Hearing a voice I’d known

Joan Baez still sings for a better world

Jennifer Schneider

Joan Baez’s rebellious roots run deep. At age 16, she had her first run-in with authority when she refused to leave school during an air-raid drill. Only six years later, she was performing “We Shall Overcome” for more than a quarter of a million people at the civil rights movement’s March on Washington. As I spoke with Baez over the telephone a week before last night’s concert in St. Paul, the musician and political activist confessed that even she is astounded by all of the things she has done.

She also made it clear she’s not finished. This summer will see the release of “Dark Chords on a Big Guitar,” Baez’s first new recording in more than five years. The CD, which includes contributions from Steve Earle, Gillian Welch and Ryan Adams among others, is full of songs the artist refers to as quirky and under the radar. “The album is fairly dark,” she says, “and that wasn’t the plan. I think it’s just a reflection of the times.”

Although she continues to perform such crowd favorites as “Sweet Sir Galahad” and “Diamonds and Rust,” Baez says she’s grown tired of songwriting in recent years; thus, the new album contains no original compositions. “For the years that I did write, I think I enjoyed it, and then all of the sudden it felt like squeezing cement out of a toothpaste tube,” she says, “and I thought, well, I don’t want to do that. Somebody else will be doing it better.”

The politically charged yet reassuring atmosphere of Baez’s spring tour might seem familiar to people who caught her live during the early days of her musical career, which coincided with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the war in Vietnam. Baez says the pending war with Iraq (where she lived with her family for a year in 1951) has triggered an unwelcome déjà vu and “kind of a coming home feeling.”

The performer, who is known for her candor and wit, considers it her job to empower audience members who feel intimidated by the state of politics today. “I practically don’t have any patience,” she said before launching into a story about a man who didn’t appreciate her “rude remarks about the current administration”: “‘One is enough,’ he yells from the audience. I said, ‘You know what? You’re really brave to make yourself known like that,’ and, ‘Congratulations,’ I said, ‘and you’re wrong.'”

Baez encourages young people to become more engaged by logging on to sites such as www.moveon.org, which gathered electronic signatures for an antiwar petition that was presented to the U.N. Security Council on Monday. She also draws parallels between today’s climate and protest music’s role in the antiwar movement of the 1960s. Baez declares: “I wouldn’t wanna be part of massive social change without music. Yes, I think that it crosses barriers the way absolutely nothing else can.”

While Baez continues to push for social change (human rights, opposition to the death penalty, nonviolence, gay rights and AIDS are just a handful of the causes she has taken on over the years), she also remains grounded in routine activities like watching old movies and taking walks in the snow. This summer she will reprise her role as Madame ZinZanni in “Teatro ZinZanni: Love, Chaos & Dinner,” which she describes as a Cirque du Soleil-type circus that besieges participants as they enjoy a five-course meal. She became enchanted with the San Francisco production and the idea that, “I got to run away and join the circus and go back to my own house and sleep at night.”

Baez also plans to spend more time with her son and daughter-in-law, who are expecting a baby in late summer. “I’ve never been this kind of frightened in my life about what could happen, what is happening, in fact, and the paralyses about what the next step could be for all of us,” she explains. “So part of it is just wanting to appreciate what’s here now, and then just fight tooth and nail to keep it.”

Jennifer Schneider welcomes comments at [email protected]