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Well informed and wise

‘60s counterculture icon Joan Baez wonders if musicians still have the ability to inspire political and social change.


Years ago, popular music had a humanitarian streak -- it was a time of generosity and shared ideals and tunes of social consciousness. It was the summer of 1985, Live Aid.

Okay, just kidding. Not that musicians have banded together much since the '80s campaign to feed Ethiopians that began with the British hit "Do They Know It's Christmas" and climaxed as an MTV telethon featuring dozens of bands being dull on two continents. But in spite of a ravaged economy and the rise of Reaganist jingoism, musical protest flags hung limp in the breeze in the decade prior to Live Aid, too. Bob Dylan had found Christ and was more interested in damned souls than evil politicos. And Joan Baez?

If you are under 30, you probably know Baez only from Live Aid. She was the woman who, radiating calm dignity, opened the Philadelphia concert by announcing that the event was "your Woodstock,'" and that it was "long overdue."

Of course, Baez was wrong. The music wasn't revelatory, and there were later questions about where the money went. Besides, two more Woodstocks were on the way, embarrassments of commercialism and dispiriting raunch. But for a performer who had marched on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. and seen a husband jailed for refusing the draft, it was a glimmer of hope that her then-recent ode "Children of the Eighties" wasn't ironic after all. We're well informed and we are wise, went that song, lamenting that the message of the '60s had been reduced to hippies and rock, that rebellion had become cheap.

"I wrote that song in Europe," Baez, 59, says from her Woodside, Calif., home. The depoliticized youth of the song could as easily be today's kids, she implies. "When you live in a so-called amorphous age, the times are unpolitical for the masses. There's a sense of, 'What can I do about it?' My son is 30, and he's not interested in politics per se, but he's part of a group of extraordinary kids very environmentally honed in.

"But 30 years ago, you were either for or against the war. You either hated 'niggers' or supported King. That's how it was," Baez says. She doesn't lecture, doesn't sound exasperated or resigned, but knows that the gray areas are not for her.

"It had become so ingrained in me to be involved and go where I was asked for causes or to perform," she says. "I made an effort the last few years to decrease that, but I looked at last year's calendar the other day and was surprised that I'd shown up at so many things. It's been almost knee-jerk for so long to respond to causes. It's where my heart lives."

Among her stops in 1999: a concert with Bonnie Raitt benefiting a tree-sit to save Redwood forest land from a California lumber mill; a Habitat for Humanity benefit; an anti-hate concert organized in the wake of shootings at a Jewish community center; and a show in support of public radio station workers in Berkeley, Calif., locked out of their station.

The tree-sit ended with a settlement the protester, Julia Butterfly Hill, could live with. But Baez knows other events haven't led to positive results. "I think T.S. Eliot said that it's in the trying. The rest is not our business." It's an elegant but considered response. "In some ways, that's true. You don't give up, though." Baez credits her political mentor Ira Sandperl with teaching her the maturity of realistic expectations.

"I think that's the reason I lasted so long on the street (in Cambridge, prior to her recording career). I didn't have high expectations."

It's a secret she's passing on to other folk performers. Now touring with Eliza Carthy, a young British singer new to American audiences, Baez talks often with, and is quick to praise, Dar Williams and other songwriters.

"I've had the great good fortune to meet and hang out and play with young people who reflect the tradition of this music," she says. "The music still exists out there for me to do. Richard Shindell wrote 'Reunion Hill,' the most beautiful antiwar song I've heard."

Last month, Baez was present to receive a British Folk Awards Lifetime Achievement award. "As those things go, it was nice. It had an air of reality. They give out awards for Most Popular Pub. Some guy who was a local fixture came out and told stories. He was like everyone from an Irish bar in one person. So if I'm going to go to an awards event, that's certainly the kind I'd choose," she says.

"In England, folk is given its due more than here. But awards like that come with the territory of surviving this long, keeping the music fresh, letting them know you're not stuck."

Baez, who dropped from sight in the '80s after leaving A&M Records, knows that the major labels aren't for her. "I don't belong there. I've talked to Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt and Sting, and it's universal. Once you get to a certain age, it doesn't matter what you hand them. Springsteen seems ageless, but that's an exception.

The reissue market for her material remains strong, though -- a fact Baez is wary of after a boxed set of rare material and several two-fer packages. "I had never listened to my early material until about four months ago. I became a little infatuated with it," she admits with a laugh. "But I do remember fighting with (her first label) Vanguard about another goddamned two-fer. I felt like an old milk cow squeezed for every drop." Still, Baez is pleased to find most of her work available decades on.

Baez's albums, particularly the early, vibrato-drenched releases, aren't real laugh-getters, but her sense of humor comes through in conversation, and she resists the charge of "stodginess" yoked to her by critics. "I never wanted to be the oldest living folk singer. I never would have started doing contemporary songs if that were true. But I ain't Tina Turner," she says.

But like Turner, Baez doesn't plan to stay mobile forever. A decade after her successful autobiography, she's moving closer to publishing her poetry (which she occasionally reads to concert audiences). "Poetry just pours out of me uncensored, without rhyme or structure," she says. "I started writing it about nine years ago and went dashing off to Nashville, poems in hand, thinking I'd turn them into songs. But it's too funky to revamp into songs, though I have great faith in a lot of it."

The effort comes at the expense of her songwriting. She laughingly says that she's "too lazy" to write songs now, a dry spell she reports that has lasted six years. Baez's manager instead works diligently -- listening up to 200 times to each song on tape, she says -- to find material for her.

Now backed by a full band, Baez concentrates on her voice rather than the guitar. "I have a guitar player for a reason. He's 24 and sleeps with it, which is what I did when I was that age. On the other hand, when I was listening to those old songs, I actually went upstairs and played after dinner, something I hadn't done in years."

She may as well practice. Even in an election year, Baez says she chooses to tune out "whatever you want to call the charade of what's going on on television." She claims not to have formed an opinion about any of the candidates, focusing instead on issues like Illinois' recent moratorium on executions pending investigation of the judicial system. That kind of news intrigues Baez. But debates and polls? "I just turn the TV off, practice my meditation, and pray."

Joan BaezTuesday, March 7at Liberty Hall

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