On her farewell tour, Joan Baez remains potent voice amid troubled times
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We are entering the end times for some of the biggest touring acts of the last several decades. Elton John, Slayer, Ozzy Osbourne and Kiss have made their respective “end of the road” announcements over the past few months, which are devastating enough, but one of the more tragic goodbyes is from folk legend Joan Baez. A forerunner of protest music and patron saint of social activism, who found her footing in the political hotbed of the 1960s, is in the midst of her “Fare Thee Well Tour” at a time when America needs her most.
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 5
Where: Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
“Yeah I’ll say,” she jokes when reminded of the less-than-perfect timing. “I could never have dreamt up the scenario that’s going on right now. It’s almost like you have to have shock resistors to live through it.”
Her stark sentiments about the state of the world are reflected in her latest album, “Whistle Down The Wind,” featuring beatific covers of contemporary artists including the pensive acoustic strummer “I Wish The Wars Were All Over” (Tim Eriksen), the poetic serenade of “Civil War” (Joe Henry) and the clear album highlight, “The President Sang Amazing Grace.” The latter was written by Zoe Mulford in response to Barack Obama’s eulogy for the victims of the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, and is done justice by Baez whose serene soprano crawls right into your tear ducts.
Coming in at No. 18 on Billboard’s Top Current Albums list and No. 4 on the Americana/Folk Albums list when it was released in the spring, “Whistle Down The Wind” is Baez’s highest charting album since her other interpretive landmark, 1975’s “Diamonds & Rust.” Though she’s remiss to take all the credit for its success.
“[President] Trump gets credit where it’s due,” Baez scoffs. “He’s created such a hideous backdrop that just about anything I do has more meaning than it would have otherwise, to be honest.
“These would have been some really beautiful songs regardless,” she continues, “but in these days I think they particularly hit people in the gut, which is a good thing. Everybody has to take more responsibility for themselves and for the world, so to that end I hope the album makes its dent.”
Baez, though, is still mixed in her feelings about the current state of folk music and its impact. “There are a lot of songs being written, but I think the catch is the kids in Parkland, for example, don’t have their own ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and they don’t have their own ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ so we’re still going back to those songs which were brilliant. But I certainly hope that new material will grow out of all this somehow,” she says. “Not to mention we’re always comparing current folk to this 10-year period [in the ‘60s] that featured an explosion of talent and we probably won’t have that again, at least not in the near future.”
Baez has had many close collaborations with those contemporaries like Pete Seeger and once paramour Bob Dylan over the years, just as much as she had strong working relationships with those on the front lines of change. She was an ally of Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (joining him at the 1963 March on Washington) and worked with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta for workers’ rights, saying they are all “turning over in their graves as we speak” seeing the world as it is now.
King, Chavez, Huerta and more than a dozen other icons of social justice were the muses for Baez’s first-ever painting exhibition, called “Mischief Makers,” featuring 18 portraits on display at Seager Gray Gallery in Mill Valley, California, last fall shortly after the 77-year-old was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. “All of them made this massive social change without resorting to violence and that is important to keep alive in people’s minds,” says Baez of her subject matter. It was a topic that was also instilled in her through her multicultural, pacifist Quaker family. “We were taught that you don’t go to war, you go to jail instead,” she says. By the time she picked up her first ukulele at the age of 13, Baez was hooked on marrying the music and the message.
Of her newfound love of painting, she says, “I didn’t realize I’d be that serious about it until about five years ago, but it’s another way of speaking for me.” She admits that it will take up much of her time during her upcoming semi-retirement, but don’t count Baez out of music completely.
“If a special project came along I’d certainly be open to working with it,” she concedes. “The six-week-long bus treks and rehearsals everyday are pretty wearing on my body, but I will sing wherever I want and when, like [one-off] concerts and festivals. It’s important for me to know that whatever political things come up I can be present for them and use this voice the way I’ve always used it.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.