The Twilight and Power of Joan Baez
On her final tour, her irony-free mix of politics and song seems as relevant as ever.
By David Montgomery
Joan Baez watched the mayor of Charleston, S.C., work himself to the point of tears. “She is going to sing not just a song, she is going to sing … the song,” John Tecklenburg declared from a makeshift stage in a downtown park. “This is a lady who’s not just talked the talk and sang the songs of our life, but she has …” and he kept on rhapsodizing until he got out of breath. “She was there in 1963, and she is here with us today … Joan Baez!”
Baez hugged him on the way to the microphone, where she said, “I told him that was pretty good for a white guy.” At 77, she can’t help letting a little air out of most attempts to glorify her. And yet here she was, doing again what is the essence of her legend: showing up where the action is, with a song and a faith that a song can make a difference.
The occasion was a rally to mark the third anniversary of the massacre at nearby Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where a white man killed nine African American congregants during a Bible study. Baez had come from Paris — taking a break from her worldwide farewell tour, the last sustained series of concerts of her nearly six-decade career. The song she would perform is called “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” and it recounts how President Barack Obama spoke — and sang — at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, the church’s slain pastor. Zoe Mulford, an obscure folk singer three decades younger than Baez, wrote the piece. But Baez — who has been lifting up others’ songs since she championed the first protest visions of a scruffy waif named Bob Dylan — recorded the version that got people’s attention.
Mulford was in the audience at the rally, slightly dazzled. “I heard Joan’s voice for the first time in music class when I was 8 years old,” she told me. “I was listening to her music when I was in my 20s and picking up a guitar and deciding what I wanted to sound like. She has been one of my heroes.”
Baez strapped on a borrowed guitar. Her voice, an increasingly fragile instrument, felt tight from jet lag, she told me later. In the minutes before going onstage, she had tried loosening the voice and practicing on the unfamiliar guitar, but she wasn’t satisfied. Masking her doubts behind a bright smile, she announced the song. “It’s the story of the day that the president came to try and console people,” she said. “The words were not enough. So he sang instead.”
As she fingerpicked the opening lick, I wondered how a simple song could live up to the emotions of the event — grief, loss, hope. Local performers today had brought their beats and loops, their soundtracks and videos. And here was Baez with only a guitar. She sang a little huskily at first:
A young man came to a house of prayer
They did not ask what brought him there
He was not friend, he was not kin
But they opened the door and let him in
Many in the crowd were standing, staring intently as they took in the words. After three verses came the chorus, the voice strong now:
But no words could say what must be said
For all the living and the dead
So on that day and in that place
The president sang ‘Amazing Grace’
The president sang ‘Amazing Grace’
When she finished, the crowd whooped and cheered. “It really touched my heart,” said Roberta Williams, 60, a substance-abuse specialist. “It was just that effect it had — the performance, the atmosphere, the cause.” Williams was accompanied by her daughter, Kris Bennett, 24; the mother had been stunned to learn that the millennial knew who Joan Baez was.
Bennett, who works at Z93 Jamz radio in Charleston and hosts a YouTube series on local hip-hop, told me she started following Baez on Instagram when she noticed the singer being tagged in videos posted by younger activists since President Trump was elected. She sees in Baez an elder who, in contrast to some, “is like, I understand you guys, I’m willing to help.” Of Baez’s performance that day, she said: “The song was really appropriate for everything that’s happening right now. I think we’re at this point where enough is enough, and seeing someone from the civil rights movement, a white woman who actually stands, that’s a big thing.” Bennett, who is black, added: “White silence is worse than agreeing with it. If you’re not using your platform and your voice to say anything, then you’re not better than the people who are doing horrible things.”
Afterward, Baez walked to the church, where she met some family members of those who were murdered. She told the story of singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Grenada, Miss., in 1966, where she joined him in escorting black children to a newly integrated school. In the church, she reprised “Swing Low,” amending the last line to refer to Trump: “Comin’ for to carry me, you, us, even Donald, home.”
