NO DIRECTION HOME: “I think the Bush administration has taken us a quantum leap away from anything civil.”
When I first get Joan Baez on the phone, my burning question is what she thinks of the upcoming presidential election. After all, she’s playing Boston this Sunday (the second of a two-night stint at the Berklee Performance Center), she has a new album called The Day After Tomorrow (a collaboration with country-folk rebel rouser Steve Earle), and on November 2, the “day after tomorrow” will be Election Day.
“Deciding to support a presidential candidate is uncomfortable for me,” she says, “because to me, the office of the presidency still has so many nasty things attached to it — like the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Marines. But for me, Obama is reminiscent of King — he just touches people, and you can tell that his presence is backed up with an enormous intelligence and compassion. Plus he has a big picture of Gandhi hanging in his office.”
When Baez nonchalantly mentions “King,” she of course means Martin Luther Jr. — who invited her to accompany him on many of his marches, among them the 1963 March on Washington. That she continues to be linked with those historic times has to do not just with her singular voice (a force of nature that has moved audiences for five decades) but also with the power of her convictions, and the effortless way they mix with her self-depreciating wit. She too touches people, and she backs up her enormous presence in popular culture with intelligence and a compassion that seems to know no bounds.
Baez’s local roots are well known: her first show was at Club 47 (now Club Passim) in Harvard Square in 1958, and without much delay, she became a “sort-of refugee wandering musician,” learning everything she could from everyone she met. “Singing just happened,” she explains, “and whatever would take me out of my old image of myself, which wasn’t a very happy one, being too skinny and too dark or whatever — slipping into the world of singing and music, little by little, was certainly preferable to where I had been.”
When I ask how her approach to singing has changed over the years, she demurs: “My voice is lower, a lot of it I like a whole lot, and a lot of it is just fucking difficult! When people say to me, ‘Oh, I hope you sing forever!’, I think, ‘Are you kidding?’ Your voice only lasts just so long, and then I’ll, you know, go to the Bahamas or whatever one does at that point.”
Baez’s transition from busking musician to international superstar began when she played the 1959 Newport Folk Festival: her Odetta-esque vibrato and intense presence were a hit, and her recording career started soon after. “At the beginning, people thought I was being very clever and saving myself because I didn’t do a lot of concerts, I didn’t really tour — but I just didn’t like traveling! So I’d do, you know, 20 concerts a year because I was terrified to get on a plane. But the whole thing happened quite quickly — if I were to make a graph of my career, at the time everything just went up and up and up. And when you’re up there, it never occurs to you that you’ll ever come down. That’s very difficult, and it happens to every performer.”