Joan Baez on Her Next Chapter: ‘I Don’t Make History, I Am History’
After finding ways to embrace changes in her vocal range, the 77-year-old folk singer has released an album that she is calling her final recording.
By Alan Light
WOODSIDE, Calif. — She’s been performing for six decades and until this month hadn’t released a new album since 2008, but Joan Baez has been picking up momentum.
Taylor Swift brought her onstage, and Lana Del Rey said “Lust for Life,” her most recent album, had “early Joan Baez influences.” Last year, Ms. Baez was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Her 1970 version of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (her only Top 10 single) was recently featured in the film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
Just as the folk music icon and pioneering activist has unlocked a fresh reserve of cultural resonance, however, she has decided to step back. She announced that her new album, “Whistle Down the Wind,” would be her final recording and said that the eight-month-long world tour that kicked off in Sweden earlier this month will mark her farewell to the road.
“It’s a big decision, but it feels so right,” she said, seated in the rustic, sun-drenched kitchen of a house she’s lived in for 50 years here, just a few minutes’ drive from Stanford University and the epicenter of Silicon Valley. “People who know me get that it’s time. When my mom [who died in 2013 at age 100] was 95, I said, ‘I think I’m going to quit,’ and she said, ‘Oh, but honey, what will your fans think?’ About three years later, I said, ‘I think I’m going to quit,’ and she said, ‘Oh, honey, you’ve done enough.’”
At 77, Ms. Baez certainly doesn’t carry herself as if she has any intention of slowing down. On a recent afternoon, she interrupted a walk around her backyard to unlock her chicken coop and chase a dozen birds through the dirt. After rounding them back up, she was delighted to find a handful of new eggs, which she carefully carried up to her kitchen. In the house, the furniture was well worn, but the rooms felt spare and airy, perhaps because she’s “decluttering” using the Marie Kondo method and is proudly down to three shirts in her closet.
The crystalline purity of Ms. Baez’s falsetto rang out from the 1963 March on Washington to Woodstock six years later, from Live Aid in 1985 to the protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline less than two years ago. But it was changes in her vocal range that mostly led to her decision to retire.
“I asked my vocal coach many years ago when it would be time to stop,” she said, “and he said, ‘Your voice will tell you.’ And it has — it’s a muscle, and you have to work harder and harder to make it work.”
She started seeing a vocal therapist six years ago, which led to “an easing up, and finding more pleasure in the singing.” But it also meant coming to terms with a different sound. “I’ve gotten to like where I am — partly,” she said. “This is what I got, I don’t have any more than this, so what am I going to do with it? And that was a big step. It quit all the nostalgic [expletive] about what I wanted to sound like, and I was willing to give up the high notes because they weren’t working anyway.”
The “Whistle Down the Wind” producer Joe Henry (who has also worked with Bonnie Raitt, Allen Toussaint and Solomon Burke) said Ms. Baez has adjusted to the new limitations on her voice. “She arrived very well aware of what she believed she could do with the instrument she now has,” Mr. Henry said in a telephone interview. “I was aware of her feeling out the colors she had on her palette, but the loss of that range has done nothing to diminish her emotional power as a storyteller.”
Ms. Baez wanted the album — on which she interprets songs by Tom Waits, Josh Ritter and Mary Chapin Carpenter, among others — to be a “bookend” for a recording career that started with her 1960 self-titled debut, which has been added to the Grammy Hall of Fame and the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. It was more important to her to have “Whistle Down the Wind” speak to the present moment than to make any kind of final statement.
“What was more conscious was trying to make an album that was in some musical way trying to make some beauty in the face of — well, of evil, really,” she said. “But not blatant or I couldn’t do it. Two songs I had to let go were too topical, and I wanted this to have a more lasting feeling.”
She called the current political climate the result of “a battle with 40 years of think tanks for the right wing — conservatives learned how to talk, how to lie, how to switch things around in a way that liberals and progressives never did.”
