The more deeply one looks into the life and times of Joan Baez, the less she seems to resemble so many historical figures whose portraits frequently emerge as complicated and contradictory, with tentacles sprawling across light, dark, and the liminal shadows.
Often, the only way to make ultimate sense of many lives is to acknowledge their disparate parts, to admit that they don’t always make sense, that there’s frequently a notable split between people’s inner and outer lives. MLK, JFK, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Steven Jobs—all people that Baez admired deeply—were also flawed characters, leaving a trail of greatness but also pain in their wake.
Say what you want about Baez—and many people have—but the salient aspect or characteristic of her 74 years on this earth, it seems to me, is how all of a piece it appears to be, how singular the thread is that weaves it together.
It is as if she emerged from the womb as a wholly defined person, complete, talented, opinionated, self-possessed and vulnerable in just the right measure. As if her task from her earliest breaths was merely to make her appointed rounds with the people and fated events that were beckoning her to the significant role she was to play in 20th and 21st century cultural history.
Not that she’s perfect. But she’s whole, which is a different thing. Whole and coherent with her life, her work, her words, her music—all of it bound together in a discernible, traceable way, with a knowable and consistent arc.
In his book, Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan At the Crossroads, noted rock critic Greil Marcus says of Dylan’s one-time amor Baez after his first encounter with her and her sister Mimi in 1962:
“Mimi Baez was so pretty it was hard to look at her. Joan Baez was hard to look at, too—because already, even in the most casual setting, she could appear less as a person than a myth.”
Baez at the time was all of 21 years old.
But at 21, she was already a veteran performer, having charmed the socks off of folk music lovers since her debut as a 17-year-old performing most Tuesday nights at Cambridge’s fabled Club 47 while nominally attending classes at Boston University. (She would drop out of academia early in her freshman year to pursue her performing and social activism full-time, but not before joining with three fellow classmates in rebelling against a frosh hazing ritual in which upperclassmen required them to wear frosh beanies during orientation. The quartet marched out of the stadium together, unified in their refusal to capitulate, despite stern warnings of consequences yet to be paid.)
Despite her serene and commanding stage presence, Baez has often referred to drastic insecurities haunting her early life. The daughter of a Mexican father and Scottish mother, she endured schoolyard taunts of being a “dirty Mexican,” and she so admired the beauty of older sister Pauline and younger sister Mimi that she considered herself unattractive in comparison.
But of what she was destined for, she had little doubt. In Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña, author David Hajdu chronicles how at 13, Baez was taken by an aunt and her boyfriend to folk music legend Pete Seeger’s concert at Palo Alto High School. According to Marcus, Baez told Seeger years later that she went home that night, looked herself in the mirror, and proclaimed, “I can be a singer, too.”
All one must do is behold the almost preternatural self-possession she exhibits in the following clip from those early years to understand what Joan Baez was born to do—even as she has since noted how ravaged by nervousness she was, often throwing up in the alley behind the club before commanding the stage as she did.
One almost can’t help but look at photographs of Baez and Bob Dylan through the decades and not marvel at the seeming forks in the road the two former lovers took since first hooking up as a serious “item,” in Baez’s words, in 1963. Looking at the early love-struck photo above, taken when they were folk music’s most celebrated couple, we see fresh faces and a seeming zest for life in them both.
If George Orwell was right that “At age 50, every man has the face he deserves” (let us presume he meant “every person”), then what might that suggest about Baez and Dylan, born a year apart and now 74 and 73?
In various photos over the decades, we see Dylan becoming rather hunched, crunched, and grizzled, with a familiar dour expression, seeming to get smaller in stature and thinner in voice, which was never too thick too begin with. In contrast, Baez seems to elongate and expand, becoming more forthright and radiant, her manner more expressive and reflective than ever.
In her seventies, and still a babe. She seems to have always known things that continue to puzzle Dylan.
Baez was already an established star in 1963, and Dylan just one more guy packing a guitar. But given her raw attraction to Dylan the young buck and poet/troubadour, she awarded him coveted spots in her concerts, dramatically increasing his exposure. Not long after, his career achieved critical lift-off, and he invited her to accompany him on a European tour. Then he refused to give her even a minute on stage with him, snubbing both her artistry and her affections, and they were done as a couple.
Forty years later, Dylan issued a mea culpa that was featured on the PBS documentary:
“I was just trying to deal with the madness that had become my career…Unfortunately, she got swept along, no doubt about it. I was sorry to see that relationship end.”
For her part, Baez held no grudges, but rather wistfully told her interviewer:
“My mother instincts all poured out because he was a scruffy little mess…I was crazy about him. We were an item, and we were having wonderful fun.”
Marcus again, describing his first encounter with Dylan at a Baez concert:
“This person had stepped onto someone else’s stage, and while in some ways he seemed as ordinary as any of the people under the tent or the dirt around it, something in his demeanor dared you to pin him down, to sum him up and write him off, and you couldn’t do it. From the way he sang and the way he moved, you couldn’t tell where he was from, where he’d been, or where he was going—though the way he moved and sang made you want to know all those things.”
Marcus hits it exactly right here. Dylan’s lack of solidity, of any fixed spiritual point—he went from secular folkie-hippie musician to born-again Christian until he became a Jew and then a None again or whatever he is now—stands in such contrast to Baez. Informed by her lifelong Quaker pacifism, Baez has woven political activism and music into a consistent thread through time and all the depredations it rains upon every person’s life.
