If we have to put labels on me I would prefer the first label to be human being, the second label to be pacifist and if you have to have a third it can be folk singer.
It was 28 August 1963. Over 250,000 people had marched on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC in a resolute call to end racism in the USA. Among the crowd, bearing witness to Martin Luther King Jr’s seminal “I have a dream” speech, was a pacifist folk singer who performed We Shall Overcome.
Joan Baez’s piercingly perfect voice has rung out in an extraordinary variety of places across five decades: in Sing Sing Prison, in a chair on the besieged Sarajevo streets, at a recent concert for the protesters of Occupy Wall Street.
The foundation of my beliefs is the same as it was when I was 10… Non-violence.
Baez’s passion for human rights and pacifism was instilled from birth. Her Mexican father rejected a lucrative career in defence programmes to become a lecturer. A scientist by trade, he co-invented the x-ray microscope and travelled the globe with his family as part of his work for UNESCO. Baez’s mother was the daughter of an English-Anglican priest and converted to Quakerism with her husband, taking their children to many meetings.
Love and death and beauty were somehow all tangled in there, young as I was, I seemed to have a heart and soul full of the sadness that it took to be attracted to those songs, and almost only those songs.
The young Baez turned to music through a jumble of soul-searching and an attempt to find “a way to cope”. Living in the era of racial segregation as a mixed race child, it was a mechanism for attracting positive attention from white children: “I was like a little court jester. I liked the attention and I liked being accepted, even if it was only for that.” But she was later to disregard white approval, refusing to play in segregated venues when she toured Southern states.
Although Baez began studying at Boston University in 1958 she only pursued her degree for a few weeks. She started performing at the fledgling coffee-house and folk-club scene around Harvard Square. By 1962, she had released three albums that achieved gold record status, which was virtually unprecedented for a folk singer. They were largely traditional songs, which were to Baez part of the “rebellion against bubblegum music, or music that is pretty but doesn’t say anything.”
Baez has collaborated with many musicians throughout her career. Perhaps most famous is her spell singing with Bob Dylan in the early 60s. She claims that on first hearing his music she felt deeply connected to it – “this is the link between me and the world and music and politics and all of it.” Despite this however, their paths soon diverged as she wanted to pursue social activism and he did not.
Activism has been a key thread throughout the singer’s life. In the late 60s she had a brief stint in prison for her protest against the Vietnam War at the Oakland Army Terminal. She even visited Hanoi in 1972 as a guest of the North Vietnamese, also bringing mail to US Prisoners of War. There she bore witness to the real atrocities of war and survived the longest carpet bombing that occurred during the entire conflict.
I was always looking for a way out. It wasn’t that I turned to cigarettes or drugs. I turned to something that I want to do (activism) and I was lucky that I was able to do good for other people. I was 50 when I decided I wasn’t going to live like that any more.
Baez has performed music in a catalogue of political moments throughout her career and given her backing to a wealth of causes. Whether in Chile, Czechoslovakia or the United States, she has espoused the values of nonviolence and basic human rights for all. She has claimed that she needs music and politics together to reach her full potential; that she was happiest and most successful when pursuing both. However, she acknowledges that activism exerted a sometimes detrimental pressure on her life.
What endures is the ability for her voice to make you think, feel, ache, even weep. From the exquisite rendition of Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, her own haunting ‘Diamonds and Rust’, to her recent performance of ‘Forever Young’, she breathes an almost painful beauty into her music. And her activism recognises the need for collective action: “People ask me what I’m going to do and I say back to them: No, the question is what are you going to do?”