Joan Baez: `bashing on, regardless'. Still an activist, the '60s `Queen of Folk' refuses to `shut up and sing'
New York — IT could have been 1965. The evening air was cool and fresh at the outdoor concert, and picnickers sat on the lawn as Joan Baez stood on the makeshift stage, strumming her guitar and singing ``The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.'' But Baez is well aware that it's 1987. The barefoot ``Queen of Folk,'' who hit the cover of Time magazine at age 18, says: ``I feel as though I was relevant then, and I'm relevant now.'' She was speaking in an interview here in New York after the Staten Island concert.
In ``And a Voice to Sing With'' - the open, honest, and often humorous new memoir that covers her early life, career, activism, brief marriage to David Harris, and observations about fame - she states that one of her reasons for writing a book was that she didn't want to be relegated to ``dewy-eyed nostalgia.''
At 46, Joan Baez is far from being a relic of the '60s. She's just come out with a new album, ``Recently'' (including songs by the Irish rock group U2, Peter Gabriel, and her own originals), and is active on the concert circuit. Handsome and youthful, she's still very much involved in the cause of nonviolence - a deep concern that is an outgrowth of her Quaker upbringing:
``Being surrounded by people who were genuinely searching for what they referred to as the `still, small voice within' had a very strong effect on me. That, plus their clear message about the sanctity of life.''
Baez's voice is as compelling as ever today. The high, pure soprano of ``Diamonds and Rust'' and ``Farewell Angelina'' has now deepened and become richer with time and, no doubt, from the remarkable experiences of her career.
``I'm absolutely arrogant about the quality of my voice,'' she says with a laugh. ``I could certainly be faulted for that attitude, except that the voice was given to me, and the best I can do with it is use it as a vehicle for things that I feel strongly about: the betterment of people, and so forth. That may sound rather trite, but in the end ... you're tallied up by what you did, and I hope that what I've done has lessened some grief. That's what I think I'm here for.''
Baez's activism in the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King, her stand against the war in Vietnam, her experience in a Hanoi shelter during the Christmas bombings in 1972, her founding of the West Coast branch of Amnesty International, her marriage, her relationship with Bob Dylan - all of which she talks about in her book - are just a few of the events that have made her controversial over the years.
Not long ago, she sang a concert in Atlanta in which she brought up some social issues. As it turned out, the one review that came out was headlined ``Shut Up and Sing.'' Baez, unfazed, found the incident amusing.
As we talk about it, she explains, ``In the '60s, when I was very outspoken, the majority of the people in this country didn't want to hear it.... Well, here we are again - talking about the death penalty, talking about the contras, talking about Nicaragua, and many people will say, `Oh, shut up and sing!'''
In her book, Baez writes a bit dispiritedly about the '80s, and decries particularly the ``me generation'' mentality and what she sees as a lack of ethical and humanitarian values. She characterizes the yuppie life style as an ``air balloon - it's empty,'' but then quickly adds: ``Maybe I'm wrong, maybe it's full. But I would think that at some point, that way of life wouldn't be enough....''
However, she does see reason for hope. ``I have this little expression I cooked up: `the seductiveness of compassion.' I think people can be seduced into a different way of life, but it has to be made interesting to them.''
She mentions what she terms ``the Live Aid syndrome.'' She feels Live Aid was the kind of mega-event that stirs up compassion in people, but ``it's very hard to get them to remember it six months later. Still, I think we have to work on that. The instinct is alive and well in people, but at some point social change is measured by people's willingness to take a risk and make a few sacrifices, and that didn't happen with Live Aid, although I think it was important, because it broke some kind of totally empty `me'-oriented spell that was cast upon the entertainment industry.''
Does Baez believe any progress has been made toward achieving peace?
``There are small movements of nonviolence - the movement of Gandhi and of King - everywhere in the world. But there's very little understanding of the real nature of nonviolence and what it means to give up arms - and then have to search for other ways to cope with international and national problems.''
When it all seems discouraging, Baez says, ``There's a British expression which I fall back on: `Bash on, regardless.' ... It behooves us to behave as though the world were, in fact, going to continue, and as though there were hope. Because then you act with hope, and then your actions have force to them.'' And she adds, ``You have to dictate your own life on your own terms and pick out what you think is morally right and wrong, and act on it. And the devil take the hindmost. And have a marvelous time when you can - grab that little ray of sun. Dance in it every chance you get.''