“I have to put that line in about a man who really represents evil to me,” she said to the group. “I don’t believe a person is evil, or is born evil, but you certainly can crank out some evil deeds. What I’m impressed with here is that where there could have been resentment and nastiness, there’s been acceptance, and where there could have been real hatred, there’s been love. … It’s up to us to double our efforts in that way.”
Baez’s visit to Charleston lasted several hours, and after it was over, I realized that the whole affair, from the rally to the church, had been one long performance — a sincere one. It was Joan Baez playing Joan Baez, the woman being the legend; and somehow — after incalculable changes to the music industry, the splintering of social movements, the dislodging of protest anthems from their central role in activist culture — that still mattered.
“I feel a sense of responsibility that I am leaving,” she says of her imminent retirement from the road. “At this point in history, me and my stuff are needed.” She is taking this time to see if there is a new way to carry on being the public Joan Baez. That will be welcome news to her fans, because even as her voice — a once-soaring tone of soul and steel — is no longer capable of performing the way it used to, she signifies ideals many people want to hold on to: an independent approach to music, an insistence on political engagement, an irony-free safe space for harboring the hope, sometimes against strong evidence, that all is not lost.
What can be hard to grasp today is how top-of-the-charts popular the lone folk singer was, and how much she was willing to stake her celebrity on activism. It all started with her first act of civil disobedience, when Baez was attending Palo Alto High School in California in the mid-1950s. The school announced that there would be a drill to prepare for a nuclear missile attack. The students were to go home and take shelter in basements. Baez refused to leave her classroom. It was futile, she said. She had calculated that a missile from Moscow would reach Palo Alto before anyone got to a basement. Weren’t there better ways to prevent annihilation? Her resistance made headlines and, not for the first time, critics called her a Communist.
Actually, she was influenced by Quaker teachings, as she had been ever since her family had started attending a local meeting. “What I remember first was understanding that human life came before the flag,” she says. “And that made sense to me.” Her commitment to pacifism and nonviolence was sealed in 1956 when she attended a retreat for teenagers in Monterey; it was there that she first heard King speak. “He started to talk and I started to cry,” she recalls. “I just couldn’t get hold of myself, because he was doing what we were talking about.”
By 1958 she was attending, then quickly dropping out of, Boston University, as she spent most of her time walking with her guitar, often barefoot, from gig to gig at Cambridge coffeehouses. Harvard lads in sweaters and wanna-beatniks in black turtlenecks swooned over her solemn stage persona and mellifluous soprano renderings of antique English murder ballads and grim Appalachian love dirges. For young rebels, folk was a passage to authenticity from an increasingly plastic land. Her albums scaled the Billboard chart and went gold, and in 1962, when she was 21, she landed on the cover of Time magazine. “Her voice was like that of a siren from off some Greek island,” Dylan said in a Q&A on his website with writer Bill Flanagan last year. “Just the sound of it could put you into a spell. She was an enchantress.”
The first record that Jackson Browne bought with his own money, at 14, was Baez’s second album. Mesmerized, he started learning to play “The Lily of the West,” a tragic story of a man driven to murder by his faithless lover. “There was a purity, an unabashed sort of beauty,” Browne told me. “You were compelled to listen to the words, which was also starting to happen in pop music.” Then on her fourth album, in a live recording from a black college in Birmingham, Ala., Browne heard Baez say “in a very humble way, ‘Would you like to sing “We Shall Overcome”?’ That was so disarming and clearly at the service of the greater good that it actually chokes me up now,” he recalls, “because it connected all of us … to what was going on in our communities.” Her example helped set him on his musical path and inspired him to join the Congress of Racial Equality.
It took two albums of apolitical folk before Baez found a way to merge her passion for that music with her social conscience. The missing link was fresh, politically aware material, and Dylan provided it. “He was turning out songs like ticker tape, and I was stealing them as fast as he wrote them,” she recounted in her 1987 autobiography.
