Joan Baez remains committed to music, social causes

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Folk singer Joan Baez performs during the 40th Paleo Festival Nyon on July 25, 2015 in Nyon, the biggest open-air festival in Switzerland and one of Europe’s major musical events. | FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Legendary folk singer-songwriter Joan Baez has a soft spot for the Windy City.

In 1959, Baez performed at Chicago nightclub The Gate of Horn. It was there that she impressed songwriter Bob Gibson so much that he invited her to the Newport Folk Festival, the festival that helped catapult her to national prominence.

An Evening with Joan Baez When: 8p.m. Oct 25 Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Tickets: $30-$85 Info:

As she returns to Chicago on Tuesday, her commitment to making an impact in both music and social causes remains as strong as ever. She may not have won a Nobel Peace Prize recently like her folk cohort and one-time collaborator Bob Dylan, but last week she earned her own unique distinction — 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee.

“As a singer or whatever, getting to 75 is a milestone,” says Baez, who turned 75 earlier this year. “You can’t pretend you’re not getting older … when you get to this age. So it’s why I’m just saying ‘OK, it’s going and I’m going with it as gracefully as I can.’”

Joan Baez smiles during a concert for folk music legend Pete Seeger at Madison Square Garden in New York on May 3, 2009. | TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Joan Baez smiles during a concert for folk music legend Pete Seeger at Madison Square Garden in New York on May 3, 2009. | TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Beyond her music, Baez doesn’t shy from her decades-long commitment to social work, from civil rights to the anti-war movement. She’s traveled the world to work with anyone from political figures to regular folks, looking for way to help make the world a better place. That includes finding common ground with those who aren’t necessarily receptive to her at first. After she performed the civil rights anthem “Ain’t Going to Let Nobody Turn Me Around” at a pipeline protest in North Dakota, a Vietnam veteran who hadn’t been a fan of hers spoke to her about his change of heart.

“He came up and he said, ‘It’s a good thing I met you now because if I met you three days ago I would have shot you,’” she says. “And I said, ‘How’s that?’ He said he had been so enraged with the anti-war stuff that happened in Vietnam and when he came home he wasn’t respected. … He said, ‘This is a big day for me. I’ve been angry for 40 years and today I can let it go.’ So that was an extraordinary moment.”

For this current tour, Baez has teamed with The Innocence Project, which brings awareness about Death Row inmates who have been wrongfully convicted. Chicago volunteers from the Innocence network will be on hand in the Symphony Center lobby to discuss inmates in Illinois impacted by this situation.

Baez attributes her ability to work with all kinds of people to her Quaker upbringing.

“We were really raised as Quakers, where human life mattered. And it didn’t matter if they were your ‘enemy’ or not. But they mattered,” she says. “Wherever the empathy center is in me, it was well-nourished in my childhood. So I do feel compassion and empathy for something that is difficult for people.”

That compassion was rewarded last year when Amnesty International awarded her its highest honor, the Ambassador of Conscience Award, in recognition of her leadership in the fight for human rights.

Her parents were two big of her biggest influences. She described her mother as a “natural pacifist” who had an “innate intelligence about life” and her father as a fearless social worker.

“[My mother’s] church was nature. And I got that all from her. That’s why I’ve slept in a tree. She made a huge dent in my life,” Baez says. “And my dad, he did social work in Baghdad. He wanted to go to the Middle East and do something nobody else would do. No American wanted to go to Baghdad in 1951. But off he went.”

Baez’s band for this tour features multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell, her son Gabriel Harris on percussion, and singer Grace Stumberg. The set will feature a variety of songs from all corners of her career, including some Dylan covers and songs from a forthcoming album.

“I’ve been doing more Dylan stuff because of the Nobel Prize, and it’s a nice way to revisit more of his material than I usually do in a concert,” Baez says. “That’s a treat. It’s good to have an excuse to sing a bunch of his songs.”

Joshua Miller is a local freelance writer.

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