Mike Atkinson

Interview: Joan Baez

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on February 23, 2007

A slightly croaky but otherwise buoyant Joan Baez spoke to EG from her home in California. Congratulations duly offered on her recent Lifetime Achievement award at the Grammys, our conversation turned to the recent re-release of Ring Them Bells, a double live set from 1995. Recorded over two nights at the Bottom Line club in New York’s Greenwich Village, this features six previously unreleased tracks, and collaborations with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Janis Ian, the Indigo Girls and many others.

According to Joan, the club – which shut for good in 2003 – was chosen for its intimacy and its reputation as a landmark venue, despite the “terrible, notorious” state of its backstage area.

“It was the perfect place. I wish they could have cleaned up the dressing rooms – but they could afford to be all sloppy, because everyone wanted to be there”, she recalled with a wry chuckle.

Baez has been known throughout her career for mixing self-penned material with carefully chosen covers, often by emerging songwriting talents. When performing, how does she strike a balance between the two?

“It’s more a case of: how do I cover fifty years? Even though there’s mountains of material, it’s not always that easy to make it flow properly. But there’s enough leeway to add and subtract things – and that in itself is an art.”

“It’s good to be spontaneous – and the audience loves it when you make a mistake. They like it best when you completely forget the words.”

As a long-standing critic of the political establishment, Baez has been known for her campaigning work almost as much as her music – and many will remember the 2003 landmine benefit in Leicester, when she was joined on stage by Chrissie Hynde, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris. Have other causes taken precedence since then?

“Actually, my family’s taking precedence. I have a grandchild of three, and my parents are both ninety-three. Things I never allowed myself to do in the 1960s, like spending time with the family, I do a lot of now.”

“The politics remain the same, and the way I feel about things hasn’t changed – but I have made the choice not to try and be out front, unless it really makes sense for me to that. There’s a value in being selective, but I didn’t realise that when I was younger. I tried to do everything!”

As a figurehead of the original civil rights movement, did Joan think that there was a place for a similar movement in 2007?

“If so, then it’s a place which people are going to have to make for themselves. If it’s left up to this government, then there’s no place for anything. People are only now beginning to realise that they can make their own place. People were so terribly intimidated, for so many years, by this bunch of bozos in office!”

Compared to the surge of music which sprung up as a response to the Vietnam war in the 1960s, and also to the nuclear arms race of the 1980s, it feels as if there has been a remarkably quiet musical reaction to the issues raised by the Iraq war.

“There are lots of songs, but they’re not played on official radio stations. But more than that, if we wait for history somehow to repeat itself – “Why isn’t somebody writing Blowing In The Wind or Imagine?” – then sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way.”

“First of all, in the 1960s it almost became the vogue to write protest songs. There was a superfluity of them. And then there were those strange years – the Reagan years, and forward from that – where it became not even a concept for people, at least on a commercial scale.”

“The good writers, who have a sense of feeling beyond themselves, do write what could be considered protest songs – but they’re not anthems. The people who are still waiting for that are missing the point. In a sense, you could say that the Internet has replaced what we had back then. The cohesiveness we have now is coming from the Internet.”

Most of us are able to move on from the things that we’ve said and done in our younger days, but an artist is constantly reminded of all their past words, thoughts and deeds. Is it possible to stand by the words of thirty or forty years ago – or does it feel strange to sing them now, when perhaps you have become a different person?

“It feels strange sometimes to hear the delivery”, admitted Joan, “but the basic roots of my beliefs have remained astoundingly the same.”

“Sure, many of us look back and wince a little bit at the appearance, or the style – but what surprises me is the amount of what I said and did that still rings true to me. I’m glad about that, as a lot of people change to the point where they wouldn’t want to hear any of it.”

Many artists burn brightly for a short while, but then fade away. A lucky few might return in later life, after a period in the wilderness. As someone who has never really been away, what is it that keeps Joan Baez out there, still going strong?

“Talent!”

A refereshingly honest answer, if a little short on detail. After some prompting – and no small measure of laughter – Joan elaborated further.

“It’s also tremendously hard work. At the beginning, it wasn’t work at all. That was one of the problems; I just sang for the first twenty years, and I assumed that was how it would always be. I’d open my mouth, and the voice would come out. And lo and behold: I was mortal, and I had to start working with a coach. Which I do now, and I’ll do as long as I’m singing.”

“There’s no difference between the muscles in my throat and the muscles in a tennis player’s arm. How he breathes and moves and exercises, and so on – it’s a never-ending re-learning.”

One final, topical question. As a lifelong supporter of the Democratic Party, does Joan favour Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama for the presidential candidacy in 2008?

“Obama’s adorable, isn’t he? But at this point, for the first time ever in my life, I’ve thought: well, it really is necessary to bump these psychopaths that we have running the country. And if Hillary is the most effective and efficient, then okay.”

“I don’t really like any of them much, though. I can’t say that on a personal level, because I don’t know them personally. But my politics has always been done from a different angle. I think if Martin Luther King had run for president, he would have lost his strength. I think he was smart enough to know that. They wanted to draft him to run for president, but he really belonged on the streets, and in the churches, as that way he could say what he wanted to say.”

People sometimes say that politics is the art of the possible. They particularly say it when seeking to justify the compromises which they have to make along the way. Perhaps we also need others out there who feel free enough to demand the impossible, in the hope that it may become possible in the future. If we do, then Joan Baez – feisty, outspoken and staunch in the defence of the principles which have sustained her for the past fifty years – is someone who surely fits that latter category.

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