“When Dylan showed up, that was exactly what I needed, the songs to talk about how I felt,” she told me. “But they didn’t even talk about it. ‘The answer is blowing in the wind’: It’s not telling you s—. It’s just a brilliant song. It isn’t topical, it’s timeless and timely, and somehow still is.”
She brought Dylan on stage with her and practically commanded her audiences to take heed of his genius. Soon, they needed no convincing. But Dylan’s protest-songwriter phase lasted only a few years, which was about the length of their romantic relationship. He told a reporter he was tired of “finger-pointing songs.” At the time, Baez couldn’t help feeling disappointed that he abandoned the ramparts. “Oh, I was just impossible,” she told me. “I was just, ‘Everybody should do this and everybody should do that.’ And if I had learned how to relax and enjoy the best music we were getting and not try to stuff him in this hole of having to be political, walk the talk — I should have realized I was going to do the walking for him and not worry about it.”
While Baez would record and perform many of her own songs during her career, she focused her talent mainly on interpretation. The songs she chose for social causes conjured the solidarity of the singalong; they were tools to ease tension at demonstrations, and they lent beauty and a sense of mission to the daily incremental drudgery of activism. “She has been so brave in the tradition of folk music,” the singer Graham Nash told me, “of going from city to city as a troubadour telling everybody in the city that the emperor really doesn’t have any clothes on.”
She sang “We Shall Overcome” at the March on Washington in 1963 before King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Over the next several years, she founded a school for the study of nonviolence, announced she would withhold the 60 percent of her taxes that she estimated went to armaments, and spent 11 days in and out of shelters in Hanoi singing freedom songs while American bombs rained down. She made a record that featured a sound collage of bombs, poetry, reportage and singing. In 1967 she did stints of 10 and 30 days in a detention center for blocking the entrance of a draft-induction facility in Oakland, Calif. Has any other multiple-gold-record-earning musician ever spent a month in jail for protesting anything? “Music alone isn’t enough for me,” she said in those days. “If I’m not on the side of life in action as well as in music, then all those sounds, however beautiful, are irrelevant.”
At Woodstock she was one of the highest-paid performers — behind Jimi Hendrix but ahead of big names including Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane. Between songs, she treated the muddy hippies to a lively account of the arrest of her then-husband — activist David Harris, who was in prison for refusing his draft summons — and his attempts to organize his fellow inmates.
At the next Woodstock-like conclave to grip the nation’s attention — the Live Aid benefit concert of 1985 — Baez was given the honor of opening the proceedings. She sang “Amazing Grace” and “We Are the World.” It was a highlight of a decade when her career was in decline. There were no hit records, no Joan Baez videos on MTV. “It catches you off guard,” she says. “And then, ‘Oh my God, I’m out of step.’ And I went for too long not realizing that.” But she was beloved abroad, answering calls from activists in trouble spots. In Czechoslovakia in 1989, she smuggled dissident Vaclav Havel into a concert where she defied authorities by saluting him, and a few years later she sang “Amazing Grace” in besieged Sarajevo.
Back at home, she got something she’d never bothered with: a manager. She told Mark Spector she wanted to make a comeback, and he bluntly replied, “It won’t be easy.” Spector, who is still her manager, told me his tack was simple: “reminding her to be herself.” He returned her to her origins of interpreting the most urgent voices of the day. “What had created her reputation was formidable enough,” he said. “Sometimes you need to wait for things to come around again.” She began working with artists such as the Indigo Girls, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dar Williams and Steve Earle.
Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls remember touring the Southeast in the early 1990s in a van with Baez singing gospel songs in the back. The Indigos’ young and exuberant fans liked to stand and dance and approach the stage, but at one show in Georgia the security guards started cracking down. “Joan stood up there onstage and raised her hand like she does, like she’s Moses, and said, ‘Let the people stand!’ ” Saliers told me. “And the security lost all its immediate power, and everybody stood up. … Amy and I got firsthand knowledge of that self-possession and vision and power wrapped up in this woman.”
