I never planned on being a singer, says Ipswich-bound Joan Baez
IN the summer of 1958, with the Kingston Trio’s Tom Dooley all over the radio, 17-year-old high school graduate Joan Chandos Baez and family drove cross-country from Palo Alto to Boston. Little did she know where that road would take her.
A freshman at Boston University School Of Drama, she was surrounded by a musical group of friends who shared a passion for folk music. Her interest in music started when she was 13.
“My older sister and I were each given ukulele. Pauline went upstairs to her room and started very carefully figuring exactly out how you play it; where you put your fingers, how you plunk,” Baez remembers.
“I went up and about ten minutes later came flying downstairs. I had the essential three chords and then I could play anything. She put it down and that was the end of it.”
Playing and singing in coffee shops when she was 18 she couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“It was kind of a no-brainer; that’s what I did and did well so I just went on doing it. I loved the learning process. I just loved haunting Harvard Square and borrowing, begging and stealing other people’s music,” she laughs.
“I had a reasonable-sized repertoire, so by the time I went on tours I had really made it my own.”
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A stunning soprano with a natural vibrato; even as an 18-year old, introduced onstage at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959, said repertoire reflected a different sensibility from her peers - an acknowledgment of the human condition.
Baez laid down her first solo LP in 1960 and her earliest records, with their mix of traditional ballads and blues, lullabies, Carter Family songs, Weavers and Woody Guthrie tracks, cowboy tunes, ethnic folk staples of American and non-American vintage and much more won her many fans in the US and abroad.
Many of her songs went on to find their way into the arsenal of 60s rock stalwarts.
House Of the Rising Sun for the Animals, John Riley for the Byrds, Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You for Led Zeppelin, What Have They Done To the Rain for the Searchers, Jackaroe for the Grateful Dead and Long Black Veil for the Band to name a few.
Geordie, House Carpenter and Matty Groves influenced a range of British acts who trace their origins to Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span.
In 1963, Baez began touring with Dylan and recording his songs, a bond that came to symbolize the folk music movement for the next two years.
She met him in 1963 at Gerdes Folk City, New York City.
“Somebody said ‘oh you gotta hear this kid’. I went, heard him and I thought he was phenomenal,” she remembers.
At the same time, Baez began what became a lifelong role of introducing songs from a host of contemporary singer-songwriters.
Besides unselfconsciously introducing Dylan to the world, she focused awareness on songwriters ranging from Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Richard Fari�a and Tim Hardin to Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, Dar Williams, Richard Shindell, Steve Earle and many more.
It all happened, she says, organically; meeting people on the circuit first and later giving young acts exposure on the suggestion of her then manager.
Baez in equally known for her campaigning.
She’s put herself on the line countless times at times America’s history when it wasn’t safe or fashionable; another aspect of herself mirrored in her music.
Baez sang of freedom and civil rights everywhere, from the backs of flatbed trucks in Mississippi to marching right up to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at Rev Dr Martin Luther King’s side in Washington in 1963.
“If you’re with somebody like that on the front line then you’re fine,” she says matter of factly.
In 1964, she kept 60 per cent of her income tax from the IRS in a protest over military spending and was part of the birth of the Free Speech movement at UC Berkeley. A year later she co-founded the Institute For The Study Of Nonviolence near her home in Carmel Valley.
In 1966, Baez stood in the fields besides Cesar Chavez and migrant farm workers striking for fair wages and opposed capital punishment at San Quentin during a Christmas vigil.
The following year her focus was on the draft resistance movement. In 1968 she recorded an album of country standards for her then-husband David Harris who later taken into custody in 1969 and imprisoned for 20 months for refusing induction and organizing draft resistance against the Vietnam war.
As the conflict escalated, Baez traveled to Hanoi with the US-based Liaison Committee and helped establish Amnesty International on the West Coast.
Her attention later turned to the suffering of those living in Chile under Augusto Pinochet’s rule; dedicating her first Spanish language album to them.
One of its songs, No Nos Moveran (We Shall Not Be Moved), had been banned from public singing in Spain for more than 40 years under Generalissimo Franco’s rule and was removed from copies of the LP sold there.
She became the first major artist to sing the sung publicly when she performed it on a controversial television appearance in Madrid in 1977, three years after the dictator’s death.
The following year she headed to Northern Ireland, marching with the Irish Peace People and calling for an end to violence.
She appeared at rallies for the nuclear freeze movement and performed at benefit concerts to defeat California’s Proposition 6 (Briggs Initiative), legislation which would have banned openly gay people from teaching in public schools.
In 1986 she was picked to perform The People’s Summit concert in Iceland at the time of the historic meeting between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
Her 1989 concert in Czechoslovakia was attended by many of that country’s dissidents, including President Vaclav Havel who cited her as a great influence in the so-called Velvet Revolution.
In 1993, Baez became the first major artist to perform in Sarajevo since the civil war started, travelling to war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina at the invitation of Refugees International.
Giving a voice to those who have done is clearly important to her.
“It was just my life, you know it was what I did and do when its appropriate,” she says.
“I don’t want to force something if I’m not involved in it. For many years, not feeling my politics had a substantial home, I learned I was capable of just giving a concert and enjoy the singing. Then something comes along... like right now Occupy Wall Street.
“I find it very interesting, refreshing and I’m happy to be... well you can be only peripherally involved if you’re not 20-years-old and willing to sleep it a tent,” she laughs. “But you find it unifying and just their presence in Wall Street has made a big difference.”
Baez’ appearance at Ipswich’s Regent Theatre tonight promises to be a simple, intimate evening where she and multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell will try to cover her 50-year career.
It’s not all music, not that that would be a bad thing; she’ll also be sharing stories of her career. She’s plenty to tell.
“Well, that’s the nice thing about singing in England; I can tell stories and don’t have to pretend I speak French and so on. Yeah I have lots of stories,” she laughs.
Looking back at her career, to when she first plucked that ukulele, could she imagine what lay ahead of her?
“I didn’t ever plan, I just thought ‘oh this is nice, people are listening’,” she laughs.
“I never planned on being a ‘singer’, I never projected into the future, I don’t know if people can. They can dream as they say, but I don’t know if you can have any idea of what it’s going to be like. You’ve just got to try to pick the right road.”