Joan Baez on retiring from the road, hitting those high notes, and why she’s still protesting
Joan Baez chose the songs for her 25th (and possibly last) studio album, “Whistle Down the Wind,” for their shared sense of humanity. From Josh Ritter’s “Be of Good Heart” to Tim Eriksen’s “I Wish the Wars Were All Over,” Baez felt she had plenty to say, one more time, about the state of our disunion.
“In that way,” she says, “it was like the beginning.”
Well, not quite the beginning, she says, correcting herself. “That very first album” — self-titled, 1960 — “was really just old folk songs, because I’d fallen in love with a guy from Harvard, and I wasn’t paying any attention to politics.”
She was just 19 then, and she would start paying attention to politics soon enough. Baez, of course, was the tough waif who was living with her Quaker family in Boston — her father taught at MIT — when she started playing Club 47 and quickly became the darling of the Cambridge, and then the American, folk scene. Seventy-seven now, she recently announced that her current world tour, which brings her to the Boch Center Wang Theatre Friday and Saturday, will be her last. But she’ll keep speaking out, even if her voice is not quite the crystalline soprano it once was.
“I can no longer sing ‘Forever Young’ or ‘Amazing Grace,’ unless somebody else is singing and I can do a part,” she says. “If there’s a high, sustained note, these songs slowly get eliminated from the repertoire. That’s a kind of sadness I don’t want to deal with.”
She fully expects to grapple with her emotions when she gets off the road for the final time. (Her Fare Thee Well tour has been extended into next spring with additional dates in the South and Europe. “It’s been sort of a process of ‘oopsie,’ ” she says with a laugh, as she and her manager realize she can’t retire without reaching as many longtime fans as possible.)
What to do with herself will not be an issue. A devoted painter, Baez calls the practice “really kind of a second career.” Her first solo exhibition, featuring portraits of herself, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congressman John Lewis, Bob Dylan, and others, was titled “Mischief Makers.” It took place at a gallery in Mill Valley, Calif.
She has lived in the same house south of San Francisco for nearly 50 years. “All my family ended up in the Palo Alto area except my older sister, who ended up deep in Carmel Valley. She didn’t want anything to do with the human race,” she says with a laugh, “and I don’t blame her.”
She won’t miss the constant travel of touring, she says, but she will miss the camaraderie of her road crew, including longtime manager Mark Spector and personal assistant (and backup singer) Grace Stumberg. They all share the same sense of humor, she says.
For years, Baez was pegged as an earnest, unsmiling folkie. “Saturday Night Live” even ran a recurring sketch in the ’80s called “Make Joan Baez Laugh.”
She gets it. “You know, I was serious for the first 20 years. In the very beginning, the image sticks with people, with the long hair parted just to the side of the middle, looking very gloomy.
“I was afraid to be funny onstage. I’m funny at home. Now I get to share it.” She laughs, a gentle “hee hee hee.”
“I knew from the beginning I was funny. I also knew something in there just kind of froze up.
“You know, Dr. King never showed his sense of humor on the big screen,” she continues. “For him, everything was so perilous. Everything he did was watched and criticized.” For her, “mostly it was a genuine shyness back then.”
She’s ambivalent about honors such as the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award she received in 2007, or her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.
The reaction to the latter, she says, was “either ‘What’s she doing there?’ or ‘It’s about time!’ ” Her own feeling about it landed somewhere in between, though she will say of the folk boom of the early 1960s — which she presided over like royalty — “you can’t possibly say that didn’t influence the next step in rock ’n’ roll.” Over the years she’s had countless fans, many of them musicians themselves, people “who were seriously not folk music, with greasepaint over their faces and their hair up in spikes, say, ‘Oh, man, your album was the first I ever had.’ ”
The title track to “Whistle Down the Wind” was written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, as was the stately staying-power ballad “Last Leaf.” For Baez, it’s not the first time she’s covered Waits. “He’s my starting point,” she says.
There are two songs by her friend Ritter and one apiece by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Eliza Gilkyson, Anohni (formerly Antony Hegarty), and Joe Henry, who produced. The album’s centerpiece is Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” written in the wake of the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, S.C.
For the first few weeks on tour, Baez couldn’t sing it. “If I see the audience get teary, then I’m in trouble,” she explains. “I’d get started and it was so overwhelming. I’d give up and try again the next day.”
The not-so-subtle message of what’s said and not said in the lyrics — about the dignity of the office of the presidency — is not lost on international audiences, Baez reports.
“It goes over the same in Sarajevo, in Turkey. I always say, ‘Turn to your neighbor if they don’t speak English.’ It gets through very quickly.”
And just in case a few people in attendance aren’t following the thread, she makes “a couple more blatant comments,” she says with one more laugh.
At the Boch Center Wang Theatre, Sept. 14-15 at 8 p.m. Tickets $43-$89, www.bochcenter.org