Baez put out several well-regarded albums and built a solid touring schedule, both solo and with younger proteges. Just as older socially conscious influences like Woody Guthrie filtered through Baez to the next generation of singer-songwriters, those artists in turn processed Baez for a new crop of fans. “It’s just passed down,” Ray says, “and sometimes you don’t even realize where your inspiration’s coming from, but it is coming from that place.”
“She’s been a role model for so many of us who believe that there is a place for activism within art,” Carpenter told me. She first met Baez at 16, when the singer visited her high school and sang an impromptu duet with the teenager. “Even though all this time has gone by, there’s never been a more important time to approach your art and your life advocating on behalf of the things you believe in. And Joan Baez, to me, is the example of that.”
Baez lives in a rambling yellow house in the hills above Palo Alto with an affectionate, blind, blond bouvier des Flandres named Ginger. When Ginger lost the sight in her second eye a year ago, she used her other senses to map the couple of acres of property. Baez has been adapting similarly with her peerless soprano as it has deepened. Working with a vocal therapist, she has found a different way to do many of the old songs, while selecting new pieces that profit from her lower range. The work has extended the life of her singing. Still, the daily challenge of keeping her voice up to her own high standards is the main reason she plans to cease touring after the current run ends next year. (The U.S. leg begins later this month; her Sept. 28 gig at the Warner Theatre in downtown Washington sold out so quickly that another — April 26, 2019 — was added.)
“If I could sing easily, I’d go on doing it, because I love it,” Baez told me one afternoon over salad and ice cream at a wooden table in her kitchen. She speaks in a soft voice and laughs a lot. “But I don’t like to see it deteriorate. … It’s deceptive, because the concerts are fantastic.”
“Every song has to be re-crafted; everything has to be reinvented,” she continued. “And that’s the part that’s tiring. … I’m not trying to get the achingly pure soprano. I just want to pop up to that note and know I can hang on to it for like a quarter of a second and then come back down — and even that is getting beyond my reach.”
In her autobiography, Baez called her voice “my greatest gift, given to me by forces which confound genetics, environment, race, or ambition.” But now, she said, “it’s another voice. I like it. I like the sound of it. … I’m clever enough to reinvent it in a way that people are going to want to hear it.”
She’s been forced to set aside some of her most iconic songs, though. The former president may be able to, but Baez can no longer sing “Amazing Grace.” Nor Dylan’s “Forever Young,” one of the most requested in her repertoire, which she dedicated to Barack and Michelle Obama during the Peace Ball after the inauguration in 2009.
“In ‘Forever Young’ you get to that note that sustains, and that’s what I can’t do,” she says. Other melodies can be tweaked, such as “Joe Hill,” the union organizing song that she sang at Woodstock: “The last note on that used to be high and wonderful, and now it’s — I’m okay with that. And jumping around in something like ‘House of the Rising Sun’ — this is what takes the work. Everything has to be in order. The body has to be in order, the breathing, the throat, everything, to get happily to those notes. And I can still do that. A lot of it is cellular memory. Songs that have cellular memory somehow are easier to get up there and actually hang out for a minute. But it’s absolutely exhausting.”
Her new album, “Whistle Down the Wind,” with songs by Mulford, Carpenter, Tom Waits and others, is a meditation on enduring — defiant and wistful. The title of the last song is “I Wish the Wars Were All Over.” Clearly they are not. And on the civil rights front, the Black Lives Matter movement reveals that race relations are, as Baez says, “in some ways worse than they’ve ever been.”
I wondered if after nearly 60 years of working on those issues in action and song she’s disappointed that we, as a society, have not come further. She cited a column she had recently read in The Washington Post by Karen Attiah, with the headline: “I no longer have hope in white America.” The idea is that when there is no hope, there is still “the shadow of hope.”
“I live in ‘the shadow of hope,’ ” Baez said. “In ‘the shadow of hope’ … you still do everything you can to make this a decent world. And that’s how I feel. I don’t know if it’s now more than ever, but we’re facing a total lack of empathy, cruelty, evil, and how do we face that in some way that we have a chance of at least preserving our own moral compass?”
