the Tim Eriksen track I Wish The Wars Were All Over.

“The album is very much ballad-led and like my early work. I don’t like to call it political, but there is a social awareness to it. I hope it encourages people to get off their asses and do something to make a change. People showing up to lobby have disrupted the daily business of many politicians in America and is the only hope of dodging this fascism.”

Nasty Man, the only song Baez has written in the past 27 years, penned in response to Donald Trump’s election as US President, didn’t make it on to the new album.

“The problem with that song is there could be 100 more verses added in a heartbeat. It’s just another way to make light of the real horror we are living under over here. It’s not my best, but it made people laugh,” says Baez about the song which went viral online.

While the 76-year-old, who earlier this year was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is looking forward to her forthcoming world tour, she has heeded the advice of her vocal therapist and accepted that the time has come to “explore doing nothing” and “do more painting”.

Baez’s talent for acrylic portrait painting has blossomed over the last several years as she cut back on her performing schedule and in September, she expressed her continuing social activism through her first solo exhibition.

Entitled Mischief Makers, the exhibition was her artistic response to what she sees as the collapse of moral standards within the US government and its supporters. It featured portraits of courageous people who’ve made a difference, disrupted the old order, and done so not only with courage, but also with a certain charm and elan.

“It was all people who had made social change through non-violence – the risk-taking visionaries. The little spiel next to [the pictures] gives the history and the coyote element of them the people don’t see.”

The cast of characters, most of whom Baez has known personally, included the Dalai Lama, civil rights leader the Rev William Barber, Czech Velvet Revolution leader Vaclav Havel, Martin Luther King Jr, and even a portrait of herself as a young woman.

“He was very serious in front of the cameras and one slip that would have more ammunition against him. But he had this wonderful sense of humour and silliness when he was hanging out with his lieutenants. They spent most of their off-duty time horsing around laughing,” says Baez about her friend and confidant Martin Luther King Jr, with whom she marched on the front lines of the civil rights movement.

Also included in her Mischief Makers exhibition was a portrait of her former love Bob Dylan – the pair were considered the 1960s king and queen of folk but their relationship ended disharmoniously.

Reluctant to talk about Dylan, I ask Baez if she is surprised by the public’s continued fascination about them and the songs inspired by their relationship – including her Diamonds & Rust and his Visions of Johanna.

“There are worse things to think about I suppose, but it’s becoming a bit boring. That’s history.”

Baez’s own family history is fascinating, with her grandfather’s conversion from Catholicism to becoming a Methodist minister, and her father, who was a renowned scientist instrumental in inventing the X-ray machine, becoming a Quaker. While she herself no longer follows any particular religion, she does practice daily meditation.

Looking ahead to 2018, Baez is determined to continue inspiring people to care about the environment and world peace.

“I think the biggest danger to humankind is global warming, especially as Trump has fired everyone who didn’t believe global warming was a myth. So once again it’s up to the people – which in some ways is the good news – as long as we are up to it.

“My hope with this world would be that we don’t get so discouraged that we quit. It’s like trying to stand up under an avalanche right now. Any little thing you thought was decent is being swept off the map. It’s indecent, it’s cruel, it’s evil and it’s something I would never have expected to see in my lifetime.