At 75, Joan Baez reflects on a life in protest and song
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Where do you start to describe Joan Baez? She marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King. She introduced Bob Dylan on her early tours. She lived everywhere from Belmont to Baghdad. She helped launch the folk revival in Harvard Square in the late '50s and still mentors new folksingers. She had the pop hits "Diamonds and Rust" (about Dylan) and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." She has recorded in six languages and released 30 albums. She supports women's rights, gay and lesbian rights, and the environment, and is an Ambassador of Conscience for Amnesty International. She's dedicating her new tour to the Innocence Project, which helps unjustly convicted prisoners.
Baez turned 75 on Jan. 9 and has a new live album, "75th Birthday Celebration," recorded at the Beacon Theatre in New York for the PBS "Great Performances" series. It features duets with Paul Simon, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Mavis Staples, Indigo Girls, and many more. She spoke to the Globe by phone in advance of her Oct. 8 show at the Citi Performing Arts Wang Theatre.
Q. So how are you doing?
A. I'm good. I just got back from Standing Rock [a reservation in North Dakota], so that was very interesting, hopefully the beginnings of a movement. It's the opposition of the pipeline in Standing Rock, and it gets spotty publicity because it's not quite enough for the regular press, but I found it to be very moving. There were young Native American kids running around on their horses and having a wonderful time and there were a lot of Native American vets.
Q. Where do you get all your energy? You have been out on the front lines for years.
A. Well, I haven't been on the front lines for a while, seriously, but when I feel it might make some difference, then that's what tempts me. And I have a friend in Standing Rock, Marilyn Youngbird, who works on the reservation trying to build homes for homeless children.
Q. You got your start in Cambridge. When you were a teenager at Club 47 there, did you ever think you'd be still touring at age 75?
A. Well, when you're that age, you never think past the following Wednesday. I didn't, because I wasn't ambitious. I didn't have plans for the future. I knew I had a big aversion to commerciality and it kind of was obsessive and ran a little bit of my life. But I'm glad it was that way instead of the other way where I wanted to beat my brains out and get rich.
Q. I heard you made $10 for your first gig at Club 47 in Cambridge, and there were eight people in the room, including your parents and sister.
A. That is correct. And my new boyfriend was there, though he walked past the place a couple of times. He didn't know I could see him through a window. I think he was waiting for more people to come in so he could disguise himself.
Q. What jumps out about those days?
A. I mean, they were a time and place that we'll never have again. We'd come in for coffee, and the Harvard types would play chess and read. And all of that's done now. The last I knew, the place [the club's old location on Mt. Auburn St.] was a grocery store.
Q. Returning to today: You're very proud of turning 75 this year. You're not hiding your age.
A. Yes, but it's a very interesting time because I don't know what I'm going to do next. I think I'll stop touring after next year. And I'm not touring next year except for one tour with the Indigo Girls. I just want to see what it feels like, and partly because I want to take time to make an album. I'm going to try to size up how things are going, then seriously wind down. It's time. . . . Things shifted for me when my mom died — she was 100 — and they shifted again when my sister just died a few months ago. So I'm the last one in the family.
Q. That's extraordinary. You've got a high bar to reach your mom.
A. I know. When I asked my mom what she wanted to do on her 100th birthday, she said, 'To drop dead!' And a week later she was gone. Very cool lady, my mom. She was sarcastic to the last.
Q. Talk about the 75th birthday concert. You had a cavalcade of stars, and it got better as it went along. How hard was it to put that together?
A. It took a while to get people lined up, and there were disappointments that somebody has to cancel or they can't make it, but then in the end it was really like a bunch of friends. I mean, Paul Simon was so funny when I called him. He said, 'Oh hi, what do you need?' So I started explaining this whole evening and he said, 'You don't have to explain all that crap, just tell me where you want me to be and what you want me to sing.' Isn't that wonderful?
Q. You didn't happen to ask Bob Dylan to that celebration, did you?
A. No, no.
Q. Do you guys have any kind of communication anymore?
A. No. I thought about it, that maybe we could do it at 75 because he's the same age, maybe that would interest him. But then I thought, 'No, it would ruin everything. It would take over everything.'
Q. You also played 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' in the show. You said you sang it for Martin Luther King. You told a story that he was waking up from a nap when you sang it?
A. First of all, King had asked me to come to Grenada [a city in Mississippi where they worked to integrate the schools in 1966], because he couldn't make it [there]. But he said if I walked with these kids who were trying to go to school, then the whites would stop throwing bricks at them for a while because the press would show up, which is exactly what happened. Then he came in the next day and was tired, so they put him in a nice back room in a beautiful little house. . . . He was asleep, but he was supposed to go to the local church and preach. They asked me to go in and wake him up. So I did, and that's where I sang the song. And the joke was that he didn't wake up, he just rolled over and said, 'I believe I hear the sound of an angel.' And he went back to sleep. It was very funny.
Q. How about the political climate today? Are you optimistic about this presidential election? What are your thoughts?
A. Well, first of all I've never seen anything like it and could not have imagined anything like it, because we always thought the days of somebody with that kind of ego and that Hitlerian stuff was reserved for back in the '40s. What's interesting is that there are many people who love it. They love a bully, somebody who makes them proud to be a bully. But I don't find that very appealing at all.
With Mary Chapin Carpenter at the Citi Performing Arts Wang Theatre. Oct. 8 at 8 pm. Tickets $43.75-98.75; www.ticketmaster.com