She’s lived in this house for 47 years. The kitchen windows overlook rose bushes, a hummingbird feeder and a wooden deck with worn steps leading down to a chicken coop where she gets fresh eggs, and a painter’s studio where an unfinished portrait of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg waited for her to add the glasses. She has gotten serious about painting, and she’s good at it. Last year, she had a gallery show of portraits of 18 subversive heroes she has known, called “Mischief Makers.” Working in acrylic from photos as models, she uses impressionistic colors to capture the subjects’ personalities. She sees painting as part of a second career as she prepares to retire from touring.
She said she’s not nostalgic for the old days — it’s more that some of the values and some of the songs of the old days have their purpose in helping us carry on today. But if she was not nostalgic, I was curious why there was a photo of Dylan stuck to the kitchen refrigerator.
“Isn’t that lovely?” she said. It showed a poofy-haired, tweedy, 1960s Dylan. “I was picking different ones of him to paint, and the trouble with that is he looks like a cross between Leonard Cohen and Gene Wilder.” Instead, for the art show, she chose a glowering 1980s Dylan she calls “Old Happy Face.”
Baez and Bob Dylan at the March on Washington in 1963. (Rowland Scherman/Getty Images)
The former First Couple of Folk had their ups and downs over the years. Dylan didn’t return her generosity by inviting her on stage when she accompanied him on his 1965 British tour. She wrote her 1970s classic “Diamonds & Rust” — As I remember your eyes were bluer than robins’ eggs, my poetry was lousy you said — about Dylan; it’s perhaps her most admired original tune, a bittersweet song about a former lover. (On tour, she has now updated the line “10 years ago I bought you some cuff links” to “50 years ago.” “I don’t want to be singing when it’s 60 years ago!” she told me.) Soon after the song came out, they had a blast on Dylan’s first Rolling Thunder Review tour; not so much on the second.
Baez does an excellent Dylan impersonation: “The first one was a good time; the second one started off with him saying, ‘Hey! Wha’d ya do t’ yer haaiir?’ I said, ‘Wha’d ya do t’ yer face?’ So it was kind of doomed. But he did come over and say, ‘Hey! Ya gonna do that one about the blue eyes?’ I said, ‘Oh, you mean the one about my husband?’ He kind of jumped. ‘Yer huhz-bund!’ He panicked. I said, ‘Oh Bob, I’m teasing you.’ ”
She performed again with him in the 1980s, but they haven’t spoken in about 20 years, she said. “I went through all these phases because after that dreaded tour in ’65, I was so hurt and infuriated. But I did other stuff with him that wasn’t so bad. Then he could do one thing and I’d be hurt and infuriated again. … So I hung on to a lot of that crap for a long time. And then painting his portrait a few months ago, it all just went. I listened to his music straight through. And I would cry periodically at the beauty of it, really, the magic of it. And all of that resentment dissolved. I have nothing left except glad that I was able to be there and be me at that time, and that he was doing what he was doing.”
Dylan, remote and reclusive, took his voice down idiosyncratic byways, not seeming to care that to some fans it was getting harder and harder to understand. Baez, who cherished a close relationship with her public, has continued using her voice — the music and the message — to reach the people for as long as she can.
On a Tuesday afternoon in May, Baez pulled up to the Royal Albert Hall in London wearing a T-shirt that said “Make America Mexican Again.” She was feeling especially loved by the fans. The hall had been filled the night before — it had felt like a 5,000-voice singalong at times — and it would be tonight as well. The first time she packed Albert Hall was in 1965 — a consolation after leaving that horrible Dylan tour — and this was likely to be the last.