But Ms. Baez expressed hope in the energy she saw at the women’s marches, and in the number of women who have decided to run for office. “I was pleased that they weren’t just actions and then everything died down,” she said. “The fear was ‘Yahoo, a million women,’ and then everybody goes home, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening.”
Ms. Baez, who was honored by Amnesty International in 2015 with its Ambassador of Conscience Award, warned against imitating or romanticizing the protest movement of the 60s, which she helped to define and set in motion. “It’s like trying to have a second Woodstock, which is really stupid, I think,” she said. “I can see where people want that — since back in the day I’ve heard from young people, ‘Boy, I wish I’d been there.’ And I think about how these kids would have had to make a decision about the draft, but that’s not what they remember. It’s so idealized, with all the magnificent musicians.
“You have to remember the 10 years in which I came to the surface were packed with talent, cause, everything,” she said. “It was like an explosion, or an implosion, but everybody had a way to speak and say what they wanted to say. Now people are waiting for ‘it’ — meaning a movement, the movement. There are movements right now, and maybe that’s the way it should be. Maybe it shouldn’t all be under one person and one big banner.”
In January, Ms. Baez, whose father, a prominent physicist, was born in Mexico, went to the California state Capitol to help commemorate the 1948 Los Gatos Canyon plane crash that killed 32 people, including 28 Mexican nationals whose names went unreported; she sang Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee,” which told the story of the tragedy, to the descendants of those who perished. She said that she will never stop participating in that kind of action.
“It’s not big, but I don’t think we can think in big terms now, or we’ll just get under the covers and never get out,” she said. “The little stuff almost becomes more important right now, because you have a chance at it. The world we are living in is being made horrible and is going to need every little victory — that your family and friends feel some kind of support, some kind of goodness.”
In an email she sent a few days after our conversation, though, she seemed still to be grappling with her role and her responsibility. “When I go onstage, I don’t make history, I am history,” she wrote. “Perhaps it’s enough for me be up there reminding people of a time when we had the music, the cause, the direction, and each other.
“My foundation in nonviolent political action was set before I started singing, and both are second nature to me. So I do not preclude the possibility of civil disobedience and even going to jail. Someone will have to. Then again, perhaps there is virtue to having carried the flame, and grace now in passing the torch.”
Her commitment certainly remains a model for the generations that have followed. “For anybody interested in social justice, she is a great beacon,” said the singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens in a telephone interview. “It’s very inspiring as a female artist to see how she has done things on her own terms and become a byword for musical activism.”
Ms. Baez emphasized that though her days on the road are over, she may still turn up on a stage in the future. “If there were a call to arms, or to non-arms, or some wonderful festival in a place I’ve never been, I would go,” she said. She expressed wonder, though, at the relentless tour schedule maintained by her old friend Bob Dylan, whom she helped introduce to the world when he was a scruffy kid and she was on the cover of Time magazine. (Mr. Dylan was inducted into the Rock Hall in 1988, 29 years before Ms. Baez.)
“Honest to God, I don’t know enough to understand that guy,” she said. “He’s made of kryptonite, I guess.” But, she added, “I am pleased that I will be glued at the hip to him until we both die — could be a lot worse things.”
In recent weeks, as other musicians like Paul Simon and Ozzy Osbourne have announced their farewell tours, Ms. Baez has been thinking about growing older. “Like most of my fellow musicians who are ‘retiring,’ I do not feel my bizarre age,” she wrote in her email. “But part of going off the road is learning to respect the years I spent on it.”
As she considers a life beyond making and performing music, Ms. Baez expressed the greatest enthusiasm for pursuing her painting, an activity she only took up in the last decade. Last year, she had her first solo exhibition in Mill Valley, Calif.; her house is filled with her canvases, and a backyard studio is crammed with portraits of her family members and figures ranging from Muhammad Ali to the musician Richard Thompson. She also talked about traveling to see art after the touring stops.
“That’s something I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing, because I was always working,” she said. “And I’ll sit and shut up for a while. Which is really important, and it’s the hardest thing to do.”