Not to say she hasn’t known sorrows—her beloved sister Mimi dying too young, her divorce from her only husband, the much celebrated conscientious objector David Harris—but she has never chased phantoms under their weight. She’s never looked for an out, never took to drugs or drink, never thumped for Jesus or Werner Erhard or any of the Babas-with-flowing-beards who floated and twinkled through ’60s and ’70s culture, robbing impressionable questing souls of their good sense and their dollars. She was always just “Joan Baez, Singer & Activist,” and so she has remained.
It was that consistency of character that had her speaking out against the folly of America’s Vietnam intervention but then just as forthrightly calling out the North Vietnamese at war’s end for their oppressive genocidal ways. Her 1975 “Open Letter to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” deplored the disregard for human rights in the wake of America’s departure from that woebegone country.
The letter threatened to injure her liberal cred, but she never cared as much for cred as she did for the plight of those kicked and crushed, no matter whose boot it was under. The first two sentences:
“Four years ago, the United States ended its 20-year presence in Vietnam. An anniversary that should be cause for celebration is, instead, a time for grieving.
With tragic irony, the cruelty, violence and oppression practiced by foreign powers in your country for more than a century continue today under the present regime.“
Then there is her famous letter to the IRS, a masterwork in moral sensibility and just good straight talk, informing them she will henceforth be withholding a portion of her income taxes. It begins:
What I have to say is this:
I do not believe in war.
I do not believe in the weapons of war.
Weapons and wars have murdered, burned, distorted, crippled, and caused endless varieties of pain to men, women, and children for too long…
It is madness.
It is wrong.
My other reason is that modern war is impractical and stupid. We spend billions of dollars a year on weapons which scientists, politicians, military men, and even presidents all agree must never be used. That is impractical.
IRS agents, to slightly twist a phrase, indeed knew who they were messing with, so they didn’t dare arrest her. They wound up trailing her to concerts instead, literally garnishing portions of the cash receipts from the box office to extract Caesar’s due.
There is a clip from a 2009 PBS documentary on her life and times when she had gone to Cambodia to speak out against the genocide that was to lay waste to that country and two million lives. A blowhard television reporter asks if she’s being “hypocritical” for coming from such a privileged background to consort with peasants. The implication was that she was being inauthentic and perhaps had some ulterior motive of image burnishing, or, in today’s parlance, “building her brand.”
“Oh yeah,” she replies, “I sell all kinds of records here on the Cambodian border.”
A little acidic, that comment is, but spoken like a dart. Joan Baez has always known who she is.
Later, she goes to Chile, to Poland, to Bosnia, and other hot spots where she literally puts her life on the line to stand in solidarity with and sing for oppressed populations, whether the oppressor was from the right or left, Fascist or Communist.
Though she’s not a prolific songwriter and has done much of her best work covering standards of the folk repertoire, here’s the first stanza of “Cambodia,” in which she seizes on her timeless theme of the atrocities of war and the sufferings it brings upon the most vulnerable:
We’ve watched them leaving, seen their ragged flight
Children of the jungle, mothers of the night
A boy of ten by the roadside lies
Hears his future in whispers and cries
And clutching a tiny Buddha charm
A baby dies in his mother’s arms
Is there only sorrow in Cambodia?
Is there no tomorrow in Cambodia?
The song is not unlike one Dylan would have written—without having gone to Cambodia or much of anywhere else besides the road where he continues to make the music on which he has pegged his salvation. Dylan took a turn somewhere along the line from the fresh-faced youthful troubadour looking for his big break and his chance to save the world, recoiling in horror, perhaps, from what he discovered to be the wages of the fame he had been seeking.
Baez seems to have said, “Fame, O.K., I can do something with that.” But it was never about burnishing her legacy, but only a means to an end: to assist in the cry for safety and freedom for oppressed peoples around the world.
A friend offered this about Dylan as a way of framing his character and his work: “He’s brilliant but not wise.”
Joan Baez has always seemed wise.
This lovely snippet from Greil Marcus gets at the same thought: ”…the voice of someone already gone, but walking the earth to warn the living…”
Watch her here melting a starchy Brit audience at 24-going-on-74, effortlessly getting them to give it up and sing along with her:
And let us not forget her featured role, at Martin Luther King’s invitation, at the 1963 March on Washington, and less famously but no less tellingly, acceptance of King’s invitation to go to Granada, Mississippi, helping African-American kids get admitted safely to school. MLK asked her to go in his stead.
No-nonsense media-astute Joan observed: “It worked; I was enough of a celebrity, and the press was there…”
Emotional-from-her-gut Joan reflected: “I was always crying when I heard him (King) speak…”
King later repaid what he considered an immense debt to her by very publicly visiting her in the Alameda County Jail when she was arrested for informing Vietnam draftees in line at the Selective Service Induction Center about their rights, and that there was help available to them if they chose to resist.
“If people have to put labels on me, I’d prefer the first label to be human being, the second label to be pacifist, and the third to be folk singer,” she once told an interviewer.
That all those labels have been rolled into one and put to work at almost every international flashpoint of the past half-century is a testament to a singular artistic vision that puts “art” front and center in the hurly burly of human life.
Few artists have grasped that essential truth—nor grabbed the opportunity that it presents—more than Joan Baez. She’s one-of-a-kind, though it is safe to say we need more kinds like her at every step of the tortuous, oft-veering path we are weaving toward the fullness of human freedom.
For periodic and brief posts of inspiring words from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by the usual lovely photography as exemplified here, see my public Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/TraversingBlog
Deep appreciation again to the photographers:
Rotating banner photos at top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Small portrait photo at top of page of Baez in 1973 and with Bob Dylan at a 1984 concert in Hamburg, Germany by Heinrich Klaffs, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/heiner1947/