“That dynamic is part of why there’s so much excitement,” she told me before leaving the hotel. “I understand why [music stars] don’t want to quit, because everybody goes ‘Woo, woo’ — twice as many people, twice as loud, and you say, ‘Well, why am I stopping this?’ ” But the reason she planned to quit kept intruding. At the sound check, she moved the capo on her guitar down one fret for “Silver Dagger,” the folk classic that appeared on her first solo record in 1960, in order to sing it in a lower key.
Having changed out of her T-shirt into an iridescent purple blouse and black slacks, she walked onstage barefoot and sang the first song, “There But for Fortune,” by Phil Ochs. The stage design was as spare as her Harvard Square days, and for many songs she stood alone. On others she played with different combinations of just three musicians — her son, Gabriel Harris, on percussion; Dirk Powell on a variety of instruments; and Grace Stumberg on vocals and guitar. Baez told the story of the Charleston shooting before she sang “The President Sang Amazing Grace.” In introducing “Silver Blade” — a bookend to “Silver Dagger” describing how a violated protagonist stabs her abuser and throws his body in a hole — Baez thrust her fist in the air and joked, “Then she says, ‘International Women’s Day!’ I know that’s not very nonviolent, but it’s fun.”
In many ways, the set list served as an argument that some songs may always be relevant. She linked “Deportee” to the refugee crisis in Europe and the plight of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Woody Guthrie wrote the song about a 1948 California plane crash of migrant farmworkers being deported to Mexico. Media coverage at the time named the members of the flight crew who were killed but identified the workers as only “deportees.” Pete Seeger adopted the tune, then Dylan and Baez made it a duet on Rolling Thunder. A scholar recently researched the names of the deportees, and Baez told the London crowd that she sang the song at a reunion of their descendants. And now, here it was again:
Some of us are illegal, and others not wanted
Our work contract’s out and we’ve got to move on
It’s six hundred miles to that Mexican border
And they chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves
She has added another song to the lineup that she told me she hadn’t sung in a while, until finally a phenomenon seemed worthy of it. She’s fascinated with the students organizing from Parkland, Fla., after a shooter killed 17 at their high school in February. A photo I have seen from one of the anti-gun marches in response shows someone carrying a poster with an illustration of student leader Emma González in the foreground and Baez in the background. Baez had seen it, too. “I was so flattered!” she told me.
Onstage at Albert Hall, she said: “There’s the closest thing to a movement that I’ve felt in decades going on in Florida, with these students. … They’re smart, they speak well, they’re willing to take risks, which may be the key. And so I sing this song for them.” Almost instantly the audience recognized the rhythmic waltz chords of Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and many began singing.
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
The same song, in fact, had served as the grand finale two months earlier at the March for Our Lives in Washington — sung by Jennifer Hudson, backed by an R&B choir and a swell of keyboard, drums and bass. Baez wasn’t at the rally, which featured Parkland students and thousands of young supporters, but the selection of a ’60s anthem to close the event was a reminder of just how much progressives still value — still feel they need — the songs that she helped to popularize. Contemporary musical social commentary continues to be written, of course, by hip-hop artists and others. Yet few new strummy, political songs have found life as major singalongs in recent years — even though these pieces work particularly well at mass gatherings.
A conviction that this music is deeply necessary in our current era was perhaps why there was an edge to the nostalgia of the fans in the plush red-cushioned seats and the red-curtained boxes at Albert Hall. It wasn’t just that an avatar of their youth was exiting the concert stage; it was that she was leaving now, with the world in this shape. Everyone still needed something from Joan Baez.
“She epitomizes a time when actually we all had hope and we thought everything was going to be better,” said Sue Osborn, 66, a retired executive in the British health service. “She epitomized that fight for a better world, really. If you talk to our kids today, they feel the world’s much darker. And we just felt we could change it.”
“We can relate to the issues she talks about when she talks about the struggles that the Mexicans are going through,” said Lorna Abbie, 63, one of a group of women from London’s Caribbean community, which is currently gripped by its own immigration crisis.
“Those songs are still relevant,” said Cath Taylor, 36. “So when she sings songs about, like, a change is coming — actually ties it to something you feel now — there’s a link [to] a fight that still needs to be fought.”
