"If you're committed to singing meaningful songs, you also have to be committed to leading a life that backs that up." -Joan Baez
In October 1967, Joan Baez blocked the doorways of the building at the Armed Forces Induction Center in hopes of convincing young potential inductees to not serve in the Vietnam War. As a result, Baez and others, were arrested.
'She would stand there and say 'you don't have to do this.. 'This is a bad thing,' songwriter David Crosby recalled. "And they would spit at her... and call her every name under the sun. And she would keep trying. And every once in a while she would manage to pull a guy out of the line. [After going to jail], she'd get out, go home, take a shower, have a meal.. She'd go right back and start over. That's the kind of courage you don't see often. '
While Joan Baez remains the consummate purveyor and interpreter of folk music, she is also heroic in her commitment to social activism. For over 50 years, along with her musical career, Baez has been on the front line of the civil rights movement, shined a spotlight on the Free Speech Movement, took to the fields with labor leader Cesar Chavez, and joined organized resistance to the Vietnam War.
Baez's musical career began in 1958, at just 17 at the Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts and her subsequent debut at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival catapulted her career. In 1960 she debuted her eponymous LP for Vanguard Records.
The satirical cartoonist Al Capp, creator of the comic strip 'Lil Abner' once tried to castigate Baez as another fly by 'celeb-activist' in his character 'Joanie Phonie,' which appeared in Time Magazine. The character 'Joanie' was an unabashed communist radical who sang songs of class warfare while paradoxically traveling in a limousine, charging astronomical performance fees to impoverished orphans. Baez called Capp's comic strip a 'stupid, vulgar satire' of the anti-war movement. She demanded Capp to make a retraction. Capp never did, saying she "protests about others' rights to protest."
Baez played alongside Bob Dylan at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 when Martin Luther King delivered his rousing 'I have a Dream' speech. Baez, Dylan, Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary joined thousands of others, in hopes for social equality for all creeds in America. By the end of the day, an estimated 250,000 people united across race, class and ideological lines participated in the march poured into DC and onto the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial near the Washington Monument.
"When I heard Dr. King speak, I knew this was 'it' for me," Baez said in 2009. 'It' of course being the coalescing her commitment of folk music with social causes. 'The March on Washington was massive. I remember looking out to a sea of people, which grew and grew and grew, to as far as you could see. What an extraordinary gift to be there when Dr. King took off with that speech. I don't remember anyone else who spoke. I'd guess probably most people didn't either," she said.
As part of the civil rights movement, Baez and Dr. King forged a strong bond in the years that followed, even helping him hold down the fort if he was arriving late to marches. This friendship and civil rights partner would last until his assassination in Memphis in April, 1968.
During Wednesday's show in Newark at the Performance Arts Center, Baez's performance was intimate, and she brought heavenly immediacy in her voice. She kept the timelessness in the songs, whether they were written in this decade, last century or in some cases, nearly 300 years ago. While her son Gabriel Harris accompanied her on drums, Dirk Powell showed great dexterity as a musician... And then, of course, there was Joan Baez with her ethereal voice and an acoustic guitar.
Baez began with 'Lily of the West,' delivering a most earnest and solemn musical interpretation of an age-old English ballad. She then sang Dylan's 'It's All Over Now Baby Blue,' much to the delight of many which began gently, and beautifully. It even included a comical moment when she imitated Dylan's distinctive twang in two of the song's lines. Baez also sang 'Barbara Allen,' a searing Scottish ballad, which depicts a young man who lies dying for the love of a woman. The song ends with both lovers' graves lying side by side, leaving only 'a rose and a briar.'
Baez also sang Woody Guthrie's 'Deportee,' a song which provided the perfect nexus of the old with the new. Written in 1948, 'Deportee' was a protest song, detailing a plane crash near Los Gatos Canyon outside Fresno, California, resulting in the deaths of 28 migrant farm workers. The song still resonates today, bringing to the forefront the cruelty some Americans behave toward 'illegals.' The immigration reform remains a red-hot issue, so much so that before she before she began her interpretation, she expressed her gratitude to Virginia Senator Tim Kaine for recently reading his speech entirely in Spanish to Congress; an expression of support to a bipartisan immigration bill.
'Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears/while we all sup sorrows with the poor/there's a song that we linger forever in our ears/hard times come again no more,' she sang in 'Hard Times,' a poem written in 1864 by Stephen Foster, with its compassionate, and timeless, lyrics rendered beautifully by Baez's continued concern for the disadvantaged.
Baez also dedicated her performance of "Imagine" to Turkish protesters, who remained committed to a fight for democracy in their country, a cause she knows all too well in her fight for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King, and others. (Baez also released a performance of the song on her website, which includes her reading from a Turkish text).
As protests sweep through Brazil, Turkey, Bulgaria, and all places in between in the past weeks, Joan Chandos Baez remains evermore committed to the universality of social justice. "From San Diego up to Maine, in every mine and mill," as she sang in 'Joe Hill,' Baez remains courageous, sensitive, witty and most importantly, an indispensable cultural icon to stand up to the excesses, greed and injustices of modern times.
'I learned something in there." Joan Baez once said to reporters after being released from an Oakland prison: "You go into jail as a pacifist, you come out a stronger pacifist."
*The exhibit 'Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington 1963 is currently presented at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture through September 7, 2014. The exhibit will 'be accompanied by a series of public programs and lectures exploring the social and political currents' book-ended by the two seminal events in American history. The guitar Joan Baez played at the March on Washington is included in the exhibit.*