After the second show, one more fan was waiting by Baez’s tour bus. It was filmmaker Olivia Harrison, George Harrison’s widow. “Joan’s been carrying the torch for far too long,” Harrison told me after she and Baez embraced. “The line for me that I took away from tonight, I can’t quote it exactly, was that song about being grateful for every day. Every day is a chance to get it right.” She meant “God Is God,” which Earle wrote for Baez:
And every day on Earth’s another chance to get it right
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night
“You know, being grateful for every day is another chance to get it right,” Harrison said. “And she’s still getting it right. She’s extraordinary. I think she’s done enough.”
Joan Baez isn’t so sure she’s done enough, though. “In spite of my false modesty, I know that I have meant a lot to a lot of people,” she said, continuing our kitchen-table chat after she took a break for a swim in the pool down near the chicken coop. Last year, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “It’s never just the voice, it’s the voice and. They say, ‘Oh, I love your voice and … I was in this, that or the other, and it meant so much to me, and I took my kid to the first demonstration, and I went to jail.’ Now it’s, ‘I was so glad to hear this because there’s been such a vacuum.’ [The music] starts filling the vacuum and it also gives them the courage to go and do something. … So the question is, can I fill in those gaps without doing the I-have-to-keep-my-voice-tuned-up-24-hours-a-day-for-six-months-at-a-time?”
She thinks she can retire from giving regular concerts and still work as a musical activist. That’s what she was doing in Charleston. And a few weeks after, she attended a rally in San Francisco to protest Trump’s policy of separating immigrant families. She led the crowd in an a cappella version of “No Nos Moverán,” or “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
“The music that I sing when I’m out in front of a crowd in a social action, it’s uncomplicated,” she said. “I sing ‘No Nos Moverán,’ the key is fine. I don’t have to worry about high notes. I think I can tailor [the voice] to that for quite a while, as long as I’m not expected to do ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Forever Young.’ ”
As she ponders this transition, she has been in touch with the Rev. William Barber II of North Carolina to consider possibly working on his progressive initiatives, which include a revived poor people’s campaign. She’s also not ruling out risking arrest again for the right cause. “That’s what I need time to figure out,” Baez said. “Where I belong in this great picture.”
This sojourn at home was a break from the farewell tour. Next stop: Istanbul. The two guitars she uses most of the time would be waiting for her there. So to keep her voice in shape, she had been practicing on her vintage 1929 Martin, which she usually keeps in a safe place. Partially made of rosewood, it’s light as a feather and resonant as a cathedral organ. It’s a talisman of sacred days, the guitar of the protest duets with Dylan, the one that rallied the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial before King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Some years ago, when she was having it repaired, the craftspeople discovered “Too bad you are a communist!” scribbled in pencil on an inside panel. It was the anonymous howl of some long-ago guitar tech who presumably objected to Baez’s activism. Baez was delighted. Later, in 1998, when C.F. Martin & Co. created a limited edition of 59 replicas of the guitar, to commemorate the start of her career in 1959, she agreed to have labels inscribed with the same message affixed to the inside of the top of each replica. The labels were printed backward because they could be read only with a mirror.
I followed Baez outside to the chicken coop, where we gathered some eggs for me to take home. She pointed down the canyon where the songbirds no longer sing like they used to. “It’s one of the deep sadnesses of my life,” she said. “It used to be a riot, a cacophony, and it’s not anymore. In the morning I’d come out here just to hear it. Now they’ve dwindled. … I don’t even know if I want to be here if there are no birds.”
Where have all the songbirds gone? Same with the bees. She used to have beehives that gave her honey. Then the bee colonies collapsed. “I’m gonna miss the bees,” she said, quoting a song on her new album. It’s called “Another World,” by Anohni, an indie-pop protest singer. It’s ostensibly about ecological disaster, but also about how, when one way of life gets used up, it’s time to find another:
I need another place
Will there be peace?
I need another world
This one’s nearly gone